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Five pledges for dalit shakti

By Freny Manecksha

Martin Macwan's Dalit Shakti Kendra in Gujarat provides vocational training to dalit youth. More importantly, it gives them a sense of identity

 It began as a small agitation in Ranpur, Dhanduka taluka, Gujarat. Women of a particular dalit sub-caste, who still performed the menial task of manual scavenging despite legislation against it, had asked the panchayat for new brooms but were refused on grounds that there was no budget for it.

This was a seminal moment for Martin Macwan, a dalit activist who had set up the Navsarjan Trust in 1989 against scavenging. "What totally devastated me was that they were not agitating against the practice. They were merely begging the panchayat to give them more brooms to prevent their hands from being soiled with shit. They didn't dream of eliminating scavenging." (Mari Marcel Thekaekara in Endless Filth, Saga of the Bhangees)

 Over the years, Macwan realised the futility of legislation without the political will to back it. No cases can be registered against those who perpetuate manual scavenging until two cases are brought before the district collector who, in turn, must file the case within 90 days.

Thus, the challenge lay in changing the casteist mindset and in looking for alternatives that could address the social and economic insecurities of dalits. It is out of these concerns that the Dalit Shakti Kendra has evolved and grown in the village of Nani Devti, 25 km from Ahmedabad.

The pressing need was to provide some kind of vocational training, especially to children of the scavenging community who had been given funds for education but could not find teachers willing to teach them. Explains Macwan: "Looking at the total dalit picture, the first problem is that of caste-based occupations, especially for the scavenging community. The sheer volume of human waste in India is staggering, considering that 80% of the population has no access to sanitation. Every year, you have more and more trains adding to this human waste. New sectors are also opening up, with more hospitals and testing laboratories where one has to handle samples. In all these, the caste hierarchy is evident with the entry of women scavengers first and then the other dalit sub-castes, Muslims and finally thakurs. Even today, if a new house is to be constructed, any mason will fit the toilet in the house. But in a house where the toilet has been used, only masons from the scavenging communities will do the work. This is the extent of caste dominance and the exclusion of scavengers from other jobs.

"The search for economic alternatives is tough when dalits hardly own land and work largely as agricultural labourers. Self-employment is below 1%. So we began as a vocational training centre for dalits -- young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24," says Macwan.

Although the centre was initially headed by a professional with an M Tech degree, there were problems because there was no understanding of the social context. Macwan took over "because you cannot ask others to work under your dreams and vision."

Macwan's first task was to give the dalit youth a sense of identity and also address gender issues as well as divisions among the dalit sub-castes. He noted how Martin Luther King had subverted the entire concept of racism by accepting the reality of black skin and turning that reality into pride, with the assertion that black was actually beautiful.

Macwan sought a similar assertion of social empowerment for his people. "I remembered that in village homes there is a small hole in the door where one keeps a broken cup or rampatra used to offer tea to untouchables. Even the dalits practised this among the sub-castes. It occurred to me that untouchability exists because we cooperate with it. But could we not build and strengthen 'a non-cooperation' movement against the caste system?"

Slowly the idea took shape. In 2002, he and others undertook a padayatra in which 200,000 people participated in over 475 villages of Gujarat. The message: 'Rampatra chhodo. Bhimpatra apnavo' ('Forsake the rampatra, adopt the bhimpatra'). The participants were urged to take five pledges. The first was that as long as one lived one would not drink from a rampatra. Nor would tea be offered to another in a rampatra. This stressed eliminating caste discrimination.

The second pledge cut at the roots of gender discrimination. It said: 'I shall not treat women as inferior to men. I will wash my own dish every day.' The step was initially met with resistance by the men who felt washing dishes was a woman's job. But when Macwan began washing his own dish the women told their partners to take their cue and do the same. The gesture also helped break taboos, with castes and sub-castes drinking from the same set of cups and eating out of the same dishes.

The third pledge declared 'I believe all humans are equal. I shall protest inequality wherever I see it'. From this simple affirmation a bold and positive identity was born. It became the basis of the definition of dalits at the human rights convention in Panchgani -- dalits are those who practise equality, believe in equality and fight for equality.

The fourth pledge -- 'We are equals'-- sought to teach the children lessons in equality. For Macwan it was a beautiful and moving experience. "I spoke to some 5,000 children and asked them if they went to school. They replied 'Yes'. I asked them if they were higher or lower than the other children. They all replied 'Vijja' (lower). I asked them whether they knew this when they were born and who had taught them that they were lower than others. They replied it was their parents and teachers. This concept came about because of language and social mobilisation. I explained how they had acquired this label -- how we live in an age of contradictions where we are equal by law but society is unequal, and how we must change that."

The last pledge declared 'We shall not practise any faith that teaches us that we are lower than others'. This declaration angered the BJP but, as Macwan points out, caste distinctions prevail even in Christianity.

The pledges were then incorporated into the training centre at Nani Devti, which now functions not just as a vocational centre but demonstrates how all kinds of work are important. In the beginning Macwan himself cleaned the toilets when some students showed resistance to the idea.

The assertion of a dalit identity was thus created -- based not on religion but on a human rights approach, a scientific approach, one that at the same time brought about social empowerment.

One of the more striking features at the centre is a large hall with a painting of the Buddha leading a group of fellow monks -- done by Macwan himself. This is the hall where prayer meetings are conducted. "It is not a religious meeting but a period of silence, of introspection. As the Buddha emphasised, we need to look within. Problems like those of caste may be within you."

