MARTIN MACWAN is a Dalit rights activist and the founder of the Navsarjan Trust, a non-governmental organisation working among Gujarat’s Dalits since 1989. The NGO is active in more than 3,000 villages and in major cities.
Navsarjan means “new creation”. Macwan says the organisation’s objective is to create a casteless society in which “equality is upheld as the core and non-negotiable value of our work”. And yet he can be critical of his own Dalit community, pointing out that “sub-caste based discriminations and untouchability and different treatment for women are acts of cooperation to preserving and protecting the caste system”. In setting new goals, he has come up with new definitions, describing Dalits as “those who believe in and practise equality”. Untouchability is defined as the “psychological response to the fear of pollution”. In Navsarjan’s quest to help Dalits, several hundred youths have been trained as barefoot lawyers. And women have been given leadership training because Navsarjan believes that “social movements cannot succeed without women leadership”.
The discourse on human rights and the contribution of voluntary organisations such as Navsarjan have been important to the Dalit awakening. Navsarjan has set up the Dalit Shakti Kendra, a vocational school that offers life skills to end caste-based occupations and to promote economic diversity. In the past 15 years, it has trained about 9,600 young men and women who not only earn their livelihood by their engagement in the non-traditional sector but are also community leaders.
There is a distinct feeling that whatever achievements the community has made became possible because of its own perseverance and in spite of the odds. When Navsarjan’s founder speaks on the state of Dalits in Gujarat and under the State’s various regimes, there is no sitting on the fence.
Excerpts from an interview:
Over the past 18 years or so, Gujarat has nurtured the impression of being a socially and economically progressive State. Issues of caste have always been played down, but of late these have been surfacing. What is your perception of this?
Gujarat was never a progressive State so far as social and cultural life is concerned. Complete economic dependence on the upper castes ensured that there was no retaliation by Dalits. Even in grave cases of murders and rapes there were no complaints registered and even where cases were registered they did not reach the courts. But the perception that Dalits are no longer willing to toe the caste line is strengthening. The Dalit response to caste realities has been twofold: economic and educational development on the one hand and the effective use of law to challenge the discrimination [on the other].
Our work, especially with women and youths, has played a significant role in raising the consciousness about our rights. True, there are pockets, especially in Banaskantha and Saurashtra, where owing to poverty and lack of education Dalits continue to suffer caste atrocities. Even there they make sure that every single incident of caste discrimination is registered as a crime.
What is your understanding and experience of the situation of Dalits in Gujarat from recent history?
Gujarat’s Dalits constitute barely 7 per cent of the population of the State and 2.33 per cent of the population of all Dalits in India. Yet, in 2001 Gujarat ranked fourth in the country for atrocities against Dalits. Navsarjan conducted a major study on atrocities against Dalits covering the period between 1989 [since the Prevention of Atrocities Act came into being] and 1993. The study revealed that there was approximately an under-reporting of 150 per cent of the crimes on Dalits by the state. More often than not when Dalits approached the police station their narrative was reduced to nothing more than just writing on a piece of paper. Dalits thought it to be an FIR [first information report], but it was never registered as a crime. The study covered 11 districts of Gujarat, which were declared by the State government as sensitive to Dalit atrocities. The chief finding of the study was that in a total of 1,375 cases (35.99 per cent), the police had not applied sections of the Prevention of Atrocities Act and hence these cases did not form part of the information of the total atrocity cases in Gujarat.
Secondly, the Social Welfare Department recorded 53.35 per cent more cases of atrocities than the Police Department had shown. The data did not match even in cases of murder and rape. Thirdly, it was found that in seven districts where information was available, the complaints of Dalits written down by the police on paper as “application” numbered 3,300 as against the registered cases of 2,078.
Historically, Dalits were left far behind others in development because of the failure in the implementation of land reforms. While in the Saurashtra region, land reforms were most successfully implemented in favour of Patels who then were landless farm labourers and considered “Sudra”, land reforms were not implemented in the remaining parts of Gujarat which were a part of the Greater Bombay State before 1960. This adversely affected Dalits and the tribal communities. Hence Dalits remained overtly dependent on non-Dalits for their survival and the only livelihood option available to them was farm labour. The law governing minimum wages was not implemented. In 1980, when I started working in the villages of Kheda, which is considered to be the most prosperous district of Gujarat, I found that Dalits were paid only Re.1 a day for farm labour when the law prescribed Rs.7 a day. In many villages, Dalits were forced to work for free.
In villages, Dalits were given common property lands for their customary services to the rulers before Independence, but after Independence most of these lands were taken away by the powerful castes in the name of development of the village. We came across several villages in Vadodara district where such lands were taken away for a price of 20 kg of coarse grain.
Dalits in pre-Independence Gujarat were forced to stay on the side of Gandhi, and Dr [B.R.] Ambedkar was painted as anti-national. The discourse on rights is a post-1981 phenomenon when Gujarat witnessed the bloody anti-reservation riots targeting Dalits. During my visit to the villages since 1980, I have heard many stories of murder and rapes that Dalits were subjected to but which never reached the police station.
During the epic confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar in the times of the Poona Pact, even the so-called reformers in Gujarat owned their temples but Dalits were not allowed to enter them. Even in Kheda district, in the town of Nadiad where I was born, Dalits were allowed to do the darshan (worship) of deity from a specially made window in the temple walls.
