(Click on photos to go to gallery)
(Interview with Rediff.com on my photo-essay on the Second Generation 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims, Delhi)
They lost their childhood to the 1984 riots.
In a moving photo documentary, the children of the horrific October 31-November 1-2, 1984 riots narrate personal tales bound together by the common themes of violence, loss and the death of their childhood, reports Sanchari Bhattacharya.
When photographer Sanjay Austa knocked on the doors of the ominously named Widow’s Colony in Delhi, the residents — all survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots — assumed that he had come to do a routine story. But when he asked the women if he could talk to their children instead, they were taken aback. For residents of this colony in Trilokpuri, west Delhi, are used to talking to inquisitive journalists, who often ask them to recount details of the communal carnage that had taken away their beloved husbands.
They are also used to the sudden media attention every year around the time of the anniversary of the riots, or when a senior leader is rapped on charges of inciting them 26 years ago. But their children had so far remained beyond the spotlight of journalistic curiosity.
“Whenever one thinks of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, we think of the widows of the victims,” says Austa. “But no one pays any attention to the children of these widows. Perhaps because the children don’t appear to be as interesting as victims, or maybe because they were too young at that time to give any gory account of the riots,” he adds.
The vivid images of From Lost Childhood to Uncertain Future, his photo documentary, starkly outline the stories of children “who grew up in the shadow of the riots. These children were newborns or only a few years old or in their mother’s womb when they lost their fathers, brothers and uncles,” says Austa. Now in their mid to late twenties, these youngsters narrate personal tales bound together by the common themes of violence, loss and the death of their childhood.
While working on the photo documentary, Austa discovered that the riots had not only left an indelible scar on the minds of the survivors, it had also altered social and financial equations forever for the bereaved families. “The male members were the only breadwinners and the women were housewives. Suddenly the women had to take up clerical posts to make a living and there was no one to look after the children at home,” says Austa. “Some of the widows remarried and their children from the first marriage were often neglected or alienated,” he adds. “All these children had a difficult childhood and it showed. As children, they either dropped out of schools or had to help their mother supplement the family income,” reveals Austa. “Today, more than 60 percent children born in the wake of the 1984 riots are either drug addicts, or unemployed or involved in petty crimes.”
Austa, who visited the colony for an earlier assignment, was struck by the sight of several young men milling around on the streets, apparently ‘doing nothing’. “I made enquiries and found out that these were people who were born during the riots. Most of them were school dropouts and were unemployed. Some of them were clearly on drugs,” he says, explaining how he chanced upon the unusual subject.
On why he chose to take up photography full time, Austa says, “I think a photograph can convey a story in a stronger way than words. In words, we can exhibit our prejudices, our biases, but a photograph is just what is there. I am not really comfortable with the idea of shooting someone on the street and not having anything to do with him or her later. I like to engage myself in the subjects I shoot. The subjects I choose must have an interesting story to tell which I try and tell through pictures,” he says.
Austa realised that the process of sharing the tragic stories of his subjects would require extremely sensitive handling and a lot of patience in this case. “During the first few visits, I did not take a single picture,” he says. Instead, he spent that time meeting the families, talking to the youth and forging an understanding with them. “It was much later, after I had won their confidence, that I began shooting,” he says.
The members of the second generation of the riot victims are painfully aware that life has dealt them a raw deal, that they lost their shot at a better life when their fathers lost their lives in the riots. The trauma of either witnessing or hearing stories about the brutal murders of their family members continues to haunt these youngsters. “Some of them, who were four years or older, remember the events vividly. Very few second generation victims could make something of their lives,” says Austa.
His photographs, which capture the moods and moments of the second generation survivors, have garnered a considerable amount of attention after they were posted online. They also received a fair amount of interest from an unexpected quarter. “Hardline sympathisers of the Khalistani movement, who are settled abroad, wanted to appropriate these pictures for their anti-India propaganda. But my intention is only to tell the story as best as I can,” says Austa.
On how the young residents of the Widow’s Colony have reacted to being photographed thus, Austa says, “Some of them were happy (with the photographs), but others wanted to know why I shot them from such crazy angles. They wanted to know why I didn’t take straight shots like they do in studios.”