Straight from the Tannery, a short web documentary from Gujarat, opens with a scene that cow protection vigilantes in the country would never want exposed. In a barren field, cattle carcasses in various states of decay lie scattered, with dogs and wild birds feeding on the remnants of flesh. On one side of the field are mounds of blackened, chewed-up plastic, all removed from the stomachs of dead cows.
“Most of the cows die by eating this stuff,” says a young Dalit leather tanner interviewed in the film. “So if they really want to protect the cow they should ban all the plastic producing factories.”
The short film, part of the series Project Heartland on the YouTube channel Ahmedabad Talkies, is a clear reaction to the now-famous Una attack of July 11, when a mob of cow vigilantes in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district stripped and thrashed four Dalit men for skinning a dead cow. Videos of the assault went viral on Whatsapp, the incident hit national headlines, and Dalit rights activists galvanised one of Gujarat’s largest movements against caste discrimination.
In the past five months, the movement revealed that the Una incident was no anomaly. Dalits in Gujarat have been silently struggling against atrocities for years, and Project Heartland is an attempt to bring out stories that rarely make it to the headlines.
Project Heartland has released four episodes since it launched two months ago. The videos have been directed by filmmakers Parth Jani and Pratik Parmar and produced by Navsarjan Trust, a prominent organisation for Dalit rights in Gujarat. The series features the testimonials of men and women who have been associated with, or helped by, Navsarjan Trust in some way or the other, but their stories are powerful nonetheless.
For instance, the first episode, The land struggle of Ramji Bhai, documents the tale of Ramjibhai Makwana, a Dalit farmer from Bhavnagar who owns more than 17 acres of agricultural land allotted to his family by the Gujarat government in 1962. For the past 12 years, Makwana has been fighting a legal battle against his politically influential, upper-caste neighbour who has encroached on several acres of his land. Makwana was beaten up in broad daylight in his own village and faced regular threats from the upper-castes. But he is now prepared to take his fight to the Supreme Court if necessary. He talks with a hint of pride about doing what no Dalit in his village has ever done before – fighting back in the face of caste discrimination.
The storytelling in Project Heartland is simple and restricted to first-person accounts of just one or two people per episode, but for the subject matter at hand, it works effectively.
In the fourth episode Milk and Caste, farmer couple Dinaben and Kanubhai talk matter-of-factly to the camera about their routine of milking their buffalos twice a day and selling the milk to the local co-operative dairy in Mehsana district’s Madhugadh village. But the tale soon turns sordid, as Dinaben describes the day, two years ago, when upper-castes at the dairy suddenly decided to assault the couple for entering the dairy with their slippers on. When Dinaben and Kanubhai refused to leave their land, they faced months of social boycott.
While ongoing Dalit struggles are a clear theme in Project Heartland, there is also a clear focus on celebrating individual Dalit heroes working on the ground. Half of Straight from the Tannery, for instance, is a single-shot interview with Nathubhai Parmar, the Navsarjan activist from Surendranagar who conceived of the ingenious “cow dumping” protest. Thanks to Parmar’s efforts, Dalit leather tanners in several parts of the state gave up their traditional livelihoods, refused to collect dead cattle and deliberately dumped cattle carcasses in front of the district collector’s office in July.
The episode When a Dalit woman leads is another heroic account of the first Dalit woman to be elected sarpanch in Bhavnagar’s Hajipar village – a village where there are no other Dalit families. Since Shantuben, the sarpanch, felt too shy to come before the camera, the directors chose to explore her story of discrimination, personal loss and winning against the odds through the eyes of her husband and the villagers who voted for her.
For those uncomfortable with acknowledging the ubiquity of caste atrocities in India, Project Heartland is not always easy to watch. But that is perhaps what makes this fortnightly mini-series a vastly important work of documentation.