Dalits Walk Tall

A decade long movement leads to Dalit empowerment in Varanasi. Two authors, Dr. Archana Kaushik, a social work educator, teaching Social Work at the University of Delhi and Shruti Nagvanshi, a field practitioner and co-founder of PVCHR, work together to document the strife and struggle of Dalits and their empowerment. This is just a beginning, says, Shruti, one of the authors, in this discourse.

The book, Margins to Centre Stage: Empowering Dalits in India by Prof Archana Kaushik and Shruti Nagvanshi, is published by Frontpage Publication, London, UK. It was inaugurated by the guests at South Asian Conference on Ending Torture: Collective, at Mahatama Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi, recently.

The former HoD, dean and director at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeet University, Prof. Ahmad Saghir Inam Shastri, writes in his forward, “Both Professor Archana Kaushik and eminent social work educator Shruti Nagvanshi provide security and support to the Dalits and needy persons of the weaker section of the society, felt the need for documenting the process of empowerment of the marginalised and oppressed communities in the grassroots of India. As a result, the book entitled, Margins to Centre stage: Empowering Dalits in India is now at the desk of readers who dream of a torture and exploitation free society.”

In India, life of millions of Dalits is characterised by long, consistent struggle form the cradle to the grave. Their life is defined by caste-discrimination, exploitation, abuse and denial of basic right to life with resources for survival- food, shelter, clothing, livelihood and education. Sufferings and pains, associated with vicious cycle of poverty, continue for generations together.

Expowering Dalits in India chronicles the process of empowerment of many powerless and marginalised Dalits, located in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. It portrays the triumph of hope, courage and social action over despair, poverty oppression and vulnerability. It narrates the struggle of Dalits, who paved their way to a life of dignity, rightful share in the resources and decision making. The critique records how the innocent victim of custodial-torture become active human rights defenders of freedom of bonded-labourers is snatched from the confinement of feudal and capitalist oppressors, and the change of weavers nightmares transformed into dreams, optimism and motivation.

Injustice and exploitation have been a part of the social life of humans, since the time immemorial. Equally old are the efforts for ensuring justice, equality and fair-play. Human civilisations have come a long way in struggling for emancipation from all forms of exploitation, abuse, oppression, exclusion and marginalisation of individuals, groups and communities. In the evolution of human civilisations, with time, social factors such as gender, caste, class, race, started breading inequality, oppression and exploitation; with select few controlling resources and grabbing decision-making power. This restricted and blocked the opportunities of growth and development for all the members of the society equally. Gradually certain social groups, characterised by their caste, class, gender, race affiliations, became more and more powerless, disadvantaged and marginalised.

Historically and temporally, there have been socially enlightened people in every society, who have raised their voice against the instances of exploitation of humans by humans. Such efforts to ameliorate the plight and sufferings of fellow beings have been umbrella termed as ‘social work’. From charity, giving doles, voluntary work, to a profession – social work has travelled a long way.

Social Work

Social work, as an academic discipline and a human service profession has emerged, though recently, to scientifically study human problems and sufferings. It has evolved modalities and strategies to intervene effectively. The scope of social work is vast, almost encompassing all the manifestations of human sufferings and pains. Likewise, much varied are the approaches, methods and strategies for interventions.

Social work is helping people to help themselves towards enhancing their social functioning. Social workers aim to help distressed people overcome their problems and resolve conflicts. Whatever method is opted in a social situation, social workers seek to reduce and remove the barriers and divisions between people, promote the bonds that cement healthy and amicable social relationships and ensure well-being. Social workers work with individuals, groups, communities and institutions, are engaged in counselling. They facilitate problem solving, create awareness, network for resources and information, and at times, fight for the justice of oppressed and downtrodden. This approach to raise voice on behalf of the marginalised and/or mobilise the aggrieved community to fight for their rightful share is called ‘social action’. It is used in situations, when skewed power equations and resource accumulation in the hands of few, create hurdles in the way of ensuring well-being of the disadvantaged clients. And no option is left for social workers but to come in conflict with the current configuration of inequality and dis-welfare. Through social action, social workers address the basic issues causing inequalities and injustice within the social system and structure that push a particular population group on marginalisation.

Social action is one of the most controversial methods of social work practice that has brought about a lot of debate among the social work practitioners. It addresses and uses the conflict, present in the social system to realise the goal of social justice and empowerment. Social workers advocate for the rights of the marginalised sections of the society. They may have to employ strategies like hunger strike, sit-ins, protests and such other ways to demonstrate their discontent. It is the usage of such strategies that has made social action a debatable issue and a controversial method of social work.

