There is one incredible India and one untouchable India.
This month we highlight the work of human rights attorney and activist Manjula Pradeep, the Executive Director of Navsarjan (“new creation”), an organization in India that strives to eradicate India’s caste system and gender discrimination through a holistic, grassroots approach.
Manjula was born into a conservative Indian family. Women played a subservient role in her family, and were always dependent on the men. As the second daughter, Manjula was not welcomed as her father was expecting a son. In her childhood, Manjula saw her mother being physically and mentally abused by her father. She dreamt of seeing her mother liberated from her father’s abuse and torture.
As she was growing up, Manjula could see that she and her siblings were treated differently in the neighborhood and in their schools. She realized what her parents were insecure to reveal – that they were Dalits, i.e., “untouchables”.
Life for the majority of Dalits (“untouchables”) in India has changed little since India achieved independence from the British more than 50 years ago. The Indian Constitution (authored in part by a Dalit – Mahatma Gandhi’s main critic and political opponent, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar) in draft form contained provisions granting to Dalits the right to elect their own leaders. Although the caste system was outlawed when the Constitution was adopted in 1950, Ambedkar’s provisions for a separate Dalit electorate were removed after Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1932.
Gandhi naively believed that as they became enlightened, high-caste Hindus like himself would embrace untouchables as their equals, and he adamantly opposed self-governance by the Dalits with the rationale that it would fragment the country. Other laws concerning the Dalits that were written into the Indian Constitution by Dr. Ambedkar have never been enforced by the Indian courts and legislatures. Only a tiny fraction of the education and work quotas reserved for Dalits have been filled, and Dalits are continually discriminated against in all aspects of life in India’s villages. Gandhi was wrong in his assessment, and is now regarded as the greatest obstacle to Dalit rights in India’s history.
To learn more about the history of the Hindu caste system, click here.
Manjula made up her mind to do something unique and unusual – so that she would not be despised and treated differently by anyone. “Having suffered discrimination based on caste and gender I was motivated to do something which can bring significant change in the lives of my community and especially women,” she says “although I knew that the path which I have taken is full of struggles, frustrations and loneliness.”
Manjula graduated from college and in 1992 became the first female employee of Navsarjan. During the time she worked as an employee of Navsarjan, Manjula acquired a law degree, served as an Advocacy Fellow at the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C. (1997), and completed leadership training at the Global Women’s Leadership Institute in New Jersey (2002). She joined in delegations to the World Conference against Racism in 2001, the World Social Forum 2004, and has trained hundreds of activists in India to participate in international forums and local rallies. In 2004 Manjula was appointed Navsarjan’s Executive Director, succeeding founder Martin Macwan.
As Executive Director of Navsarjan, Manjula’s directs an organization that focuses on the following (for more details, review the Navsarjan brochure):
Education. Navsarjan believes that education is at the root of many of the problems facing Dalits and has implemented a variety of education initiatives, including the establishment of boarding schools in rural areas, training more than 500 volunteers to run extracurricular education centers, distribution and use of 400 village libraries, and a foot march to spread awareness of the necessity for primary education, especially for girls.
Women’s Rights. Dalit women are positioned at the bottom of India’s caste, class and gender hierarchies. Navsarjan empowers women so that they can seek justice and dignity within their families and communities through legal, social and emotional support and security to women; building awareness of women’s rights in villages through meetings and training programs; and ensuring that all Navsarjan activists are trained in women’s rights laws.
Eradication of Manual Scavenging. Despite numerous laws and judicial orders, the heinous occupation of caste-dictated manual handling and transport of human excreta persists, often with the support of government funding. The Valmikis (manual scavenger and sweeper caste)-most often women- who perform this degrading and dangerous work are treated by both society and government as social outcasts. Navsarjan action to eradicate manual scavenging includes: Taking cases to court, including a landmark victory in 1996 on a Public Interest Litigation brought to end the practice of manual scavenging in Ranpur; providing practicing manual scavengers with rehabilitation training to allow them to find a more dignified and safer means for livelihood; organizing a life-insurance plan to benefit the families of practicing manual scavengers and sewage workers, many of whom die at an unnaturally young age due to the high rate of disease associated with the occupation; and the development of a new ecological sanitation system in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to eradicate the need for manual scavenging.
