It’s 8 pm on a Monday when three different WhatsApp groups ping at the same time. The chat groups are flooded with pictures and videos from the Hyderabad University campus, portraying loud chants of victory as 27 arrested students, accused of violence during a protest, are let out of jail. Sights and sounds that might have once been limited to the campus immediately make their way to more than 200 reporters from all over the country on these groups – and promptly turn into news stories.
A protest that might have once been a local issue following the suicide of a Dalit scholar is immediately beamed nation wide. The pictures are posted on Twitter, video journalists are mobilised to the scene and print reporters show up to write mood pieces. Even as the administration and the government tried to limit media exposure – by banning outsiders from campus – smartphones allowed the Hyderabad University story to take a life of its own last week.
It isn't only students who are capturing the action. Independent filmmakers and even passers-by are now using cameras on their phones to catch a glimpse of the revolution-in-the-making and providing the rest of the world an opportunity to witness the churning in India's campuses almost in real time.
At Hyderabad University campus, protests have been raging for about three months now since the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. There was a bit of a lull when Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile went on a two-month-long leave in January and Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University assumed centre-stage, but protests resumed as soon as he came back last month.
This time, however, the protests were no longer peaceful.
Weapons of resistance
There were reports of vandalism by students and then police action ensued which landed many in hospital and even more people in jail on charges of trespassing and damage to public property. Presumably to attempt to curb bad press, the university authorities chose to shut out all outsiders from the campus on March 23 – and the ban on entry continues.
This is where self-motivated student-turned-photographers stepped in. In order to counter the blackout in the media, students on the campus turned their mobile phones into weapons of resistance as they shoot all the significant activity on the campus and put it out through social media channels as fast as they can.
Take the case of Avnish Kumar, an alumnus of Hyderabad University who now studies at the English and Foreign Languages University in the same city. Kumar is troubled by the incidents and feels strongly about representing the students’ version of events. He runs an active Twitter account posting regular updates and rushes to the campus to shoot things with his phone as soon as he hears something significant is happening.
“I have been working with a few friends of mine to get access to the events and I shoot whatever I can,” he said. “I try to shoot big picture shots which show the events, the mood of the people and reactions from everyone else in the same frame so as to give a sense of what’s going on to people who are not present there.”
He said he uses his phone to shoot and works with other students on the campus to get as much video footage as he can. “I don’t have a professional camera so I simply use my phone with a tripod and a mic to get the best quality possible in the circumstances.”
Apart from increasing mobility, shooting on the phone keeps him under the radar and gets him lesser attention from the authorities and the security. An independent filmmaker working on a documentary on Dalit issues told Scroll.in that her camera was the reason campus security on several occasions stopped her from entering. Now, she’s also hunting for smaller equipment "which can be easily sneaked inside".
It's not just students and professional filmmakers. Dharmateja LV, a software engineer in Hyderabad, is closely monitoring the events on campus and rushes to the campus as soon as there are reports of some activity. Dharmateja moonlights as a volunteer for Dalit Camera, an initiative working to capture Dalit struggles across the country to put them in public domain. Rohith Vemula’s suicide is an event close to their hearts so Dharmateja tries to shoot as many videos as possible for their Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels.
“I have been the only one covering Hyderabad University lately,” he said. “Whenever I am stuck with work, I have a few friends who step in for me but it’s largely been me documenting this issue and we will continue to put out videos as long as the struggle lasts. The idea is to shoot the struggle and portray these voices which might be getting lost in the mainstream media but we are more than just HCU so many more Dalit struggles are on our radar.”
Dalit Camera was started in 2012 and has since then amassed close to 6,000 subscribers on YouTube and has posted over 1,000 videos – more than 100 from just the Rohith Vemula agitation.
Their story closely resembles that of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students who run YouTube channels called Stand With JNU and We Are JNU from New Delhi. After the February 9 event which led to six students being charged with sedition and three of them being jailed for more than two weeks each, these JNU channels shot to limelight with regular videos and updates shared on their social media handles.
Saumya Mani Tripathi, who studies theatre performance at JNU and likes to make films, is the only videographer in the five-member We Are JNU team which has been quietly going about filming incidents on campus, protests in support of the students and even public lectures that take place almost every day at the "freedom square" – as its administrative block has come to be called – on campus.
Tripathi said it was her idea to call those who were recording JNU’s events independently for years to pool in their efforts for a unified outlet of information that could be used by people at large to know about the incidents on campus.
“What we are trying to do is to document what goes on inside JNU for the benefit of everyone,” she said. “The media only shows what it wants to – and we want to ensure that the full picture is presented. It need not be a defence of anyone or an attack on someone, we just want to put out our footage for people to see and archive.”
Tripathi believes that there is an urgent need for an archive because many of JNU’s protests and struggles go unnoticed in the media or are quickly forgotten. The team of five says it is non-aligned and believes that not being affiliated to any political outfit gives them the freedom to show an unbiased picture of events.
“The Left parties do their archiving but that just focuses on their version of the events,” she said. “We need an unbiased source to document everything that goes on. It’s also important because new media needs to be adopted by the Left parties who are largely still dependent on posters and parchas [fliers]”
But, it’s not all charity. Students at campuses have also found a way to make money through their painstaking efforts to shoot these happenings.
Bilal Veliancode, a student of Hyderabad University who has been capturing the protests on his professional camera, is a sought-after target by many news outlets looking to obtain footage of the events. Veliancode says major English dailies and online news outlets regularly call him to click pictures and take videos.
“I work like a stringer for many news organisations who are willing to pay good money for photos and videos,” he says. “Largely, they want pictures of protests which sell for as much as Rs 750 a photo and some writers and researchers working on these issues offer even more money. I think it’s a good way to get the word out about the university in the mainstream media, if they aren’t being allowed inside.”
Means and ends
Not all, however, are working with similar objectives in mind. Some students on campus are shooting with the aim of archiving while others are going about recording protests on their cameras for their social media followers who demand regular updates. Others, meanwhile, remain undecided on what they can do with what they have shot, but feel it’s important to have things on record.
Akhil Kumar, a journalist with TheWire.in, has used his camera to capture struggles at Film and Television Institute of India and JNU after being pulled in by the nature of student movements and the “earnest appeals” in speeches of student leaders – something he felt deserved to be put out on social media.
Kumar said that he has got a lot of material to work with and has been contemplating working on a documentary given the kaleidoscope of issues colliding on campuses, but lack of time is probably what is stopping him.
“Many students, activists, even professors have requested that I make one," he said. "I have had a few meetings regarding that but not sure yet as there’s too little time. Probably after noticing the demand and impact - of some video – I put up on FB gets me lakhs of viewers, why would I not use it cleverly as a means of mass communication and propaganda? The media hasn’t exactly done justice in reporting on students’ movements.”
This was echoed by Ajay Kumar Koli, a student at Hyderabad University who has been shooting and releasing each of his videos on YouTube without a copyright so that it’s free for everyone to view, edit or download. Not sure whether he wants to work on a documentary, but not quite opposed to the idea either, Koli said that his first objective was to get the word out.
“I have no technical training of video shooting, editing or publishing. I am just a student with a basic camera who decided to shoot and document this movement because the media is not highlighting everything,” Koli said. “The voices of student community are important to highlight and I thought the best way to do it this time would be through my camera – by showing people what’s happening rather than telling them.”