Caste habits die hard

Navsarjan supports all those who face discrimination says its director, Martin Macwan swissinfo.ch

Dalits or "untouchables", as they used to be known, remain the most marginalised and exploited of all the communities in India.

This content was published on December 20, 2001 - 15:36

In 1989, an organisation called Navsarjan was founded to fight for Dalit rights across the state of Gujarat. Its work is supported by the Swiss Development Agency.

Navsarjan director, Martin Macwan, himself from a Dalit community and a former child labourer, is the recent winner of two prestigious human rights awards.

"India is not ruled by the constitution. It is ruled by the caste system," said Macwan. "Some practices have not changed despite all the technological changes in the country. Take any Indian village. The Dalits will have a segregated housing colony. They are not allowed to stay in the middle of the village.

"The water wells are separate. In many of the hotels, the tumblers and the plates will be separate. There is no temple entry. In some schools children will be made to sit separately.

"Worst of all are the prejudices of the judiciary and the bureaucrats which are reflected in their actions when they implement programmes or pronounce judgements."

There are 160 million Dalits in India - some 16 per cent of the population. The Navsarjan Trust is active in 2,000 villages in Gujarat.

Colleagues shot dead

Macwan woke up to the reality of Dalit rights on January 25, 1986, when four of his colleagues were shot dead. They had been working in the village of Golana, organising Dalits to fight for their rights over surplus land, and to question caste and labour practices.

"Until then I was not very conscious of what I was doing," he said. "But this was the first time I learned what happens if you challenge the caste system. If you keep quiet about the exploitation, there is perfect harmony and peace in this world. If you raise your voice to get justice, then there is trouble."

Although the Dalits in Golana wanted to assert their rights, they were economically dependent on their landlords for labour, credit and fodder for their animals.

Macwan and his colleagues set up cooperatives on government waste land and started paying the Dalits the legal wage of 11 rupees (SFr0.38) a day - in contrast to the two rupees which the village landlords were paying. Faced with a sudden exodus of labour, the landlords were forced to match the legal wage.

Emboldened, the labourers began to protest about other practices. Under the government's land reforms, the Dalits were entitled to own surplus land. But when they tried to take possession of 33 acres, which were rightfully theirs, members of the higher castes attacked the community, gunning down four on the spot, wounding eighteen others and setting fire to some houses.

"We lost four colleagues but we won the case," said Macwan. "We took up a legal battle, which lasted 13 years. We went to the Supreme Court. Ten people were given life imprisonment and four others up to seven years and it broke the myth that you cannot fight back."

Land reforms

Implementation of land reforms is one of Navsarjan's priorities. The organisation has so far acquired 6,000 acres of land, worth 150 million rupees, for the Dalit community in Gujarat.

"The crux of the matter is people don't want social change," said Macwan. "They don't mind reforms, they don't mind putting some patches here and there but they don't want social change where power relations change."

Navsarjan is also committed to eradicating the practice of manual scavenging - the cleaning of human excrement with, at best, a broom, a tin plate and a basket or a leaking metal drum. More than a million people are manual scavengers in India.

"In the village societies and in the urban slums where there are no toilets, people defecate in the open," said Macwan. "These people come and scrape up the waste, put it in bamboo baskets, which they carry on their heads to dump outside the village. In the monsoon when the waters come, you can see it dribbling down their faces and bodies.

"And when they come home, there is no water. And when their children go to school, the other children and the teachers tell them they're dirty and they should go away, so these children don't go to school."

Education for all

The right of every child to a free and decent education is another central element of Navsarjan's manifesto. In Gujarat, some 50 per cent of Dalit children drop out of primary education.

With the $90,000 prize money he has won in the past year - mainly from two major human rights awards - Macwan has established a fund to set up the best possible village primary schools for Dalit children.

Macwan's own education began at a government school but because his parents were Catholic he was allowed to attend the local missionary school without paying fees.

However, charity came at a price and at the end of the day when the other children were allowed to play, Martin and his sister and another Dalit child were made to sweep the classrooms.

