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Caste System Stronger Than Constitution
[Interview] India dalit leader Martin Macwan on eradicating discrimination
Rupesh Silwal (rooproop)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-11 15:21 (KST)   
Martin Macwan is an influential advocate against the practice of caste based "untouchability" in India. He was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the American Gleitsman Foundation Award. Macwan won US$90,000 for these two awards. He contributed the total sum to primary education in Gujarat, India.

Martin Macwan
©2006 R.Silwal
He is the founder of the Gujarat-based Navsarjan Trust, which means "new creation." The trust is working against the elimination of caste based discrimination in three thousand villages throughout India. Macwan is among the most respected dalit leaders in India. He has had agonizing experiences on his way towards dalit activism.

Macwan recently visited Nepal to share his experiences with Nepal's dalit activists. He spoke with reporter Rupesh Silwal on caste based discrimination in South Asia.

Will you please share you experience as a dalit activist?

I started at the age of 20 in 1980, the day after completing my graduation from St. Xaviers' College Ahemdabad, India.

During your teens, what influenced you to start up with activism?

I am from not only a dalit family, but also from a very poor family, too. My family had a hand to mouth existence. My mother was a tobacco worker; my grandmother was an agricultural worker. I also started to work on the farm with other people at the age of 12. Whenever I got time off from school, I went to work with my mother in a tobacco factory. Those things were very much in my unconscious mind every time.

I think we had some teacher and they helped me to think again and again, more from a philosophical and spiritual angle. When I started up with college life, I kept in touch with my own professors who were actually working in the village for dalit adornment. Before finishing up my graduation, I had made up my mind that it was the only thing I was going to do. Nothing else!

You are yourself from a dalit family. How do you find the social and economic status of Indian dalits?

Well, it differs from state to state. India is such a large country. 160 million people are dalits spread over the entire nation. They speak 19 different languages and are divided into 751 sub-castes. Some are organized and some are unorganized. If you look at women who are from the Mushahar community in Bihar, the literacy rate is 0.46 percent.

Some dalits did well, too. They are in politics, some are members in parliament, IS officers and even a president of India (a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K.R._Narayanan">K.R. Narayanan was a dalit president of Indian).

It is between these two extremes you find the community trying to struggle, but 70 percent of the community survives on landless agricultural labor. People who have jobs and some steady income make up around 12 percent, people who hold land and who regard agriculture as a principle source of income make up another 10 to 12 percent.

Another 2 percent are manual cleanser scavengers (traditionally responsible for digging village graves, disposing of dead animals, and cleaning human waste). In the monsoon when everything is raining you can see tripe in their faces and bodies. You see, even today, India is more ruled by a caste system than a constitution. That's what I would say.

©2006 R.Silwal
How would you define this?

In 1950, when Ambedkar drafted and presented the constitution of India, he said "from tomorrow we are entering into an age of contradictions where in the law it is written everyone is equal, but in society there is nothing but inequality. Unless and until the consents of society changes, the equality guaranteed here in paper has no meaning."

So today when you see in my own state of Gurjarat -- where Gandhi was born -- the situation is same as Ambedkar said. Everyone knows Gandhi was the first person on the political scene who worked on untouchability issues

With Harijan and so...!

Yes. Annually there are 5,000 cases of violence involving dalits, even in my own state of Gujarat where people are murdered, raped, their land has been taken away. In Gujarat, there is lots of foreign investment and it is considered a wealthy state, but for an agricultural worker the official wage is Rs. 54 ($1.20) for eight hours, but people are paid Rs. 25 ($0.60).

That is the kind of economy that prevails. Apart from this, if you go to any temple, there is no temple entry for dalits and also separate drinking water for them. Whenever you try to change the system, there is violence. So that is the scenario.

When such violence happens, how does the administration support?

We have a well developed legal system. But the police first see if the people who have been victims are supported by a bigger group or not. So if you have strong social force supporting you, then police will take necessary action. If they think you are alone, then the police will slow down. That is the history of humankind wherever you go.

