It was December 2019. Protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act had just erupted and Mohammad Meherban, a journalism student, began taking photographs of the agitation, not knowing that this would be just the start of a season of discontent.
Almost two years later, Meherban, along with Aasif Mujtaba, the founder-director of Miles2smile Foundation and the co-organiser of the Shaheen Bagh protest, released a book featuring photos of the months of protests that led to the North East Delhi riots.
Their book, Hum Dekhenge: Protest and Pogrom, draws its title from the slogan that echoed at many protest sites and the poem by Pakistani writer Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi became a rallying point for protests against the amended citizenship act, which discriminates against Muslims, and the proposed National Register of Citizens. In several places, the protestors faced brutal violence from the police – and from supporters of the government initiatives.
Tensions escalated towards the end of February 2020 when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders announced that if the police did not clear the protest sites in Delhi, they and their supporters would do so.
The violence that followed left 53 people dead, most of them Muslim.
Hum Dekhenge captures images of the rousing protests, as well as the devastating riots in Delhi and instances of violence against Muslims in other parts of the country during that period.
Edited excerpts from an interview with Mujtaba and Meherban.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
Meherban: I was a student of photography at the Mass Communication Research Centre of Jamia Millia Islamia University when the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act started in December 2019. I was taking pictures of the events as they unfolded. Back then, I didn’t know that it will continue for so long, but I knew that it was historical.
I displayed my top photographs at the protest site near Jamia University and soon realised that it was the best location to exhibit my work because this way, it was open to the public. Art galleries are only accessible to the privileged.
I received a great response from the audience. Photographs have emotions attached to them in a way that other media cannot compete with. Videos are played and are forgotten. The emotion of a photo is stationary. In a photo, if someone is getting beaten by a stick, it stays that way. It gives people time to think, which videos don’t.
On January 26, I put up my photos for display at Shaheen Bagh. By then, similar protest sites had come up around the country. One day, I spotted a woman crying while looking at the photos. That was the day when I first thought of harnessing the power of my work into a photo book. Usually, coffee table photo books are for the rich but I wanted to make this accessible to all.
I continued documenting the violence against Muslims as an eyewitness, be it the incident in Daryaganj or the North East Delhi riots. I had photographs of all these major events and decided to put them together into a photo book.
I needed to partner with someone who could tell the stories behind the pictures through captions. That was when I met Aasif. He was one of the primary organisers of the Shaheen Bagh protest along with Sharjeel Imam. He also worked for relief and rehabilitation of the North East Delhi riots. His work made him the best choice to work on the book.
What was the idea behind the title of the book?
Mujtaba: When an innocent person is subjected to a cycle of violence and torture and dehumanised, there comes a threshold when fear vanishes. That is where the idea of Hum Dekhenge [We Shall See] stems from for us.
After the February 2020 riots, I was interrogated by the Delhi Police on multiple occasions, like many other people. Initially, I was terrified. Over time, I found the courage to look into their eyes and tell them that I am not in the wrong, they are. This is where the feeling behind Hum Dekhenge” comes to the fore. It is the driving force behind all those who lost their loved ones in the violence. The state might be helping the perpetrators of violence right now but one day, we shall see that there is justice.
Meherban: We were also concerned about copyright issues with the title initially, but lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who has also written the foreword to the book, told us that words can’t be copyrighted.
Tell us about the journey of getting this book published.
Meherban: Once we shortlisted the photos we wanted in the book, we started pitching it to publishers, but everyone refused. In March 2021, after all the rejections, we decided to self publish, but the plan was delayed due to the second wave of Covid-19.
We also realised that it will be difficult to procure an International Standard Book Number for the photo book, a task that can easily take six to seven months without a publisher in India. Thankfully, White Dot, a Muslim publisher from Okhla, New Delhi, agreed to help us get an International Standard Book Number and also publish the book.
We also hit another roadblock at the last moment when the printing establishment we had selected refused to print the book after seeing the content. A few more printers refused but we were somehow able to find one who agreed.
Mujtaba: The fears of the publishers and the printers were not unfounded. The day after the book launched, the special cell of the Delhi Police visited the White Dot office, asking questions. However, we stood our ground because we believed in our work.
In what ways do you think visual evidence of events like the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest and the North East Delhi riots is crucial?
Mujtaba: The beauty of visual evidence, be it photos or videos or movies, is that it is not biased. A person’s writing may be biased, but visual evidence is not. Photos are neutral. If 20-30 years down the line anyone asks what living during this time was like, this book will serve as a document of history.
You also cannot express the emotion as honestly through any other means. A mother crying over the body of her son, a woman sitting strong during unbearably cold weather at Shaheen Bagh and raising slogans to take back CAA – these emotions cannot be captured by any other means.
Meherban: People of all ages connect with photographs, which is why this book was important. It also has some exclusive images that were too graphic to be published elsewhere. But until they don’t reach the public, how will people know what really happened?
What were you looking for while deciding which pictures would go into the book?
Meherban: The first task was to list the events as they happened. After that, we decided to include photos from a few different photographers because everyone’s body and style of work are different and we wanted to present a variety of perspectives to the readers. The photographers were not paid anything. There is no profit from this book as of now because we have tried to make it as affordable as possible, but in case any profits are earned in the future, they will be utilised for victims of the riots.
Mujtaba: We wanted to highlight the cycle of events and the emotions behind them – that was our main criteria to select the photos.
How is Danish Siddiqui associated with this photo book?
Meherban: I worked alongside [photojournalist] Danish Siddiqui all through the course of events covered in this photo book. I used to update him on the progress of the book every now and then and he would give us suggestions on how to make it better. Unfortunately, we couldn’t show him the final product because he was killed in Afghanistan on assignment for Reuters news agency. Therefore, we decided that it was best to dedicate this book to him.
Mujtaba: Whenever we talk about photo documentation, the name that comes to mind is Danish Siddiqui. He has documented various crises around the world through visual narratives. Danish taught us how to best convey emotions through photographs.