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6-min read

A Journey Through Praveen Jain's Lenses: Risking Life in Hashimpura to Finding the Most Photogenic PM

Jain was in Hashimpura on May 22, the fateful day of the brutal massacre in which at least 42 young and old Muslim men were rounded up and killed in the outskirts of Meerut and their bodies thrown in a nearby canal.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com@theotherbose

Updated:November 9, 2018, 4:35 PM IST

Thirty-one years ago, when Praveen Jain, then a photojournalist with Sunday Mail, was sent to Meerut to cover the 1987 Hindu Muslim riots, he didn't think that this was no ordinary assignment. "I soon realised that the photographs I ended up clicking were not just ordinary photographs, they were evidence," he recalled.

Last week, Jain held an exhibition of his works under the title ‘200 & One’ at the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society (AIFACS) gallery in Delhi.

Jain was in Hashimpura on May 22, the fateful day of the brutal massacre in which at least 42 young and old Muslim men were rounded up and killed in the outskirts of Meerut and their bodies thrown in a nearby canal. The operation was jointly carried out by about 19 personnel of Uttar Pradesh's Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) who packed about 45 men from the Muslim-dominated settlement into a truck and killed in two separate shootings. Some of the bodies may never have been recovered from the canal.

"One of the photos I took came out in the Sunday Mail. But we didn't know, no newspaper reported on the killings. But at least 42 innocent men had been killed," Jain said.

He remembered how he had to hide behind the bushes and practically put his life at risk after the Army forbade him from taking those shots.

"The men in uniform were carrying out searches, attacking men with lathis and rods. Women and children were crying. I had to take photos because it was evident that these unarmed men were innocent. Something was definitely going on," Jain told News18 at the AIFACS Art Gallery in New Delhi.

When he later found out that about the massacre and that a case had been opened by the CID to investigate the issue, Jain himself approached the court and offered up his photographs as evidence. After 31 years and several attempts to nullify the evidence, the Delhi High Court recently held the 16 PAC personnel guilty (three others who had been accused died in the course of the trial).

Jain's photographs were intrinsic for the verdict as they corroborated the stories of the survivors and the families of the victims, as well as Jain's own accounts of what he saw.

An Illustrious career

The ace photojournalist started photographing political events for news way back in 1981. He has closely documented Indian Prime Ministers from the time Congress's Rajiv Gandhi was in power as well as other senior and veteran leaders.

"Most of the times, we took photos of people without any inkling of just how big a personality they will become in the future. when I first photographed Narendra Modi, he was a nonentity. Noone knew him. But look what happened eventually," Jin said. He also pointed at photographs of a young Lalu Prasad Yadav, living inside the servants' quarter of his brother in Patna with wife Rabri Devi and two sons. Jain said that Lalu always had the spark in him to make a big name for himself.

"Back then, we had a lot of access. Prime Ministers and Presidents valued journalists and invested in building personal relationships with them. We were often invited to the inner chambers of senior ministers for tea and snacks, we knew how they lived and even where the bedroom was. The environment used to be very different back then," Jain recalls wistfully.

Nowadays, he says politicians are wary of journalists.

"The the engineered photo-ops PM Modi gives, for example. He knows what he wants in a picture, he will get you a good frame. But that's it. There's no personal access, no way to capture him in his private moments. I don't think I know what kind of a man the current Prime Minister is like," he said.

When asked who the most photogenic Prime Minister was, pat came the reply, "Rajiv Gandhi!"

Jain said that had such a charismatic persona that it felt good to take his photos. "Apart from that, he was also a very caring person and always took care of those who would travel with him," Jain told News18.

The photographer's lenses have travelled over three decades now-- Through the era of Rajiv Gandhi, the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination and the subsequent 'Sonia Gandhi years' and through and the rise of the scion, Rahul as the chief of the Congress Party.

The Babri 'rehearsal'

Another major highlight of Jain's career came in 1992 when he captured images of what was allegedly a 'rehearsal' of the Babri mosque demolition, a day before the fateful date of December 6. BJP's LK Advani had been leading the Rath Yatra campaign in UP to mobilise Hindu voters. Jain knew that the mosque at Babri was a contentious point and was aware of the rally that was to be held there on December 6.

However, what most journalists at the time did not know was that there was something of a 'rehearsal' that took place on Dec 5. While the consensus remains that the demolition was the result of a mob that went out of hand, Jain said that what he witnessed on Dec 5 was certainly a rehearsal for the demolition the next day.

"There were various political leaders at the scene. Men were practising pulling down boulders with ropes, the same technique that was used for the actual demolition. Many of the people had hammers and pickaxes. A man in a mask was giving instructions while ensuring his identity remained hidden," Jain said, adding that he was certain that the attack the next day was not a 'spontaneous' outburst but an event that had been planned for several months. The demolition led to several months of widespread violence and rioting in many parts of the country and ended with thousands of deaths.

He still appears in court in Lucknow for the hearing of the case where lawyers try to prove that he was not present on the site that day, that the images were not actually clicked by him and that he is not really a photographer but a fraud.

"Oh, well," Jain shrugged off the issues. "You have to do what you have to do."

The shift to digital

According to Jain, it was much harder to be a successful photojournalist then, but also much more rewarding.

"The process of developing a photo in a dark room, the tension and fear that it may not have come out right, the fact that we only had one shot to get the perfect shot, these things made it an exciting profession. Nowadays, digital cameras that allow a thousand clicks a minute and instant playback have killed the charm and challenge of the profession," Jain lamented. He added that earlier, politicians used to give a lot of 'bhao' to photojournalists but that era has now been replaced with the selfie-age.

"I once got a senior politician and cabinet member to disembark from an aeroplane because I wanted to take a photo. That kind of thing is unimaginable today," Jain said. About 200 photographs that the journalist clicked in the past three decades is on exhibition in Delhi. But the photographer claims that many people did not come as they already had already seen the photos on social media.

"Imagine! They will rather look at social media than come to the real thing," Jain lamented.

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