‘Dalits May Be Untouchable, But Their Votes Are Clearly Not’: An Eye-Opening Interview

For the last 30 years, human rights activist Martin Macwan has tirelessly fought for the rights of the Dalit community in Gujarat, mobilizing them against caste oppression. In 1989, Macwan formed The Navsarjan Trust after he witnessed the shooting of four of his colleagues at the hands of government authorities while working for a land rights campaign for the Dalit community in Gujarat.

Since its inception, the Trust has been instrumental in highlighting rampant discrimination against Dalits, fighting manual scavenging and untouchability. The trust in fact played a crucial role in galvanising support for Dalit agitation following the Una flogging incident in July last year.

A few months after the incident, the government cancelled the organization’s foreign funding, saying the trust had come into “adverse notice for its undesirable activities” that prejudiced harmony between various communities in the state.

In an honest, freewheeling conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, Martin Macwan spoke about why the current government fears an organized Dalit vote, the simmering dissatisfaction brewing in Gujarat against the government, why he thinks Rohith Vemula will never get justice and on being called an ‘anti-national’.

Shikha Sharma (SS): The Union Home Ministry recently revised your Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) license calling your activities ‘undesirable’. How do you view this order, in light of the growing crackdown on the country’s NGOs by this government?

Martin Macwan (MM): I am actually more disturbed by the charges than the technical aspects of the order. The order says that the Trust is detrimental to national interest and prejudicing harmony between castes. This is being said about an organization that is fighting for the rights of the downtrodden for the past 27 years, that first raised the issue of manual scavenging in the country, that doesn’t just say being Dalit is about caste, but about equality of opportunity.

“This government doesn’t mind playing identity politics with people. They are scared of organized Dalit vote.”

It’s clear from the order that this government doesn’t mind playing identity politics with people. They are scared of organized Dalit vote. Dalits maybe untouchable, but their votes are clearly not. This is vendetta. We, as an organization have caused this government many problems. It is also a personal attack against me. In a television interview about cow vigilantes, I had said that with due respect to his chair, I don’t trust the PM. While he was CM in Gujarat, extra judicial organizations (like cow vigilantes) were thriving and flourishing. That if he really loved Dalits, he should undertake land reforms for them, work towards eradicating manual scavenging as part of the Swachhta mission. I have been very vocal about his policies, both as state’s CM and country’s PM.

That we were instrumental in mobilizing the community after Una was a crucial factor too. We have always raised issues. Raising issues makes us anti-national in this government’s eyes. But if this is the case – if raising issues makes me anti-national, then I am happy to be an an anti-national.

SS: Tell us a bit about Una. Having worked with the Dalit community for years, what do you think happened? How did it become so big?

“Una was waiting to happen. The beginning was Rohith Vemula’s suicide.”

MM: Una was waiting to happen. The beginning, I think, was Rohith Vemula’s suicide. There is obviously a hunger in Gujarat for change right now. In my analysis, the thing that angered people was the live video they saw. It was a very powerful image – of people being flogged in front of the police station, with police officers watching, laughing.

What did it tell people? That the state doesn’t care. The state is not going to do anything for you. That it is against you. The visuals coming in from Kashmir also played a part. Gujarat saw youth in Kashmir pelting stones. The video was a trigger, and then all hell broke loose.

SS: It is interesting you mention Rohith Vemula. 17th January marks a year since Vemula committed suicide. Do you see justice being delivered anytime soon?

MM: I don’t think anything is going to happen. Didn’t the Vice Chancellor just receive an award from the Prime Minister? It is really very sad. We are dealing with a few things here. I’ll give you an example. I was invited last year at the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal, where all judges undergo training. You know what a judge from U.P. told me during my session? “Sir, all this is written in the vedas and puranas. If the country runs on scriptures, it won’t face any problems.” This is a judge. We can criticise politicians, but can’t criticise judiciary.

What’s happening at the governmental level? When we first raised the issue of caste in India at the United Nations in 2001, the then UPA government was very upset. Their first excuse was – India has denied untouchability, so caste system doesn’t exist. When this obviously didn’t find takers, India told the world that caste is India’s internal problem.

SS: In Rohith’s case, it did however boil down to just caste?

MM: These are two different things. As a country, we don’t even want to acknowledge caste is a problem to the outside world. Once you acknowledge a problem, then you can solve it. When you deny it, it becomes difficult.

In Rohith’s case, caste only distracted from delivery of justice. Hundreds of officers and government resources were spent on figuring out whether he was SC/ST. The real question wasn’t even attempted – his grounds of suspension, why was he living in a tent, harassment on campus… that wasn’t even an issue.

A march in Delhi to demand justice for Rohith. Photo: V. Arun Kumar

SS: There is a narrative being built about ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ for some years now. But human development indicators clearly convey a different picture. What is going on in Gujarat?

MM: There are three things going on in Gujarat right now – creation of a heightened environment of fundamentalism or religious identity, rich business interests funding political interests and total silencing of the media and police. Take the Ishrat Jahan case. The whole host of IGs and DIGs against whom inquiries were set up, have been freed and promoted. This is not the story of Gujarat other states see. But the people know and discontent is growing, even among the so-called privileged castes like Brahmins and Patels. They are saying – we have heard of development, but it hasn’t reached us. This is what is really happening.

MM: What is the road ahead for Navsarjan Trust?

SS: Eighty-five per cent of our funding came from foreign funds, so yes, we have been deeply impacted. But the last few months have been heartening too. I was in Surendranagar a couple of days ago for a protest, and the people there managed everything on their own, and even gave us a donation of ₹5000. Mind you, these are poor people, so this is a big amount for them. Many such donations have come our way from the community, well wishers and those who want us to continue our work.

I don’t however understand the problem with foreign funds. The government itself receives huge foreign funds. If government receiving funds is good for business, economy and infrastructure, why can’t funds be used by NGOs working in the interest of people?

One thing however makes me very happy – that we have been able to do meaningful work and that the government has had to notice our work. Awards are easy to get from government. Being noticed by this government is an honor. We will continue doing what we do. Money didn’t stop us when we started, and it won’t stop us now.