"The plight of education has always been very dear to my heart," he said. "I see the Dalit children who are very bright students but because the parents don't have 20 or 50 rupees for the books, they don't send their children to school. What they don't have is opportunity."

Landless farm workers

Some 78 per cent of the Dalit community in Gujarat consists of landless farm workers. The minimum wage by law for eight hours work is 34 rupees. In the villages, said Macwan, people are often paid just 12 rupees for up to 12 hours of work a day.

"Then they are forced to borrow money from the landlords at 300 per cent interest. So you sell the little land that you have, you sell your house. Your eight-year-old son will start working on the farm because you cannot pay the debt."

The bonded labourers in Gujarat work 365 days a year for 2,000 rupees. Their wives supplement this income, cleaning and washing in the landlord's house for several hours a day at the meagre rate of just seven and a half rupees a month.

Even if you don't question the low wages decided by the government, said Macwan, the gap between existing legal wages and what is actually paid amounts to 3,400 million rupees in Gujarat alone. Navsarjan is demanding comprehensive legislation to end this exploitation.

Caste violence against Dalits is another of the trust's principal concerns. A battery of lawyers is on hand to provide legal aid and fight cases. In India as a whole, the conviction rate in criminal offences is four per cent but Navsarjan has a 30 per cent success rate.

"If the police are not doing the work, we file cases on the police," said Macwan. "If the judges are bad, we file on the judges. So that has made an impact. There was a time when people were so scared they were not ready to file a police complaint. Now they not only file on their own, they fight on their own."

Women's status

Today about 30 per cent of Navsarjan's legal cases come from non-Dalit communities. We fight for all those who face discrimination, said Macwan.

"Women's status in India is as low as that of the Dalits. In Gujarat, 17 women die from unnatural causes every day, most of them burnt to death because they don't get a bride price or they don't produce sons.

"Dalits is not the name of a caste. It is a moral position of people who believe in the ideology of freedom from oppression and who believe in equality of all human beings."

When the first high-caste woman sought help after her husband and son had been thrown into prison during a quarrel with their landlord, Macwan devised a simple test. If she were prepared to drink a glass of water from a Dalit house - an act which was normally taboo - he would be prepared to help her.

The woman hesitated for what seemed like an eternity and finally took a quick sip.

"To my surprise, the next week, four other high-caste women - widows who were not getting their property rights - came to us for help. At that time, we imposed a condition that they had to drink a glass of water from a Dalit house as a symbol that they didn't believe in untouchability.

"They not only drank the water. They invited us to their house for tea. So that's how we started breaking the caste bondages in the villages."

Conversion to Buddhism

One phenomenon which hits the headlines from time to time is the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in an attempt to escape their birthright. However, Macwan said the influence of caste is so strong that it transcends religious boundaries.

"The problem doesn't get solved by conversion. People converted to Christianity and there are separate churches for Dalits and non-Dalits in south India. They converted to Buddhism and they are called the New Buddhists, which are different from the original Buddhists.

"You convert to Islam and you are considered a "low-caste" Muslim, so ultimately all the religions have been so influenced by the caste system that the conversion doesn't help, unless it's supported by a very strong social movement."

Macwan admits that the Dalit community in country as a whole does not have a clear sense of direction. Among the Dalits themselves, there are sub-castes while Dalit women suffer the triple burden of gender, caste and class.

However, he hopes that by 2018, manual scavenging will be eradicated in Gujarat and that no agricultural worker will be paid less than the minimum wage.

Parallel to its activities at the grassroots level, Navsarjan campaigns to raise global awareness. Macwan says the international community is beginning to sit up and take notice. In particular, he praised Swiss efforts to try and get the issue of caste on the agenda at this year's United Nations conference against World Racism in South Africa.

"I think it's also a challenge for the international community," he said. "In bilateral funds, we give millions and millions of dollars to governments for building highways and dams but not towards education. What kind of society in the world do we envisage where the children can't even have an elementary education?"

by Vincent Landon

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