Right to Dignity?

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The Dhankaur Dalit family
The Dhankaur Dalit family

Outrage is now an integral part of public discourse, especially when disturbing images are aired on social media. Suddenly, everyone has become a voyeur-cum-commentator, anxious to not ‘miss out’ on what’s trending. But on 7 October, when reports on a Dalit family, who was allegedly disrobed by the UP police at Dhankaur, Greater Noida surfaced, two versions of the chain of events emerged. One that the Dalits stripped their clothes as a form of protest; the other that this was yet another instance of police atrocity against Dalits.

However, the raging debate on the veracity of both the narratives obscured a particular fact: Was it right to publish uncensored images of the Dalit family in social media and media reports, violating the privacy of the Dalit men and women concerned? Was it right to expose a person’s body to the gaze of the whole world, without pixellating or blurring the visuals? .

Trampling on existing laws and media ethics alike, these uncensored visuals depicting nudity were available on the newsfeed of every social media platform.“I think people still believe that the existence of caste is an imaginary construct. Thus, photos depicting caste violence are seen as evidence of ‘the existence of caste’,” explains Ravichandran Chakkiliyan, founder of Dalit Camera, a Dalit media platform. “We use and share these visuals to raise ‘consciousness’ among the mainstream. For instance, if you look around in social media, you will always find these posts on manual scavenging. Aimed at increasing ‘social awareness’ on manual scavenging, these images show a man covered in human excreta. Without caring for the dignity of the man concerned, these posts are widely shared. I think this attempt at raising consciousnesses is also embedded in ‘caste hierarchy’, just like the occurrence of various forms of caste atrocities.”

Over the past few years, documentation of caste violence using uncensored visuals such as this has been defended on three grounds. One, photographs documenting caste atrocities are an important factor in creating awareness. Two, the more brutal the image, the better the chances we have at assuring justice to those who were wronged. Three, it does not matter if images are blurred or not, because no one cares. Not about this family at least.

“In India, no one asks the consent of a homeless man in the street when they take photographs. The same approach is followed when it comes to Dalits.But they won’t do the same with respect to say, an educated, middle-class, political individual,” says RS Iyer, photo editor, South Asia at Associated Press.

To those who know the long and short of it, memory is a tricky terrain. Specifically in situations of conflict and State violence, memory associated with the history of a tragic event has often been replete with undocumented narratives. However, with the birth of photography 150 years ago, the first baby steps to ensure the longevity of memory were taken. Thus, we can record the times that we live in, ensure the possibility of unmitigated proof to stories and keep our news reports as real as possible. With the advent of digital photography, new media, social media platforms et al the voice of the marginalised found its way to the mainstream. What’s more, a click from a smartphone of a village miles away from the cities we reside could spark outrage, initiate protests and start campaigns, all in a matter of few hours.

While this is certainly commendable, a culture of double standards seems to be at play when we choose to document various forms of violence in the country. Take for instance, the infamous rape and murder of Nirbhaya in 2012. Hitched on a fictitious name, Nirbhaya (meaning fearless), the 2012 gang rape and murder case received widespread coverage and led to the institution of the 2013 Justice Verma Committee recommendations. To date, the victim’s identity has been kept under wraps. Celebrated as an example of a braveheart among Indian women, her name and identity was protected from any kind of irresponsible disclosure on print, online and social media.

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