Tuesday, April 26, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Fwd: Martin Mac-wan Interview Caste System Stronger Than Constitution


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From: sampangi shanker <sampangishnkr03@gmail.com>
Date: Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 12:47 AM
Subject: {DIET} Martin Mac-wan Interview Caste System Stronger Than Constitution
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Caste System Stronger Than Constitution

[Interview] India dalit leader Martin Macwan on eradicating discrimination
Rupesh Silwal (rooproop)     Email Article   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

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

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

©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. Theramapatra was not only among the so-called
upper caste people, but also among dalits because there is also

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

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

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


Shankar Sampangi

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