One of India’s finest photo-journalists, Sondeep Shankar has authored nearly a dozen books and been there, done that in his nearly four decade career, including a few near death experiences in the course of his work. He was one of the first to cover the rise of militancy amongst Sikhs in Punjab in the 1980s under Bhindranwale. Here, he talks about what you see and what you leave out when confronted with extreme violence like he was in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. He spoke with Revati Laul who compiled the excerpts here.
I took this picture during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi. I was coming back from Nand Nagari in East Delhi, where a major killing took place. On the highway, I saw this body burning and people driving past. It was the middle of the afternoon. I stopped and took some pictures.
You have to be sensitive of course in taking a picture like this. This picture for instance, really doesn’t show any gore. At the same time, you can make out there’s a human being burning and there’s a way in which people passing by are looking at it. That is the story being told here. I would never have taken a picture of just the body. That would just be ugly. You don’t have to shock people with your picture. I don’t think that’s ethical either.
There is an un-written code embedded in your psyche when you are faced with a situation of violence. Don’t be gruesome and don’t play with blood. I remember some pictures of the Bombay train blasts. Some photographers prided themselves in shooting gory pictures. Red blood against a blue wall. It’s senseless and you’re actually getting carried away by the colour and not the human dilemma or suffering. At the end of the day, photography is an art. So you have to use your sensibilities.
1984 is still ever-present in my head because it was so dangerous to be shooting pictures then. In fact that is the one and only time when I had to shave my beard for fear of being mistaken for a Sikh.
The kind of violence in that time was basically lumpen elements spilling out in the street with no one to control them. On the whole, I think people are civilized to a certain extent. But the kind of violence I saw in South Delhi in places like Vasant Vihar makes it very hard to tell just who is civilized and who isn’t. And it’s not a class thing. Of course, it’s the deprived who eventually take over. But it starts out with the neighbour fighting the neighbour because they know who’s who.
Today, when people talk of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in the same breath as the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, I would say there is one difference between the two. The violence in 1984 went on for four or five days. And then it was controlled. Whereas in 2002, it carried on for months and months. I went to Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2002, on the very first day of those riots. And I came back because I nearly got lynched in the Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad. All my equipment was gone. It happened because I think I got carried away. I didn’t use my judgement fully. There was a group of people who took me in. They led me in and then they turned on me and attacked me. These were Hindus from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Organization) whom I had met two days ago in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. They saw me in Gujarat and they recognized me and I trusted them for exactly that reason. So I didn’t realize what they were trying to do. That’s the thing about these situations. You can’t trust anybody. You just have to take the necessary precautions and shoot. I lost that there.
Of the scariest moments I’ve encountered in taking pictures of extreme violence, there are two instances from Punjab. One was in a place called Kandukheda on the border between Punjab and Haryana. This was after 1984. It was I think in the year 1985. I had just got married. The Akali Dal was in power in Punjab and this area was to vote on whether it wanted to stay in Punjab or be part of the state of Haryana. It was situated at that time in Punjab, so the Punjab police was out in full force. And they didn’t want me and the reporter to go into the village. We insisted on going in, so the police bashed the hell out of us. Then they took us about thirty or forty kilometres away in their police van. And all along the way they kept saying – “Inke tangein tod do inko canal me phenk do” – “we’ll break their legs and throw them into the canal.” So we were really scared. But then we got dropped off some place and we went to a police station. In those days there were of course no mobile phones and our taxis were stuck elsewhere and they didn’t know where we were. But luckily what happened was that Amarinder Singh (a very prominent Congress leader in Punjab at the time who since then became Chief Minister) had reached that spot and he had heard about what had happened to us. When he heard our names, he came there himself and got us out of there because he knew us.
The second close brush with death I had was in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is before its desecration in 1984, but at the height of the Sikh militancy. So it was infested with people with guns. But there was this guy who was sitting very peacefully in the midst of all of this and reading his copy of the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib. He was a very good looking Sikh. I took two or three pictures of him using a wide angle lens with the Golden Temple in the background. When he saw that and he got up and caught hold of me. He was actually a dreaded terrorist. So he caught hold of me and said, “That’s it. You’ve taken my picture, now you have to be killed. You cannot go anywhere with this picture.” By now his people had gathered around as well. So I said to him – “Listen. You can do whatever you want to but first let’s go and meet Sant Bhindranwale.” They took me to Bhindranwale, their leader, thinking he’d be on their side. But Bhindranwale was on my side because he knew me. It’s a quick calculation I had to make at the time. He’d known me for a long time. I was one of the first to be covering him. So he told his men – “Inhe chadd do,” – “let him go.” So you never know in some of these situations, where the help comes from!
Newsrooms in those days were much more liberal than they are today. If you took a good picture, it would get a good display. That was assured. In those days I was working for the Anand Bazar Patrika group and we had great editors like M J Akbar and Aveek Sarkar who liked to give pictures a good display.
The difference between those days and now is – for one, the styles have changed. Today people tend to think before they shoot. In those days we shot before thinking. You just don’t do that kind of journalism now.