There are situations that precipitate inequality and injustice, adding to vulnerabilities and  impoverishments. The hardships and miseries of certain sections of the society, which, even after much of efforts, are not resolved amicably, call for social action. It is a method of social work by which rights and interests of the marginalised people are protected by coming in conflict with systems and structures that perpetuate accumulation of resources and power in the hands of a few. Through social action, skewed resources and power are redistributed to uplift the disadvantaged groups in the society. Added to this, scope of social action is also to build a democratic and just, transparent and harmonious social structure. Efforts are directed towards achieving these objectives.

Thus, social action has been one of the most contentious methods of social work practice. Social worker has been idealised to be a calm, composed, patient, compassionate service provider but when it comes to social action he/she needs to come in conflict with the authority figure. In the postmodern era, social action is a method or modality of social work. It has become an approach to fight for the rights and justice of the marginalised and the deprived individuals, groups and communities.

Gandhi’s Social Justice

In the most simplified way, social action is confronting the decision-makers in a concerted manner to bring about social justice. It ensures rights of the deprived people. Any discussion on social action is far from completion, without awing to the contribution of one of the last century’s greatest revolutionaries – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – we lovingly call him Bapuji, the Father of our Nation.

Gandhiji has changed the rules of the game, as his weapons of Satyagrah and non-violence proved more powerful than guns. His work and his spirit awakened a moral beacon for all times. His simplicity and humility, his frail looking body yet enormous courage that could move mountains, his principles and philosophy of life swayed millions with his hypnotic spell.

Gandhi and Ambedkar

There have been many movements, efforts and initiatives that proclaimed their base to Gandhian philosophy. Yet, some succeed and many failed. Perhaps, truly understanding Gandhiji and Gandhian values and philosophy and pretending to value it makes the entire difference. However, unflinching compassion along with ever mounting commitment to fight for the justice and rights of unprivileged and marginalised groups, a lot of perseverance and tolerance, consistency and concerted efforts are required for success in mobilisation and social action. In the words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, “for a successful revolution, it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction for the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights”. Both the legends, Mahatma Gandhi and Baba Saheb Ambedkar have, adhering to their own philosophies, principles and approaches have, untiringly, worked for the marginalised communities at the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy – the untouchables/Harijans/Dalits. Both of them have envisioned an Indian society resting on the pillars of equality, social justice, care and compassion for the fellow-beings.

The present work is a humble attempt to document the process of intervention that led to empowerment of the Dalits in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. Under the aegis of PVCHR, a civil society initiative, a few committed and motivated workers mobilised the downtrodden and oppressed Dalits. It gradually ‘empowered’ them to take charge of their lives. It is the process towards developing model villages, while addressing the social inequalities that had shackled the lives of most underprivileged and marginalised people in the community.

Empowering people, who have been socialised and conditioned for ages to be resource-less, powerless and voiceless victims to the dominant upper caste; who have accepted that poverty, chronic malnutrition, abuse, exploitation and injustice are their fate; who struggle, almost unendingly, throughout their life to somehow gather two square meals to keep their body and soul together, is indeed, an arduous task. It required more than a decade’s unflinching hard work, consistency and commitment to see some positive changes in the lives of Dalits in the area of intervention. The present work has tried to sketch that process of social action, which challenged the elitism, thereby changing the social order to be more egalitarian. This work records the changing identity among Dalits through the process of empowerment in the Varanasi district.

The Authors

Meet the authors of the book. Dr. Archana Kaushik, is a social work educator, teaching at department of Social Work, University of Delhi. Shruti Nagvanshi has been a field practitioner, the managing trustee and co-founder of PVCHR.

I, Shruti, have been a part of the team that led the intervention that is being talked about in the book. I have witnessed the entire journey of empowerment of Dalits – the oppressed and downtrodden. The experiential reality shared by me is amalgamated with conceptual and theoretical perspectives and presented in this book by Archana, using her knowledge as social work educator.

The literature, in general, and social work literature, in particular, is full of manuals and books on community organisation and empowerment, Dalit empowerment and related topics. However, there has always been dearth of materials emerging out of field practice that facilitate testing, verifying, accepting or rejecting theories in the light of experiences from the field. In this manner, this is a unique and enriching joint venture of an academician and practitioner in social work discipline. Human service professions, such as social work, can grow only if academics and field practice are strongly interconnected, complement, contribute and give insight and foresight to each other to rectify, improve and make itself suitable to meet the demands of fast changing socio-cultural milieu. While, the divorce or disconnect between the two would engulf both theory and practice, making them redundant and eventually extinct. It is in this backdrop that the present work bears its significance. It depicts the interventions and strategies that have worked well in the field and hence have critical importance for academia.

