Posts, hashtags, action

Universities across India are on the boil. And chronicling every ripple are students armed with smartphones and tablets. Prasun Chaudhuri reports

  • Published 1.05.16
Pic courtesy: Bilal Veliancode

Ria De didn't want Koonal Duggal to suffer the way Rohith Vemula did. So, the moment she heard that Duggal, a Dalit research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University (Eflu) in Hyderabad, had been evicted from the campus, she started uploading minute-by-minute videos and pictures on chat forums and dedicated pages on social media sites. "We used the new media to spread out the message across the country," says De, a PhD scholar at Eflu. "We made sure he didn't suffer the fate of Rohith Vemula." Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), committed suicide in January after a protracted sit-in.

Following the incident on April 21, Eflu students organised protests against the restriction order imposed on Duggal for alleged anti-university activities. They held a demonstration at the Ambedkar Statue on Tank Bund, a prominent spot near the campus. And two hashtags - #StandWithKoonal and #StopIsolatingDalitStudents - went viral across several student forums.

Duggal's views were aired across social media video channels. Strongly-worded posts followed. The Eflu administration's effort to limit media exposure by banning outsiders from the campus and imposing restrictions on the usage of video cameras had, clearly, failed.

Students - more tech-savvy than most administrators - are not waiting for the media to cover protests; they are chronicling events themselves with the help of their smartphones, handycams, tablets and laptops.

Take the case of Avnish Kumar. The UoH alumnus and a PhD scholar at Eflu runs an active Twitter handle to record students' versions of events.

‘I managed to get some unique snapshots of police lathicharges on students (pic above). The images were picked up by some major English dailies’     
Bilal Veliancode
Student, UoH

"I use my smartphone to get video footage to show what's going on in the institute. I upload these 30-second clips with short reports of the events," Kumar says. "This is essential because outsiders, especially media representatives, were not allowed on the campus," he adds.

Kumar, along with a team of students, closely documented the protest movement in UoH after Vemula's death. From early morning till late night, the team was active - grabbing pictures and posting developments on #StandWithHCU and @jacuoh (Joint Action Committee, University of Hyderabad).

What helps the student-chroniclers is the fact that unlike video cameras, phones are unobtrusive, and it's not easy to discern that the instrument is being used for recording an event.

Ajay Kumar Koli, another UoH student, has been shooting and releasing videos, too. He captured police action on protesting students in the aftermath of Vemula's suicide and posted them on YouTube.

"I created two YouTube channels - one in my name and the other called #JusticeForRohith - and also shared the videos on my Facebook page. Till now, over 300 videos have been uploaded to highlight the voices of the student community," he says. Koli used his handycam to document an incident of lathicharge on students that was later picked up from YouTube by several television channels.

Students in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been doubling up as reporters, too. After JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested from the campus on charges of sedition in February, students started posting videos and updates.

JNU protest movement; Pic by Subin Dennis

"Nothing was planned. But we had to present a counter-narrative to bring out the truth and we realised we needed our own platform," says Subin Dennis, a final-year PhD student at JNU. He, along with some other students, began posting content on the now famous #StandWithJNU campaign on Facebook, @standwithjnu Twitter handle and Stand With JNU YouTube channel.

"We took videos of Kanhaiya's 'real' speeches and uploaded them with appropriate tags. This was followed by videos of protest marches by students and lectures delivered by professors," he says.

The Facebook page has over 50,000 likes, Twitter has over 4,000 followers and the YouTube channel has about 7,900 subscribers.

Leading global academicians such as American linguist Noam Chomsky have spoken in their support. Several other groups, such as #WeareJNU, followed in their footsteps. "TV news channels took our videos and used extracts of speeches. The print media too used our photos to set the record straight," Dennis says.

The process of highlighting struggles of students - especially Dalit students - through videos uploaded on social media sites actually began in 2012 when Ravichandran Bathran, an ex-Eflu student leader, created a YouTube channel called Dalit Camera. He uploaded the experiences of Dalit students "invariably ignored by the mainstream media".

He says, "The idea to start the channel came to me when I was humiliated by upper-caste students in the Eflu campus for being a 'Leftist' student leader. We created a new media space with videos of atrocities on Dalits across India."

Several volunteers - most of them with no experience of handling a camera - joined Dalit Camera, adds Bathran, currently a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Advance Study, Shimla. The YouTube channel has over 6,000 subscribers and over 1,000 videos - with more than 100 from the Rohith Vemula agitation.

Most of the videos were shot by Dalit Camera volunteer L.V. Dharmateja (Dharma). A software engineer in Hyderabad, Dharma chronicles cases of discrimination, interviews scholars on caste and all protest movements on the UoH campus.

‘We took videos of Kanhaiya’s ‘real’ speeches and uploaded them with appropriate tags. This was followed by videos of protest marches by students and lectures delivered by professors’  
Subin Dennis
PhD student, JNU

"Outsiders are not allowed here, but I manage to melt into the crowd of students with my camcorder," says Dharma, who studied engineering in Coimbatore. "I use my weekends, holidays and office breaks to videograph the events. I pass the baton to someone when I am in office," he says.

While most students capture events on videos, UoH student Bilal Veliancode shoots stills. "I managed to get some unique snapshots of police lathicharges on students. The images were picked up by some major English dailies."

The recordings of protest movements are more professionally executed in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where students have been agitating for several months now. Rakesh Shukla, who studied direction at FTII, has been running FTII Wisdom Tree, a Facebook page to document an indefinite student strike and protest marches after a new governing council headed by actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the institute was appointed.

"We started the platform on June 17 within a week of the strike. Since then we have been uploading footage of the events along with posts," Shukla states.

The efforts are not just to spread the message across. Many student groups fear that their campaigns have not been fairly covered by the media. "The media coverage oversimplified the situation. We are not just against Chauhan, our protests are also against the appointment of other members of the governing council."

The protest page is managed by several students. "Now the page has become a forum for injustice in educational institutes. We share news from across the country," Shukla adds.

The students' efforts of gathering and spreading information have helped create an alternative media space, says film director K. Hariharan, a visiting faculty member at the FTII and founder-director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Chennai.

"This is creating a pattern in the chaos as a disparate group of amateur filmmakers join a collective on the social media. This is a democratisation of filmmaking and kind of a social movement," says Hariharan, who made his debut with the political film Ghashiram Kotwal soon after he graduated from FTII.

Student are happy to have turned into rapporteurs. As the JNU administration announced earlier this week that Kanhaiya Kumar had been fined and other student leaders rusticated, the amateur filmmakers are getting ready for some more action.

"A new round of agitation is brewing up. We are keeping our cameras ready," says Dennis.