By Yashas Chandra
Yashas Chandra is a documentary photographer based in New Delhi. His work, focusing on human rights, has allowed him to travel across the country documenting stories of conflict, displacement, development and resistance. With a stunning and varied portfolio, he takes pictures that capture the essential human predicament. Here he recounts what it takes to witness and capture ethnic violence and hate crimes on camera.
On 25th August, 2012, six young men were travelling in two cars from Amguri Bazar to the nearest town to gather supplies. Against advice, they were travelling without an escort. Their cars were ambushed less than ten minutes after they set off leaving five of the men dead and one missing, presumed dead. Their bodies were either hidden in the surrounding undergrowth or burnt in the cars in which they were travelling.
A month later, I’m sitting in the admin room at the Amguri Bazar School with five post-mortem reports strewn across the table in front of me. A crowd has gathered, but no one is speaking.
Ethnic clashes had erupted in the west of Assam in July that year. What seemed to be a random act of violence sparked waves of unprecedented violence between the indigenous Bodo tribals and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Dozens of people were hacked to death out on the streets, families were locked in their homes as they burned to the ground, farms were set on fire, women were raped and livestock stolen or killed. More than a hundred people lost their lives in the riots and almost half a million were rendered homeless.
As we went over the details of what happened to those six boys that day, Abdul sat in the corner of the room and never looked up once. Both his sons were in the cars when they were attacked. It’s only after we leave the room that he asks if I want to see pictures of his sons.
I travelled to western Assam, to the epicentre of these clashes in September 2012, shortly after the first wave of violence had abated. The scale of destruction was indescribable. Village after village reduced to ash, burnt cars strewn on the side of the road, but none of this prepared me for the plight of the people in the refugee camps. Their homes were now schools and warehouses, and for some, vast stretches of wasteland. They were living in squalid, severely over-crowded conditions, and surviving on paltry rations, with little or no healthcare. As is fairly typical with the north east of India, it wasn’t long before the mainstream media lost it’s immediate interest in the atrocities committed in this far-flung region. By the time I returned to Delhi at the end of September, it was ‘yesterday’s news’. Without much support of the press, hundreds of thousands of people were relegated to the shadows, without much – if any – assistance from the centre.
I follow Abdul through the crowded school that had now become one of the most populated refugee camps in the district. He leads me into a dark classroom, home now to no less than thirteen families. He goes to his corner and rummages through his belongings, finally pulling out a small plastic bag containing some photographs. I expected to see some bad passport-size photos, but instead I find myself looking at two clumsily composed pictures of the bodies of two young boys, certainly no older than twenty, lying awkwardly on straw mats outside the police station. These are the only photographic records that remain of them. In a world where images have become so ubiquitious, this was particularly jarring.
Stories like Abdul’s echoed through all the camps I visited. Stories of desperation and hopelessness, in each person, permeating into my own transitory experience. Of a cycle of violence and of life under a cloud of fear. His words rang through my body as I left, “Twenty years ago, our idea of home was stripped away from us. We had only just got back on our feet. Now, the same thing has happened. And maybe it will happen again in another twenty years.”