The silent session is followed by readings from a random selection -- from historical accounts like Ambedkar's decision to convert, to globalisation, to the recent World Social Forum. It is the children who choose the passage, and Macwan offers his own reflections on it. The session ends with a song that, again, ranges from Rabindrasangeet to film songs.

These meetings served not only to address the spiritual needs that all human beings have, but also served as a force for social reconstruction. Since the students choose the pieces, they are encouraged to read widely, to discuss and to reflect. No subject is off limits. Since it is a mixed group, issues of sexuality are brought up and inhibitions or prejudices tackled.

"Religion is similarly discussed in a scientific way. We see the links between Islam and Christianity, or between politics and religion -- how Hitler exploited Christian sentiment to wreak havoc on the Jews. We discuss the Manu Smriti and today's Constitution. Most of all, we see how it is people who create religion and how anyone can transform religion."

Macwan also uses history as a powerful tool to help people examine and rationalise phenomena. When he asked some dalits and tribals in Ahmedabad why they chose to participate in the riots against the Muslims, they said they did not know. "It is because they have no consciousness of their roots, no sense of history. I pointed out how the same people who are in power today are those who had instigated and participated in the anti-reservation riots against dalits some years ago."

During his padayatra, Macwan repeatedly stressed the strong links between dalits and Muslims throughout history. "When Jyotiba Phule insisted on education for the lower classes, the Brahmin teachers resigned en masse. It was the Muslim teachers from Uttar Pradesh who stepped in. It was the Muslim League that supported Ambedkar on the issue of separate constituents."

He also points out that dalits could attack Muslims in the recent riots in Gujarat only because they lived in close proximity with them. "They (Muslims) were the only ones willing to stay in dalit neighbourhoods."

For Macwan the moral high ground is of utmost importance. His efforts at building up a strong value system led to a heartening experiment in honesty at the centre. "I was trying to explain to the 150 students, the concept behind 'Dalit Shakti Zindabad'. What is this talk of values, I wondered. Can we hold it in our hands? Suddenly I thought of an experiment. We have a small shop where sachets of shampoo, biscuits and so on are sold to the students. I suggested we did not keep anyone to run the store but install a moneybox and label the value of all the goods. The children were sceptical. It would not work. But I told them that when the world spent billions to create values, what was Rs 3,000 worth of goods in the room? The moneybox was put in, and the labels set up.

"The next day I was told goods worth Rs 65 had not been paid for. This went on throughout the week, until goods worth Rs 900 were found missing. Still I said nothing. The tension on the campus was palpable. No one looked at me, they all slunk away."

On the ninth day, the two children responsible for accounting the goods said they would have to shut shop and blamed Macwan for being responsible. Macwan then suggested they all sign papers declaring: "It is not possible to trust one another in the dalit movement." This was met with stony silence.

Another suggestion was that all 150 students pay Rs 6 each to cover the missing amount. There were cries of "Why should we?". So Macwan pressed ahead with the slips of paper, explaining how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa functioned post-apartheid.

One-hundred-and-fifty slips of paper were returned -- each one claiming that nothing had been taken without payment from the shop. At the prayer meeting Macwan announced that as he was morally responsible he would fast for 45 days and the cost of his breakfast for each of the 45 days would thus cover the amount.

There were anguished memorandums by the children, but Macwan stuck to his resolve saying there was no purpose in living if he had been unable to establish a set of values after working for 25 years.

Some former students who had stayed on to work on the campus offered to pay back the amount even though they had not taken the goods. The offer was refused.

After more than nine days, one boy confessed in a note to Macwan that he had taken a small pouch of shampoo worth Rs 5. He returned the sum, and Rs 2 as atonement. Macwan asked him if he wanted the information to be kept confidential but the boy said he had the courage to face the others. "I told him that he may be a thief in the eyes of the world, but to me he was a great person."

The two notes exchanged were framed and turned into an award, which was given to the boy during the prayer meeting. Another young boy confessed to having taken biscuits, but felt he could not face his fellow students knowing about it. During the entire period, Macwan kept up his fast, even during Christmas.

On the 25th day, a delegation of nine girls came to him and declared passionately that Macwan was a kasai (butcher) "How can we eat when we see your face staring at us in our food," they asked.

They then took the initiative to call a meeting with the other students. They were successful in procuring letters of admission for the stolen goods; the money for the goods taken was returned and handed over to Macwan.

The story was printed in the Dalit Shakti journal.

Coincidentally, this was around the time Keshubhai Patel, then Gujarat chief minister, launched a plan to run buses to religious destinations without conductors, only moneyboxes. The scheme was scrapped because passengers failed to put in the requisite money!

The incident drew comparisons between Hindutva values and dalit values. Several Gandhians who read the piece wrote in to say how touched they were and how it had infused new life in them. One of them made a donation to the centre.

Dalit Shakti -- the energy and power arising out of the belief, behaviour and value of equality -- had been clearly demonstrated. It gave new meaning to people to say: "We are dalits. Are you?

(Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2006

Courses at the training centre

 The vocational training division of the Dalit Shakti Kendra has a well-equipped hostel for 240 youth, a well-organised multi-discipline library, and playgrounds with outdoor and indoor sports facilities. Training is provided in 16 trades, and lasts around three months. The only necessary qualification is an ability to read and write. The course lays emphasis on practical and hands-on training. The 16 trades are: auto/motor driving, auto/motor mechanics, tailoring (gents garments), tailoring (ladies garments), machinists, basic computer skills, video and photography, welding, textile designing, police and security services, furniture making, motor rewinding, electrician, mobile repairs, screen printing and beauty treatment.

Class activities include elocution, essay writing, cultural events, sport, cooking, a course in legal rights, short course on sex education, training in understanding society.