This was the time when a large section of Dalits migrated from the villages and the State and also converted to Christianity. How much development Christianity was able to bring is a debatable question, but nevertheless, the converted ones benefited mostly through good education in missionary schools. I have written quite often on how Christianity failed to end caste distinctions even among its own followers.
The emergence of the textile industry brought about large-scale migration of Dalits from villages to cities. In Ahmedabad alone, there were about 91 textile mills then and a significant portion of the workers were Dalits, followed by Muslims. Both the communities shared neighbourhoods and food, too, the non-vegetarianism. The acts of collaboration between Dalits and Muslims go back a long way in history. In Jyotiba Phule’s time, Muslim teachers were brought in by the British to educate Dalits whom Brahmins had refused to teach. Gandhi, too, experienced this when he set up a school for Dalits in Godhra. Dalits, tribal people and Muslims were the spine for Congress rule to continue. After 1992, Hindutva politics created lines of separation between Dalits and Muslims and divided tribal votes around the issue of Hindu versus Christian. Tribal people worshipped their own gods and were never part of the caste system. The Hindu movement tried to bring in tribal people as Hindu, and strangely they started observing untouchability towards Dalits.
Dalits worked hard on the path of Ambedkar’s ideology and were able to negotiate with political parties. No political party could risk Dalit isolation.
Dalits voted for the BJP because they witnessed non-implementation of land reforms in their favour by the Congress. The culture of the Congress had changed from the times when Gandhi departed. The same people who practised untouchability were the leaders of the Congress, barring a few exceptions. Dalits realised the dangers of “dependency” on any political party and invested a great deal of time and money in education.
After L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, there was a move among Dalit youths towards the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. In the 1992 riots in Gujarat, Dalits even fought on the side of the BJP, but reality started dawning after the 2002 riots. Even in these riots, Dalits fought with the BJP, but many were victims and they saw that the BJP didn’t support them. Dalits realised that the Hindutva ideology envisions protection and preservation of the caste system and not the annihilation of caste as Ambedkar had articulated. They have begun to realise the limitations of the law [a reference to the recent judgment by the Supreme Court diluting the Prevention of Atrocities Act].
Today, one of the reasons of caste atrocities is jealousy. Large sections of the OBC [Other Backward Classes] are left far behind by Dalits even in education. Questioning by Dalits is the reason for atrocities to rise…. It is a feeble attempt to subdue them. Times have changed.
My apprehension is that politicians are now attempting to create caste polarisation.
But Dalit youths are hitting back in some ways, are they not?
Yes. While the older generation followed a path of settling the matter amicably after each atrocity, the younger generation of Dalits, educated and influenced by modernity, is in no mood to be the victim of caste prejudices. Earlier there were many cases where the upper castes molested Dalit women as if it was their right. Now, a new dimension is added: Dalit men marry upper-caste women.
I witnessed a case in 1994 where a group of Dalits had to desert the village as one of their boys had eloped with a Rajput girl. The father of the girl approached us time and again asking us to get his daughter back. Our efforts to explain that both were consenting adults did not go down well with him. Finally, they found the couple living in the slums of Ahmedabad. They got the girl, aborted her six-month-old foetus and married her off to a 60-year-old Rajput. A section of non-Dalit youths, which is not educated and not well-employed, cannot accept Dalit youths who have made their careers. Hence, they find trivial issues such as a suffix [when Dalits add Sinh to their names, Rajputs are enraged] to keep up caste tensions. Education has played a big role for Dalits in Gujarat to change their social status. Now, in many villages, Dalits are also elected to panchayats even in unreserved seats. The loosening of the caste structure perceived as loss of privileges by the upper castes is the cause of the tension.
True, Dalit youths sometimes counter with attacks on Rajput homes causing damage to their property, a means not appropriate for the Dalit movement. But for people who are at the receiving end, particularly in an environment of lawlessness and absence of moral political governance, the only appropriate response they find is to talk to the aggressors in their own language.
In 2010, Navsarjan published a comprehensive study of Dalits in Gujarat. It painted a very bleak picture. Is the study still relevant for an understanding of Dalit lives in Gujarat?
Yes, very much. Last year we challenged the government of Gujarat to declare just one Gujarat village to be untouchability-free on Independence Day and they could not find one village. According to the study, in 90.2 per cent of the villages Dalits are not allowed to enter temples though they are Hindus. This finding has troubled the political programme of “samrasta” [in which right-wing politics claim to work for the cause of Dalits but essentially are calling for harmony between the castes instead of abolition of caste as Ambedkar did]. Organisations like the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] or the government itself are unable to argue and convince Dalits that they too are Hindus. The study actually caused the government to target Navsarjan.
Navsarjan’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was cancelled, but you are fighting this. Are you not?
Yes, it was taken away on December 15, 2016, on the grounds that our activities are detrimental to national interests. We challenged this in the Delhi High Court, and normally what happens is that the opposite party gives documents to the judge in a sealed envelope saying they are for his eyes only. In this case the judge insisted that nothing is confidential and that the affidavit should be an open document available to all petitioners. We looked at the documents they submitted, and even they could not show anything that amounted to anti-national activities.
So how does Navsarjan manage to stay afloat financially?
Well, there have been many difficulties. Indian corporate donors will not help us and take the risk of making the government unhappy. There have been small community donations. We had to reduce the strength of our activists. However, all our public programmes are now paid for by the community. There have been many volunteers who were trained by us in the past who even in the absence of the organisation’s interventions are able to pursue the battle for justice. Even in the absence of financial resources, Navsarjan has been able to continue its work aggressively.