Community Empowerment

The book highlights the process of community empowerment. To most of us, community implies people living in the particular geographical area sharing ‘same levels’ of life situations, pains and vulnerabilities, aspirations and capabilities, and more so, have a common ‘identity’. The notion of such a community having many commonalities in terms of identity, perspectives, attitudes, capabilities, etc., poses few challenges in organizing and empowerment. However, more often than not, such homogeneous communities exist only theoretically and not in reality.

Divisions and sub-divisions, based on religion, race, caste, ethnicity, gender, etc., are the makers of ‘real’ communities, which are heterogeneous in multiple ways with inhabitants carrying different ‘identities’. So, there can be many ‘communities of identities’ within a geographical community, say a village. Similar situation one encounters at the site of intervention – Varanasi.

A typical village has many social groups primarily based on castes, sub-castes and, at times, religion. Though elaborated upon later in the chapters, the Hindu society is divided into four layers of caste system, which determines social interactions. The people belonging to the lowest caste have traditionally been considered as ‘untouchables’. Though in common parlance, all the marginalised groups have been included in the umbrella term ‘Dalits’ – there exists a high variability within this group.

Nat, Musahars, Rajbhars, Bunkars, Chamar, Dharkar, Mahar, Patel, Nishad and Muslims – all these social groups have been included in the term ‘Dalit’ and they form the main target groups. The interventions have been carried out for them. Despite sharing many common aspects in their life situations and vulnerabilities, they exhibited rigid differences in their identities and, consequently, were failing in collaborating and uniting against the unjust practices and behaviours of perpetrators. Even the marginalised and disadvantaged community have several ‘communities of identities’, thereby making the process of empowerment tougher.

Dignity and Equality

The philosophical position taken by the change agents is for ensuring human rights, social justice and equality. Human rights give us dignity and equality and are necessary for us to live as humans. It strongly advocates for realising a culture based on democratic values, where all human beings, irrespective of their religious affiliation, caste, gender, ethnicity, are guaranteed access to basic and developmental needs. From this perspective, instances of poverty, malnutrition, hunger deaths, illegal detention and torture by police, slavery and bondage, lack of opportunities for decent livelihood, denial of education to children, stigma and discrimination based on religion and caste, all are examples of gross violations of human rights, against which voice was raised. We also believe that though ensuring human rights of fellow being is the duty of all the citizens, the role of State is most crucial. And, especially the Indian government is bound by its constitutional commitments to guarantee rights to all its citizens.

The agents of social change adhered to certain value system and principle base. The first principle is unshakable commitment to social justice and human rights. They strive to challenge inequality and oppression in relation to race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, class, disability or any other form of social differentiation. They always take sides of the victims and vulnerable and automatically position themselves against the perpetrators. It is important to note here that Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi, one of the torch bearers and leaders of the entire movement of Dalit empowerment and emancipation has fought against the inhuman implications of caste system against his own kith and kin and has borne much sufferings and pains at the personal and familial levels but never compromised on his commitment to work for equality, social justice and human rights.

The notion of human rights rests on the belief that all humans have inherent worth, dignity and capability to bring positive change in their situations. Social workers understand that people are experts in their own lives and facilitate them to use the insight and knowledge they have for the desired social change. This means that social workers always respect the decisions of clients for action or in-action and type of interventions to deal with challenges at hand. In the same wavelength, social workers are not leaders, but facilitators. They enable people to take decisions and ownership for their actions.

Another assumption in this regard is that all people have rights, including the right to be heard, the right to define the issues facing them and the right to take action on their own behalf through constitutional and non-violent means. People also have the right to define themselves and not have negative labels imposed upon them. And our experience of working with marginalised and Dalits has validated that with conscientisation. They break the shackles of internalised inferiority and worthlessness. Even the most powerless and poorest bear the right to be involved in the changes that affect them and to have a voice and stake in the society they live in. As a principle base, social workers encourage the disadvantaged people to exercise their right to ‘name their world’ and to define themselves and the world around them.

Further, the oppressors know that oppression and exploitation are maintained through isolation and division and that is why they almost always ensure that there is no unity among marginalised people. The role of social workers is to show the oppressed, marginalised groups that unity is power. Despite heterogeneity, finding common cause may give individuals the will and power to fight unjust social practices collectively they might have dared on their own. Community is organised to bring people together so that they can share their experiences and pool their resources and skills to fight injustice.

