And with this, he started talking about his journey throughout the protest. With a strange smile, he said, “At home, I have four pair shoes. One formal, one running, one party and the last dancing. Here, three months. I have no shoes.”
Suddenly, I realised that I was having such a conversation with not just a Tamil protester but anyone at Jantar Mantar for the very first time.
In the first week of July, Kahaani Wale initiated the campaign ‘Hum Le Ke Rahenge’. Samarth and I would go to Jantar Mantar and encounter different protests and protesters who had been there for many years and were struggling for their demands. Samarth used to do the interviews while I was in charge of the camera. We did this for two to three days per week for almost four months until the NGT’s ruling was passed. It banned any sort of protest at Jantar Mantar. The reason cited was the increasing noise pollution in the area.
Until now, the Tamil farmers who had been protesting at Jantar Mantar were well acquainted with us as they had seen us constantly shooting and talking to people. I was never involved in oral conversation with any of the protesters until Samarth left for Bombay in October. I still had to continue the shoot as the NGT’s ruling had been passed. The protesters were given a week’s notice after which they were supposed to vacate Jantar Mantar. Even the Tamil farmers’ agitation, which had been on for 100 days, was coming to an end.
On the 100th day of their protest, I took an auto to Jantar Mantar and reached around 9 in the morning. The farmers had just woken up. With swollen eyes and only a green-coloured cloth covering their groin, they headed towards the water-tank to refresh themselves. Amidst all of this, Prakash, a 28-year-old Tamil B.Tech graduate waved at me. He knew me as the camera-person accompanying Samarth. I greeted him back with a faint smile.
Soon, it was time for breakfast. P. Ayyakkannu, the leader of the Tamil farmers’ agitation, was distributing idlis and sambar to everyone from two jute bags. On spotting me, he handed me a disposable plate and said, “Gurudwara food. Everyday. They are very nice people.”
I hadn’t had breakfast earlier in the morning – so I joined about 40 Tamil farmers and had idli-sambar. Soon, as the breakfast ended, there was an uproar as the DSP had just shown up near the barricades surrounding the farmers. The farmers came to know that they had only eight hours to pack their stuff and leave. A bus was supposed to take them to the New Delhi railway station from where they would go back to Tamil Nadu. It was already 10:30.
For the next three hours, I saw nothing but chaos. Someone was given the job to clean the place while the farmers were packing their posters and banners. Prakash went to collect the skulls and bones lying near the barricades.
Stuffing them all together in a jute bag, he looked at me and said, “These skulls are of farmers who committed suicide in Tamil Nadu. Skulls of farmers who hanged themselves from trees.”
One of the farmers, Murugan, was very humorous and in no time, he was teasing me by my surname. Staring at my head, he said, “Ali… cut hair… very long.”
I replied, “I’ll do that soon.”
And he said, “Okay. Okay.”
I had to shoot their departure, about which I had almost forgotten. But, even while I was doing my work, Murugan left no stone unturned to annoy me. Covering the lens with his hand, he was laughing and showing his shiny teeth – a great contrast to his skin colour. Maybe, it was my fair-skinned privilege which made this thought run through my mind. Laughing while looking at me, he said,“Vokay Vokay… Last time… Sorry Ali.”
The banners and posters were folded safely and placed – all of them together – against a wall. All they had to do was change their green loincloth which was the only thing they were wearing for all these months. On asking, Murugan answered, “We will change. Still time.”
Soon, lunch was served after which everyone lay down in a confined area covered with barricades. They had been like this for the last three months, and this was the only space they knew where they could rest.
Once again, Murugan entered the barricades and asked me to click his pictures. Teasing his fellow farmers in Tamil, he pointed to their heads and said to me, “You see, no hair. Your hair, very long.”
I told him about Kahaani Wale and our campaign. Soon, he asked me, “Why you shoot doing?”
I tried explaining to him how we were aiming to document the protests at Jantar Mantar. With a loud smile, he said, “You from TV? They photo every day. Nothing happens.”
As I was about to reply, he said, “It’s time we wear clothes.”
He left, but I was still thinking about their helplessness. The present government, in their manifesto, had promised to waive-off their loans, but no help was provided to them. The Tamil farmers were left with no choice but to come to Jantar Mantar and protest – which they did for 100 days. They had also come for 40 days in the month of March 2017 and returned after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu assured them of help. After going back, they realised that those promises were all lies. But this time, they were only leaving because Jantar Mantar was no more a place to protest.
As my thought came to an end, I realised it was getting dark. I checked my phone – it flashed 17:30. All the Tamil farmers were standing together. They were looking very different. It was really strange as I had seen them fully clothed for the very first time.
The other protesters, who had been staying at Jantar Mantar indefinitely, were sharing their goodbyes and wishes with them. As I was recording all of this, Murugan came out of nowhere and said, “You cut hair. I will call you.” And with this, we shared a firm handshake. His teeth were still visible in the dark. Soon, the bus arrived and everyone started loading their baggage.
As the engine roared, I saw P. Ayyakkannu talking to the DSP and police officials at a distance. Being a leader, he had to be calm and maintain his contacts. And that’s how he was with everyone, be it the media or the police personnel. It was almost time. He was accompanied by a policeman to the bus, after which the bus and the farmers together made an uproar saying goodbye.
Kahaani Wale is an artist collective based in New Delhi, India. We, at Kahaani Wale, produce and create visual and audio content to tell stories of change across South Asia. We tell stories to engage, provoke and ultimately inspire to act. Our goal is to give an opportunity to storytellers to tell their stories and present their original voices to the world. To be able to fulfill our goal, we support, collaborate and produce works of independent storytellers. The collective comprises of storytellers from areas of film, music, animation, photography, illustration and design.