But we have learnt if we are realistic, the system works. So if you look at the rate of conviction in criminal offences in India, it is just 4 percent. In the case of the Nawasarjan organization, which I founded, it comes like 25 to 30 percent. We follow cases right from their inception to the last stage.

What is Navsarjan all about?

This is one of the largest organizations, not only in Gujarat, but working in more than 3,000 villages, which makes it the largest in India. Its primary focus is to address the issues of untouchability and caste discrimination in all its manifestations. I founded it in 1989 after I went through a very painful experience.

Could you elaborate?

In 1986, four of my colleagues were shot dead in Gujarat.


Because they were trying to fight for untouchability. That time villagers, whom we call Khetriyas (so-called brave upper casters), would enter into any houses of any family and do anything they wanted with women and nobody could say anything. My friends started by questioning all these things. The government would say pay Rs. 11 ($0.12), but they would be paid even less. You had the land, but you could not access the land. There were numbers of issues and organizations that started to be addressed.

It started with a rights based approach. With this system, non dalits started to get threatened. They said if this continues, upper castes will loose all social and political powers. They thought it best to kill the leaders, so that there would be no movement.

In 1986, they were shot dead. I was not in the village and I had just gone out. That was a tragic moment, which changed my personal life. I had read a lot about caste discrimination, I have gone through it, but I had never understood what happens actually when you try to address the caste issues.

You mean the reality on the ground?

Yes, on the ground. After that, I set up Navsarjan. Previously, I was working in 15 different villages. After 1989, this organization started to work and now it is working in three thousand villages throughout India and addresses more than a million people directly.

But if you go to every village in Gujarat you will find our active participation. There are 18 thousand villages in Gujarat where people know Navsarjan, me and the work. Not only in Gujarat, but all over the country we have worked unselfishly. Every opportunity we get, we try to say -- "Look, this is not only a question for the people who have been discriminated against on the basis of caste, but this is a national issue." If India could be colonized for 350 years, it was because of the caste system. Today, if it cannot compete in the globalized market, it is again the caste system.

There is a slogan "Ramapatra Chodo Vimpatra Apanao." What is it?

This is a foot journey that I did in 2002, which lasted for 100 days and involved 5,000 kilometers and 475 villages. In 1980, when I went to the villages, I saw that every household had a cup besides the door kept in a hole.

With so-called upper caste households?

Yes, upper caste households and also with dalits. I asked what the cup was for. Then they said it was for tea. Whenever people who were considered lower caste enter into the house of a higher caste, they politely say "Would you like to have a cup of tea?" When so-called lower caste people say "yes" they are then asked to get their rampatra kept beside the door in a hole.

This really surprised me. According to Hindu philosophy, Rama is a Lord. Here Ram's vessel is symbolized or justified to practice untouchability. It was in my mind for 20 years and suddenly I said one of the reasons we cannot fight the caste system is because we have all cooperated with it. The ramapatra was not only among the so-called upper caste people, but also among dalits because there is also untouchability.

Somebody is higher and somebody is lower in society. Unless equality becomes a value in your life, you cannot fight it. I went from village to village and said -- "Abandon ramapatra means they have to make a pledge that until I die, I shall not drink with a ramapatra, nor shall I offer tea to anybody with a ramapatra.

That equality has to become a core value in one's life and I have to fight inequality. That was a very powerful moment because there were more than 200,000 people that participated full-time. For the first time in history, all the sub-castes of the dalits had tea and water in the same cup. Not only that, but there were some so-called non dalits who also came and said what you are doing makes tremendous sense to us because I said the caste system is a conspiracy to divide poor people.

So we have to follow that from our own personal life first. We link that not only with castes, but also with gender. One of the programs we gave in this Ramapatra Chhodo is everybody has to wash their own dish after dinner. It was a small program, but that was like a revolution because it was the first time men had washed dishes on their own.

After Navsarjan may we know more about Shaki Kendra, what is that all about?

One of the issues that we are trying to fight is against the practicing of manual scavengers. There are over 54,000 people who are engaged in the manual handling of human waste in Gujarat and over a million people in the country.