Janmitra Gaon

Let us now pay attention to the beginning of the movement of Dalit empowerment. Several years of work of
fighting for the justice and freedom of bonded labour and child labour, it is
realised that for reinstituting the civil rights of the most downtrodden section of society (Dalits, backward class and tribals), in rural as well as urban locale, a movement is needed to ensure equal opportunities. For this, attack is necessary on the feudal, Brahminical and patriarchal social structure. In India, caste system is not only a structure of cultural values but also it is an indicator of caste based hierarchical system reflected in ruling power equation and unequal distribution of resources and property. Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar had said, “You move in any direction, the monster of caste system would be there to hinder your way. Without killing this monster, neither political nor economic upliftment is possible”. That is why PVCHR tried to integrate Gandhian ideology on rural India with Ambedkarian critical perspective, which is manifested in its concept of Janmitra Gaon (people-friendly village). It aims to establish the identity of Dalits and marginalised in the social, economic and political domains. Thus, we are organizing and mobilising disadvantaged people to create a Janmitra society, where people stand for their own civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. The spirit of our initiatives is to facilitate the marginalised community to take initiative to organise itself to address the challenges and problems. It means that there should be shared understanding, shared decision-making, shared leadership and shared initiative from the community side. It adheres to participatory and democratic approach in the process of making of Janmitra village.

In order to provide basic rights to all and to eliminate situations, which give rise to exploitation of vulnerable and marginalised groups, we worked at different levels, say, individual, familial and community levels. The range of interventions covered support to victims of torture through testimonial therapy, organizing weavers and advocating against insensitive policies, working for curbing starvation deaths, organising Dalits to fight for their voting rights, preparing children to become active and conscious citizens through Bal-Panchayats (children groups) and Bal Sansad (children’s parliaments), freedom and rehabilitation of bonded labourers, etc. We supported individual cases of violation of human rights and aided in filing complaints against the perpetrator or fighting with the unresponsive administration. For organising the community against inequality and injustice in access to services and opportunities for progress and development, we held community meetings where matters of collective concern were discussed, socio-political situation analysed, reasons for marginalisation were explored and strategies for advocating for the cause were decided. Community dwellers then collectively took action and in that process gained self-confidence, trust on fellow-beings and learnt the significance of people’s participation.

As mentioned earlier, we worked through a trust, an initiative, a movement and a civil society initiative – PVCHR, which was established, in 1996, with the aim of creating equality based, secular and democratic India. Its motto is to fight against the caste based feudal system, patriarchal social structure, consumerism where injustice, discrimination and torture deprives people of their basic human rights and dignity.

Outline of the Book

A brief outline of the book is delineated here. It is important to note here that the names mentioned in the book, in various case studies, excerpts of interviews and interactions with Dalit and marginalised people have been camouflaged to protect their identities.

What it means to be born as Dalit in rural India? How taking birth in a particular family has almost complete bearing on access to resources and power? How rural people respond to authority, whether administrative, legal or charismatic? How caste system perpetuates domination and subjugation in myriad of ways? What is the psyche of the Dalit and how caste-based interiority is internalised? What is the relationship dynamics between Dalits – the oppressed and marginalised and upper caste – the oppressors? And how this relationship is defining and confining access to resources, decision-making power and opportunities to development and empowerment? The chapter one titled, ‘the context’ tries to answer these questions and pictures the backdrop of rural socio-cultural milieu where intervention efforts for empowerment of Dalits have been made.

Chapter two, ‘From praxis to practice’ lays out the theoretical framework that has guided our action. It conceptualises the term empowerment, its salient features and components. It provides sociological and psychological perspectives to the process of empowerment from powerlessness and vulnerability. It presents the modalities and models we followed in making the marginalised groups and communities aware, conscientised and ready to act for their rightful dues.

India enjoys its status of being the largest democracy as every Indian citizen, 18 years and above, has the right to vote to elect their representatives. However, in Belwa village, certain Dalit communities could never participate in the political process of electing their leaders, thereby denied their basic constitutional right to vote. For years together, the upper caste leaders forged their votes and continued their unquestioned authority and control in grassroots governance. It was not the question of only voting rights, rather, was invariably linked to their accessibility to basic amenities like food security, right to livelihood, education for their children, right to health, and many more. Denial of voting right was the root to denial of all other rights. A few years back nobody could ever imagine that the Dalits of Belwa, who have been oppressed and suppressed, marginalised and excluded, could even voice their concerns. The social action carried out in the village ensured mobilisation of Dalit community and their first victory as they marked their impressions on the ballot papers. It is the process of Dalit-empowerment from being led passively to becoming change makers. They not only acquired their right to vote but also nominated their own candidate in elections, who became the new village head. This process is highlighted in chapter three – From being led to lead.