A female Dalit student at a local girls’ college is gang-raped by six of her professors. She is threatened with failure and expulsion if she tells anyone. When she finally does, the school administration does nothing. It is only after her fellow classmates conduct a demonstration that the school administration and police take action against the professors.
Land Rights Campaign. Lack of land is a central reason for Dalit impoverishment. Though many Dalits are entitled to land under a variety of government schemes, actually gaining control of the land is a difficult endeavor. Some of Navsarjan’s work in this area includes: Taking the initiative to survey land, fighting cases in court, and winning thousands of acres of land for impoverished Dalits; spreading awareness of land rights through grassroots education initiatives; and mentoring the establishment of local land rights organizations.
Legal Intervention. The Legal Intervention Program aims at promoting awareness of legally protected rights and at pursuing cases of atrocities against Dalits. By working persistently and applying pressure on the authorities, Navsarjan’s Legal Intervention Program has contributed to the dramatic increase in the conviction rate of perpetrators of atrocities. Some of Navsarjan’s work in the Legal Intervention Program includes: Founding the Center for Dalit Human Rights in Ahmedabad to register human rights violations and fight cases of atrocity against Dalits; filing Public Interest Litigations (PIL) to change government policies; and conducting legal training and education programs for Dalits at the grassroots level.
Untouchability Research and Documentation. In collaboration with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and the University of Maryland, Navsarjan is conducting a massive survey on untouchability practiced against Dalits and within Dalit sub-castes. Navsarjan has also financed the documentary India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart, produced by director Stalin K. of Drishti Media.
Vocational Training. Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) is primarily a vocational training center serving economically and socially marginalized youth, though it also provides personality development, leadership skills, social and political education, and a space for self-reflection and growth. Courses at DSK include tailoring, computers, mobile repairing, police training, and many others. Most of DSK’s students are landless and had dropped out of school to work in the labor sector. DSK mobilizes such youth for economic and social empowerment-helping them leave the cycle of agricultural labor and caste-based occupations-and simultaneously fosters better grassroots leadership.
Community Video Unit. In July 2006, Navsarjan established a Community Video Unit in collaboration with Drishti Media and Video Volunteers. The CVU, composed of video producers trained from the local community, produces monthly news magazines and screening them in village centers. The CVU is a tool for grassroots change, awareness, mobilization, information and advocacy. It promotes participation, dialogue and community responsibility in order to stimulate behavioral change and encourage a community call to action. Video magazines have been produced on the following issues: Below the Poverty Line, Health, Land Rights, Gram Panchayat (Village Council) Elections, and Employment.
A young Dalit man runs off with the daughter of an upper-class family. In retaliation, his family is kidnapped and tortured over a period of a few days. The authorities know that this is happening and do nothing. His mother is raped and then burned alive.
Addressing the issues of Dalits through the human rights perspective is a challenge because the rights of Dalits are not given much importance in a caste based society. Manjula’s greatest challenge, though, has been in proving herself a capable leader in the Dalit movement. “Women are treated unequal amongst the Dalits as well and I realize that core aspect of gender is missing in our movement. Keeping gender in the core of the Dalit movement is a challenge. Addressing the issues of the Dalit women with the lenses of caste and gender is a challenge where caste overtakes gender and becomes more visible.”
Manjula states that her greatest reward comes from seeing the multitude of strong and effective Dalit women leaders at the grass roots who have been trained and guided by her. “I feel rewarded when we achieve positive results in the cases of violence against women and girls.”
To learn more about Navsarjan and the Dalit movement, visit the Navsarjan website at http://www.navsarjan.org.
Navsarjan invites support from like-minded professionals, individuals and organizations across globe to assist the organization’s mission to end all forms of caste and gender based discrimination. They have set up three formal primary (residential) schools in the districts of Gujarat and would like to set up many more. They are also raising funds to support Dalit Shakti Kendra (see Vocational Training above) to become self sustainable. Any one wishing to financially support their programs can send a donation through PayPal; the information is available on the Navsarjan website at www.navsarjan.org.