So we wanted to fight that and say this is the biggest crime against humanity and we forced the government to allocate money in the state budget for reform. The question is what do people do? People said that this is the only job I am competent at. So we started an economic alternative. We started a sort of vocational training institute that is running 15 courses. Annually, 600 to 700 youths come there. We not only give them economic empowerment training where they can establish themselves for their self employment, but we also work on values.

What is the success ratio?

There was an independent study done by a student from a university in Switzerland who said that 45 percent of the people were employed immediately after they completed a three month course. 15 percent have dropped the study and the rest are in line for finding something.

This is a huge impact compared to lots of dalit youths who had become the target of fundamentalist political activists. If you look to Indian politics, it is the communal divide and dalit youths have been enrolled to fight against Muslims. This program brings out youths with dysfunctional social behavior and gives them a proper prospective.

Maybe this is the reason why you were awarded with the Kennedy Award worth $30,000.


And also you have been awarded the American Gleitsman Foundation Award worth $50,000. We heard that you contributed all this to the dalit movement.

Basically, whatever I am today is because of the dalit community. I knew nothing. Whatever I learnt, I never learnt from university books. They are my village people who taught me the basic values of the society at the age of 20. I thought whatever money I earn is directly their money. I have no right to it. I thought of starting something with the primary education of dalit children, so when they are adults, they will be out of the caste system. They can fight, or critically think at this stage. That was the motivation and we started three primary schools and a library program in one thousand villages.

Why did you opt for primary education?

Education is the biggest instrument for awareness, but it is perpetuating the caste discrimination at present. Look at the curriculum we have in the school. I have been reading children's story books for four months. I read over a thousand books and most of the books say caste and gender discrimination must continue either in the name of values, tradition, religion or culture. This is the reason why caste based discrimination has not been eliminated for 3,000 years -- it has become a way of life. What we have done is changed the way to teach.

Could you define your teaching practices?

For example, if there is a story in a textbook talking about how Yamaraja, the death god, has come to take you on the bullock, then will children say it is possible for a bullock to travel from here to space without petrol or without diesel? Krishna fought with a very big cobra. Is it possible for a human being to fight with a cobra? What we teach to children is to demystify and think scientifically, rationally and logically.

Do you call it something like value education?

It is called value education because it is touching the values by which you are preparing to live in the future, or even during the present day.

When do you think untouchability will get eliminated from South Asia?

We are born free. The discrimination starts from the day I get my senses because with socialization I was told that I am a man or women or a dalit. Hence, discrimination comes from the day socialization begins. Freedom from discrimination comes the moment I decide to stop cooperating with the caste system. Then untouchability goes away.

It is a mental frame, not a biological or physical frame. It is in my mind. Brahmin (so-called upper cast) lives in my mind and Khsetris (another so-called upper caste) live in my mind and the caste system is in my mind. Like Buddha said "All the problems in the world are inside me and the solution is also inside me."

Do you think governments in South Asian regions are aware about eliminating untouchability?

It is not in the interest of governments to eradicate this because politics in the region are based on the caste system. They would try to find ways which can pass through legal barriers to see whether this can be perpetuated.

Do we have some hope?

The only hope I have is a social hesitation that Gandhi or Ambedkar mentioned -- "Change the social conscious of society." It is a social hesitation, which is not within the political framework. People say this is the way I want to live. This is the way I want my country to live. That has more power.

You look at every movement of the world -- whether the movement of Martin Luther King Jr. against racial discrimination, Nelson Mandela's movement or the Buraku movement in Japan. It is basically the result of social hesitation.

This is what we are telling people. It is not the political system which I have to be a slave of. It is I, as a citizen, who has to change the political and social systems. Social hesitation has tremendous power, which can change the social hierarchy and values.

What are the commonalities of caste based discrimination in Nepal and India?

The manifestations of untouchability are the same. The difference is in India the system is 3,000 years old, while in Nepal it is more recent. I believe it can be thrown away faster in Nepal than in India.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Rupesh Silwal

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