Chapter four, ‘From hunger deaths to healthy living’ describes another process of social action in Belwa village of Badagaon block in Pindra Tehsil (sub-division), where there were many reported and unreported cases of starvation deaths of Dalit children and the government machinery was totally indifferent and apathetic. Caste system contoured the health service delivery, as the health workers belonging to upper caste would not ‘perform their duties’ for lower caste clients. It highlights how consistent and long struggle changed the system and now Belwa is a model village in terms of ensuring Right to Health to all including Dalits. Children of Dalits like Musahars were saved from hunger deaths and anganwadis were opened in Dalit ghettos. Healthcare system became more responsive. Similar interventions were carried out in many other villages and many lives could be saved with timely intervention.

One of the worst forms of human exploitation and discrimination is seen in cases of police torture as they arbitrarily catch hold of Dalits, primarily, poor Musahars and Muslims, and mercilessly and brutally torture the victims to confess the crime, about which they do know anything. Custodial torture often results in permanent disability or even death. Victims have spent decades of their productive life in prisons for no fault of their own. Chapter five ‘Surviving torture and defending human rights’, projects instances and implications of such cases of custodial torture on innocent Dalits. It documents their fight against victimisation. The role of testimonial therapy and the process of uniting village fellow-men to collectively fight against perpetrators of torture have been demonstrated in this chapter.

Chapter six, ‘Weaving hope with yarns of hardship’, captures the plight and struggle of Banarasi sari weavers, their poverty, pain and grief. The life of weavers is mainly defined by abject poverty, chronic malnutrition, varied health hazards and even hunger deaths and suicides. Input cost of sari weaving is insupportable for majority of weavers while middlemen take away profit. Globalisation has severely affected economically vulnerable small weavers pushing them below poverty line. The State machinery is apathetic and whatever schemes and programmes exist, fail to do any good to weavers who are battling hard to keep this one of the finest legacies of Indian culture alive. Situation of women and children is worse. The chapter presents the process of winning over the hardship and weaving hope by the weaving community.

Though labour bondage is centuries-old practice, in its newer forms, it still governs the lives of about 10 per cent of India’s workforce. Caste system and poverty perpetuate bonded labour system. Even the strong IMG_5087legislation against labour bondage has largely proved to be mere paper tiger. Mostly observed in agriculture and brick kiln industry, bonded labour system has engulfed several generations from old to children. Ample instances of abuse and exploitation, physical, sexual, financial, inaccessibility to basic civic amenities, sense of utter helplessness, that characterize bonded labourers, not only shiver any sensitive human being but also puts shameful blot to India’s pride and prestige. Chapter seven, ‘From bondage to liberation’ is the demonstration of the movement that freed many bonded labourers who had been surviving in inhuman conditions as they are able to break the shackles of oppressive feudal and capitalist system.

Chapter eight, ‘Nurturing little change agents and leaders’, reflects the immortal courage of Dalit children, who fought their battle against caste and gender based discrimination. While the monsters of illiteracy, ignorance, hopelessness and apathetic attitudes towards change, had captivated their adult guardians, these young change agents became the role models teaching us how to chase the dream of creating an egalitarian society. The children raised social conscience against issues of child labour, education of girl children, and ensuring child rights including right to education and right to participation through their Bal Panchayats.

The last chapter, ‘Seeing the change and being the change’, gives an overview of the approaches and strategies that worked well in ensuring empowerment of Dalits in our area of intervention. It also appraises the challenges encountered and the lessons learnt in this process of empowerment and chalks out the road map for further interventions. It opens up the issue of Neo-Dalit Movement that attacks caste system in a dynamic way. This chapter aims to give hindsight and foresight to social work practitioners and change agents in the direction of empowerment of the powerless individuals, groups, and communities.

Hopefully, the readers, as they go through the book, are not only intellectually, but also emotionally, able to connect with the sufferings of the Dalits, get charged up with their struggle as they rise from ashes and cheer as they win against all odds. ‘We’, humbly and earnestly, welcome you to be the part of this journey of unwavering human spirit towards emancipation. 

Pix by Rohit Kumar

Shruti Nagvanshi

Shruti Nagvanshi

Shruti is a social activist and co-founder of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Right (PVCHR), India. A strong activist in favour of justice for the downtrodden, aptly describes Shruti's persona. She has won many national and international awards for her work in promoting social justice and defending rights of the marginalised, vulnerable Dalit women and children, mainly in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, India.
Shruti Nagvanshi