India: "Social activism is like “onion-peeling” - you successfully peel one layer, but then comes another one."

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Martin Macwan, an Indian lawyer and activist, is the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation, based in Gujarat state, India. Being a Dalit himself, he learnt the hard way as a child what caste discrimination means. Dalits, the former "untouchables" in pre-independence India, make up around 166 million of those living in the country, and together with other disadvantaged groups they make up more than 24 per cent of the total population. They are subject to discrimination in numerous fields of society, such as jurisdiction, housing, education or employment.

[Photo: Martin Macwan. Credit: Navsarjan]

Navsarjan is present in more than 3000 villages in Gujarat state, where the local Dalit village-dwellers are actively involved in the fight against caste discrimination. Macwan is one of the founders of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. He is the founding member of the Dalit Foundation, current chair of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) and the author of several books. His work has been internationally recognised by Human Rights Watch and by the R.F.K. Center for Human Rights with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2000.

We were just about to start the interview when a woman stepped in to seek help from you. Who was she?

She was trained as a tailor in our vocational training centre called the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK). This training serves economically and socially marginalised youth. After finishing the course, the woman's father, despite the family's poor financial background, managed to buy her a tailoring machine. Soon after that, she got married and moved to her husband's house, who, however, absconded from the family. After 6 months, he eventually came back to declare that he had become a religious wanderer - basically, he did not want to work. Now bearing all the responsibility for rearing her mentally-ill child on her own, this deserted woman moved back to her parents' house, but without the tailoring machine, which her mother- and father-in-law refused to give back. As the machine is her only source of income, she desperately asked me to intervene in the dispute. Naturally, I offered my help as an activist.

You had been working as a lawyer and a human rights defender for eight years before the foundation of Navsarjan. What inspired you to start in a new direction and establish a community-based organisation?

The events which triggered this were grievous. In the 1980s, I was running a land rights campaign with another organisation. We tried to change the land ownership structure: to liberate land held captive by landlords and to give them back to the people for their use. In fact, we were challenging the power of dominant-caste landlords. Shortly, they realised that if this were to continue, they would lose all their privileges. This infuriated them and, on the 25th January 1986, they ran a massive attack on one of the village communities. I had left the village not long before that, but I was supposed to be there that night. Many people were wounded, houses were burnt and four of my colleagues were shot dead. It was total chaos.

This was the moment when my life took a new turn. I realised that if I wanted to provide the solutions to a systemic problem, and because discrimination was such, I needed to create a broad-based organisation, otherwise each activity would remain an isolated attempt and would put people at risk. After we had filed a lawsuit against the perpetrators, I left the organisation with these thoughts and founded Navsarjan in December 1988. The legal battle had been going on for thirteen years when, eventually, fourteen people were sentenced.

Use the clip of Macwan talking about the origin of Navsarjan in your own interview. Clip 1.

India produced a progressive Constitution in 1950, enshrining the policy of affirmative action for underprivileged groups, and passed many laws that are supposed to aid the inclusion of Dalits and other disadvantaged tribes and classes into society. However, it failed to live up to expectations. What was the reality in the villages in the 1990s?

What we saw then and what we still see are segregated housing colonies for Dalits, who are treated like slaves by local landlords, who are prohibited from using public services and starting private businesses. Dalit people, especially in villages, are segregated in schools and have access to poorer medical facilities.

In 1989, we started with eight volunteers and opened a legal cell offering services for approximately 50 villages. Listening to the local Dalits, however, we realised that the core of all the cases in the district can be derived back to the improper dissemination of water. It is a common problem all over India: Dalits are either forbidden from using the water sources and toilet tanks used by non-Dalits or they are the last in the row to fetch water. It was the same story here, too: in 1991, Dalits were allowed to fetch water after the buffalos had had enough.

So, instead of taking case after case and continuing to merely fire-fight, we shut the office down and conducted a comprehensive survey. We found that in 42 out of 50 villages, access to water was a problem. No sooner had we assembled the evidence than we started to organise all the village-dwellers.

Not surprisingly, women were more sensitive to the issue, because it was their task to fetch water. A year later, we organised an impressive march in which 800 women advanced with a large jar on their heads. This massive amount of people demanding change created such a problem that the administration was forced to solve the water issue in all of the 42 villages. It is ultimately a question of power equation: when you are perceived as weak, they don't listen to you. And fear is an enormous problem. There are millions of people suffering, but they do not dare to stand up for their rights because they feel that they are alone.

Nevertheless, within 10 years of activities, Navsarjan has had local representation in 2 000 villages. Today it is present in more than 3 000.

We wanted to become a broad-based organisation. For this you need a lot of empowered and passionate people, but you also need responsible leaders who feel ownership for the community and their problems. First we employed non-local, qualified leaders, but that did not work. When they got a better opportunity, they left. At this point, we decided to train local, uneducated young men and women to be leaders. We trained them for three days per month for one year and they were granted a small amount of fellowship. However, even in this case, just to be able to participate in our trainings, women had to jump higher hurdles than men. Until they got familiar with the programme, village people were accusing female participants of being prostitutes, because they spent nights away in the company of unknown people. Women were persistent and their attitude helped me understand that without women no social movement will succeed.

