foreign funding

Gujarat’s oldest Dalit rights group loses foreign funds licence, reviving charges of victimisation

Navsarjan was at the forefront of Dalit protests in Gujarat after the assault on community members in Una in July.

After cancelling the foreign funding licence of lawyer Indira Jaising’s Lawyer’s Collective earlier this month, the government has now turned its attention to Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat’s oldest Dalit rights organisation that was at the forefront of this year’s protests against the assault of community members in Una.

In an order dated December 15, the Union Home Ministry cancelled Navsarjan’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, on the grounds that the non-profit trust was involved in “undesirable activities aimed to affect prejudicially harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes or communities”.

The government’s move came despite the fact that it had renewed Navsarjan’s licence to receive and utilise foreign funds under the Act on August 3. The home ministry order claimed this renewal had been granted inadvertently by the “concerned officer of the FCRA Wing of the Foreigners Division”, and that it was now revoking Navsarjan’s licence in “public interest”.

While the order did not specify the activities of the trust that are deemed to have violated the provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, observers alleged that this was yet another attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to clamp down on organisations that oppose its policies and ideology.

An Una connect?

According to Martin Macwan, who founded Navsarjan in 1989, the trust has not received an official communication from the government regarding the licence cancellation. “We got to know about it from journalists, and till the government gives us specific reasons for taking away our licence, we cannot plan further action,” he said.

Attacks on Navsarjan are not new to Macwan, who has repeatedly been accused, by right-wing elements, of promoting the conversion of Dalits to Christianity. He believes the immediate trigger for the current clampdown could be the non-profit’s involvement in the unprecedented Dalit uprising in Gujarat after July 11, when four tanners from the backward community were stripped and beaten by a mob of self-proclaimed cow protection vigilantes in Una town.

“This has been seen throughout history – even Ambedkar, in his prime years, was called an anti-national for raising the issue of caste,” said Macwan.

In June, the ministry had permanently cancelled the registration of activist Teesta Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. The trust has been litigating on behalf of victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Then on December 7, it took the same action against Lawyer’s Collective, whose founder Indira Jaising had represented Setalvad in the case against Sabrang.

Political scientist Ghanshyam Shah is not surprised that the government is now targeting a Dalit rights organisation like Navsarjan. “It is clear that the government is going after organisations that raise certain basic issues that differ from its right-wing ideology,” he said. “Even though the Sangh Parivar says it is against untouchability and caste-based oppression, it is not against the caste system and believes that Dalits should be a part of Hinduism.”

All of Navsarjan’s activities in the past 27 years, said Shah, are anathema to right-wing bodies like the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is a part.

Fighting for Dalit rights

Campaigning against untouchability has been Navsarjan’s mainstay since its inception. In 2010, the organisation published the results of an extensive survey that found the practice to be rampant across Gujarat even 60 after Independence. Before that, in 2001, Navsarjan had organised a state-wide Bhim Yatra – a rally named after Bhimrao Ambedkar – to campaign against untouchability within the Scheduled Caste ranks.

“Their campaign involved asking ‘higher’ Scheduled Caste groups to share a saucer of tea with the lowest Valmiki caste,” said Shah. “At that time, Navsarjan had received a number of angry letters and threats from various Sangh groups.”

In the past decade, the non-profit has demanded minimum wages for all agricultural labourers irrespective of caste, and campaigned for building the tallest Ambedkar statue in the state. Three years ago, it celebrated Ambedkar’s birth anniversary as Samta Divas, or a day of equality. “But the Sangh groups believe not in samta but samras, which means assimilation and the acceptance of hegemony,” said Shah. “So obviously, they do not like these attempts at awakening Dalit consciousness. The Una incident is just the latest excuse for the government to target Navsarjan.”

Court battle ahead?

Shah is not the only one who believes the Central government is targeting certain organisations using licence cancellations as a tool. On December 16, nine members of Parliament from six political parties wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, condemning the state’s victimisation and “selective targeting” of NGOs that are “critical of its policies”.

“In contrast, the government does not investigate a single RSS-affiliated NGO, which collect huge amounts of money abroad and then use it to further a hate-filled agenda,” the letter read.

Navsarjan, meanwhile, is waiting for the government to directly communicate with it, specify which of its activities were undesirable and provide clear proof of how the trust has affected harmony between groups. “If they have proof, I am sure they will give it,” said Macwan. “If not, then this is bound to become a legal issue.”

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