Q&A: ‘Government talks about development, but people’s views on caste have not changed’

Dipti Nagpaul
Martin Macwan.

Dalit human rights activist, Martin Macwan recently released his book Bhed-Bharat: An Account of Injustice and Atrocities on Dalits and Apasis (2014-2018) . In his book, the Gujarat-based activist and founder of Navsarjan Trust documents, through news articles, the atrocities on Dalits and Apasis in the last five years.

In the preface, he mentions that the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2014 and 2016, recorded a total of 1,19,872 incidents of atrocities on Dalits and 19,671 incidents of atrocities on Apasis. The official figures of 2017-18 remain unavailable.

In an interview with The Indian Express, Macwan talks about why it is important to map the rising atrocities.

Why did you feel the need to publish this book, mapping atrocities on Dalits and Apasis between 2014-2018?

My first book on the same subject mapped atrocities on Dalits between 1989-1993. Prompted by the introduction of the Prevention of Atrocties Act,1989, it, however, looked only at incidents in Gujarat. There was a need for a similar book, mapping such cases across India. When I realised that the number of atrocities under the current government had only risen, I decided to bring out the book. It was important because this is the first time any political party won maximum reserved seats for Dalits and tribals. Yet the atrocities only went up. The government talks about development and modernisation but people s views on subjects, such as caste, have not changed.

Grooms from SC/ST community continue to be killed for riding on a horse (during weddings). There is no documentation providing a holistic picture regarding caste discrimination practices across the country. People think that states, such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and UP, face the issue, but they are not aware that the problem is as prevalent in, say, Jammu & Kashmir, where the majority population is Muslim.

I added the aspect of the Apasis because a lot is written about atrocities against Dalits, but nowhere are the issues faced by Apasis brought up, although the Atrocities Act is valid for both the SCs and STs.

Why have such incidents increased?

A lot of it has to do with non-implementation of policies. The Patels in Gujarat were considered Shudras about 150 years ago. After Independence, in what was Saurashtra, then CM UN Dhebar enacted the Saurashtra Land Reforms Act, 1952, transferring close to 3.75 million acres of land to the Patels.

A similar chunk was to be distributed among Dalits and tribals in Gujarat region, but even today, only one-third of that scheme has been executed. Instead, the Patels are now looking at reservation. Similarly, target funding under schemes for the SC/ST is rarely executed. Money gets perted into projects, such as the Sardar Patel statue or a six-lane highway. All this has only increased under the current government. The book doesn t only talk of violence, but also covers malnutrition and poverty, which are also consequences of caste discrimination.

The book points out how caste-related atrocities take place in every state across India. The perception however, is otherwise. Why?

So far, the key source of information was media, which focuses on states or regions that have seen some kind of a reform movement and hence it is known that such practices exist there. But there is also social media now, which helps to bring out such cases from remote villages.

Recently, I was travelling across Uttarakhand, where I saw caste discrimination practices we hardly see anywhere else. The nature of poverty and oppression remains under wraps because the villages don t have much connectivity. Who will bring these stories out? Social media has helped in focusing on the cruel nature of the atrocities.

In 1986, when four of my colleagues were shot dead, the papers in Gujarat only said that three huts were burnt down. But today, those reporting on the issue via social media are either people who have suffered themselves or who look at the issue differently from their predecessors.

The book also gives a sense of caste practices, such a bonded labour, in different states and regions of the country. Was chronicling this aspect intentional?

That was on my mind, yes. I wanted to provide a comprehensive picture of the issue. Constitution is equal to everyone. If the caste panchayat in West Bengal ordered the rape of a woman, the incident is the consequence of the very caste system even if here the atrocity has been meted out on the woman by people of the same caste. Hence, I look at every single state in India and attempt to highlight caste discrimination, atrocities and oppression of every nature.

Navsarjan Trust was set up in 1989. Caste issues continue to exist, but in a more invisible manner today, especially in urban areas. Has the organisation s role evolved over the years too?

Yes. When I started Navsarjan, I was working alone. I began with trying to get justice for my murdered colleagues. But in the years that followed, I realised we have to train cadres, raise awareness, and send them to villages. We teach them how to use laws in order to curb caste-related practices. We run a vocational training centre at Navsarjan where people with little formal education learn a skill and also become local leaders of their villages.

In 15 years, we have trained at least 10,000 youth. One programme we tell everyone to follow is to visit the local primary school. It s important to make sure that children do not suffer atrocities and discrimination.

You also write children s books. Is that the other side of the same coin?

Yes, because prejudices often seep in through books for children. This is the reason we opened so many libraries across towns and villages. It started several decades ago when I came across literature in villages that focused on caste. So, I purchased and read over 1,000 such books and realised that they were abundant in propagating caste and gender discrimination. Even if text books are covered, there is no control over moral education books. Some years ago, in a book published by one of the organisations started by Mahatma Gandhi, I came across a story where the moral at the end was: No one should observe untouchability in times of natural calamity . Writing children s books is serious business. Therefore, in several ways, and children s books is one, I focus on primary education.

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