Navsarjan grants women a special role in the fight against caste discrimination.

We work with both men and women, but, as years of work were passing by, we realised that we can address gender-based discrimination only if we placed women in a leadership position in the social movement. Women face multiple discrimination: once from non-Dalits due to their caste status and once from Dalits and non-Dalits because of their gender. Dalit women are more likely to suffer violence and especially sexual violence, and are least likely to get redress in the courts. They will likely face ostracism from their community or even from their own family.

Accepting gender equality is a long battle everywhere and changes start from small things. When I suggested in the main office that the men should wash their own dishes, it caused such uproar that five men left the organisation without a word. They just left a message at the gatekeeper saying: "We are men. We would sooner die than do a woman's job."

Originally, the "teapot revolution" against the undesirable role of women as kitchen servants was sparked off by two female participants from our vocational training. In DSK, participants primarily acquire a profession, but the training also provides personality development, communication and leadership skills, education on human rights and social equality. The rationale behind this is that after returning to their villages, participants will be able to stand up for the rights of their community.

Based on the concept of equality, these two women started to question the traditional roles in their community. When they were supposed to wash the teapot and the dirty cups after a local meeting of the movement, they instigated other women and together they refused to do so. It was like a bombshell, as nobody was expecting anything like that. The male members were foaming at the mouth: men and women did not talk to each other for weeks. After two months I called the leader and said: "You know, I am trying to set up a museum for Dalit history. Can I get a teapot from your office." The man did not understand: "What is it to do with a pot in a museum?" I said, "I want to write the story of the inequality between Dalit men and women and I need the pot as an illustration." The man then went and washed the pot and the story spread like wildfire to 40 other offices of Navsarjan and all the women started to protest: "If we prepare the tea, men should wash the pot". This would not have been possible if only men had been in the organisation.

Use the clip of Macwan talking about the „teapot revolution” in your own interview. Clip 2.

You resigned from Navsarjan 6 years ago. What are you currently involved in?

After completing 25 years in the movement, I was convinced that the leadership must change. A social movement needs new blood to bring in new ideas. Nevertheless, I remained part of the organisation, but in another role, as an activist. I am training teachers in our primary school programme and conducting trainings on gender relationships, power and community in the DSK trainings for 1 000 young men and women annually. When they come here, they can hardly say their names. When they go back to their villages, they can become leaders. Apart from that, I am writing textbooks used by the 30 000 children participating in our primary school programme.

Before we initiate our schools, we have been training the teachers for 6 months.

Actually, I am an exacting instructor, so that I may change the mindset of teachers. For instance, 7 years ago, on a December night, I woke the teacher trainees up and told them one by one to go around the building and find something in the backyard in the absolute dark. I wanted them to feel what it is for a child to be afraid. They became excellent teachers and the relationships between them and the children are amazing.

Apart from Navsarjan, my colleagues and I set up two institutions after the World Conference against Racism of 2001 in Durban. I am a founding member of and was previously the chair of the organisation called the Dalit Foundation and I am the current chair of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, a national research institute solely dedicated to the issue of caste discrimination. And naturally, there are lots of other organisations where I am invited to conduct trainings.

Use the clip of Macwan talking about his future plans in your own interview. Clip 3.

Dr. Ambedkar, the "father of the Indian Constitution", set the cornerstone for the Dalit movement. He is an emblematic figure in your organisation as well, as his portrait is placed above the front door of the training centre.

Dr. Ambedkar carried forward the tradition of Jyotirao Phule and his wife, Savitribai Phule, social reformers from the 19th century. Jyotirao worked a lot for the removal of untouchability and probably he was the one who first used the term Dalit instead of the "untouchables". Dr. Ambedkar put the issue of the caste system into the context of the national politics and no one has studied the caste system with the depth that he did. He also learnt the hard way, as a child, what caste discrimination means. He was the only Dalit child in his primary school and he was forbidden by the teacher to sit on a chair: he was told to sit on his bag on the ground. This is still a common method for the humiliation of a Dalit person. In 2006, a Dalit Panchayat leader, a village body head in Bihar, was abused for daring to sit on a chair in a meeting.

Every Dalit village-dweller greets you with the conventional "Jai Bhim", meaning Victory to Bhim, i.e. to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. However, blank faces will stare back if you pose a few questions about his achievements and it is because he is not included in the curriculum. We produced two books on his life, one for the children and one for the youth, and we disseminate them to our local libraries. But it is not as simple as it sounds. Children say that library volunteers do not do their duty: they are absent or they lock the books away because they are afraid that the books will be stolen. This is the mechanism of social activism: it is like “onion-peeling” - you successfully peel one layer, but then comes another one.

Use the clip of Macwan talking about the role of Ambedkar in the Dalit movement in your own interview. Clip 4.

Bernadett Sebály, MRG’s Media Officer, Ahmedabad, India

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Date: 22/03/2011

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