Uday Makwana is barely 12 years old, but he has already experienced a form of discrimination that many Indians like to believe no longer exists. Makwana, a Dalit from Kamlapur village in Gujarat’s Rajkot district, has been beaten in school by boys from the higher Koli caste for the crime of touching them.
“In my old school, even if we brushed against the Kolis, they would beat us,” said Makwana. “And they would not let us enter their temple. We were three Dalit boys in that school, and we were given a separate bench to sit.”
Life has been better for the boy in the past two years but only because his parents moved him to a different school – Navsarjan Vidyalaya – almost 150 km away from home.
Located on a quiet four-acre campus near Rayka village in rural Ahmedabad district, Navsarjan Vidyalaya was set up in 2005 as a private residential school for Dalit and Adivasi children from Class five to Class eight. There are two other Navsarjan Vidyalayas in Gujarat – in Surendranagar and Patan districts – all founded and funded by the state’s largest Dalit rights non-profit organisation, the Navsarjan Trust. Together, the three schools house 102 boys and girls from Gujarat’s most marginalised caste groups, who often have hair-raising personal stories of caste discrimination to share.
“Our school is actually open to all, and a few upper-caste students have come before, but they see us mainly as a Harijan school,” said Jigneshbhai Makwana, a teacher at the Rayka school and a staff member of Navsarjan Trust. “Here we teach students all the regular subjects but also about the philosophies of [social reformers] Ambedkar and Phule.”
Jigneshbhai Makwana has spent the past 11 years living and working at Navsarjan Vidyalaya, touring remote villages during the holidays to convince victims of caste-based atrocities to send their children to the school. But this June, when the new academic year begins, he is unsure if he – or any of the students and teachers – will have a school to return to.
Last month, the Union government, without explanation, deemed the Navsarjan Trust’s activities as “undesirable” and cancelled its license to receive foreign funding. The move resulted in the sudden unemployment of almost all of Navsarjan’s 92 employees, while the trust’s activities in more than 3,000 villages face an uncertain future.
In order to legally receive funding from foreign donors or agencies, non-profit organisations are required to get a license under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Founded in 1989, as Gujarat’s oldest Dalit rights trust, Navsarjan has consistently survived on foreign funding, and its license to receive foreign funding was renewed as recently as August 3, 2016.
But on December 15 last year, the Union Home Ministry issued an order in “public interest”, cancelling Navsarjan’s registration under the Act on the grounds that the trust was involved in “undesirable activities aimed to affect prejudicially harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes or communities”.
While the government order did not offer any further explanation or cite examples of the trust’s so-called prejudicial activities, founder and managing trustee Martin Macwan believes that the crackdown is connected to Navsarjan’s prominent role in the widespread Dalit uprising in Gujarat since July 11, 2016, when four Dalit tanners from Una were stripped and assaulted by cow vigilantes.
The Union Home Ministry’s decision came within months of the government similarly cancelling the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act licenses of two other prominent non-governmental organisations: Social activist Teesta Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust, which has been litigating on behalf of the victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, and Lawyer’s Collective, whose founder Indira Jaising represented Setalvad in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act case against Sabrang.
In December, along with Navsarjan, the government also cancelled foreign funding licenses for other so-called “undesirable” non-profit groups, including Anhad, the Marwar Muslim Education and Welfare Society, the Rural Development Research Centre and the Institute of Public Health.
80 employees laid off
For Macwan, the sudden government crackdown meant having to take a sudden, drastic step himself. A week after the Home Ministry’s order, Macwan and the trust’s board laid off 80 of Navsarjan’s staff members, paying them their salaries up till March 31 so that they have time to look for employment.
Even though Navsarjan plans to challenge its foreign funds license cancellation in the Gujarat High Court next week, Macwan believes it would have been too much of a gamble to retain his staff and continue work as usual.
“More than 80% of our expenses, including salaries of all staff, have been dependent on foreign funding, so how will we pay them without more funds coming in?” asked Macwan.
Of Navsarjan’s annual expenses of Rs 2.75 crores, at least Rs 1.8 crore is directed towards salaries. “The only employees we have retained for now are the staff of the three Navsarjan schools,” said Macwan. “But once this academic year ends, we don’t know if we will be able to keep the schools open. The children may have to be shifted to other schools.”
The trust’s decision to let go of its employees has also led to a degree of turmoil within Navsarjan, with staff members as distraught over the loss of their long-held jobs as they are over the fate of the work they have been doing with Dalits across Gujarat.
“The news of this job loss has come like an earthquake, and the staff is very insecure right now,” said Preeti Vaghela, 46, a regional coordinator at Navsarjan and a resident of Dholka, a small town in rural Ahmedabad. “I do understand that funding salaries is going to be a problem for the NGO, but how can they expect us to just stop our work now? What if there is an atrocity towards a Dalit somewhere – should we not help them?”
A single mother to a 15-year-old boy, Vaghela has been with the trust for more than 20 years, travelling daily into the hinterlands of four different districts to help Dalits in need.
‘Non-cooperation with casteism’
Since 1995, Navsarjan has been working to highlight the ubiquity of manual scavenging in Gujarat and continues to demand basic rights for sanitation workers even today. It was also one of the first organisations to conduct an exhaustive survey of untouchability in Gujarat. Its 2010 report found the practice to be widespread even 60 years after independence.
“We were also the first organisation in the state trying to end the casteism that higher Dalit castes practice on the lowest Dalit castes,” said Natubhai Parmar, a Navsarjan member from Surendranagar who has been with the trust for the past 20 years.
A member of the leather tanning caste, Parmar was a young boy when he chose to give up this traditional vocation. In July 2016, he made national headlines for exhorting other Dalit tanners to do the same, and for leading a unique protest that involved dumping cattle carcasses on the streets and highways of Gujarat in protest against the Una assault.
“Our work at Navsarjan has always been about non-cooperation with casteism,” said Parmar. “How can the government consider this anti-national or even undesirable?”
‘Fought for six years for us’
In 1997, Natubhai Parmar and his colleagues heard of a case of 55 Dalit families who had escaped overnight from their village of Aniyali Bhimji in Ahmedabad district’s Dhandhuka block, and landed up in a marshy field on the outskirts of Surendranagar city. The families were from the Dangasiya caste of Dalit handloom weavers, and had been forced to flee for their lives after weeks of boycott and assault by members of the upper Chudasama Darbar caste.
“The Darbars didn’t like that we worked mainly from home, so they would force us to work in their fields for very little pay,” said Pravinbhai Parmar, one of the weavers from Aniyali Bhimji.
The weaver used to own two bicycles and once, when an upper-caste man ordered him to lend him a cycle, he made the innocuous error of giving him the older bike.
“This got him angry and a huge fight broke out that lasted weeks,” said Pravinbhai Parmar. “The Darbars boycotted us and beat us up. They molested our women and also beat my older brother to death.”
He added that while the local police refused to file a murder case, the Darbars allegedly made a plan to attack the Dangasiya families with swords one night. “We ran with nothing but the clothes on our back, and came here to Surendranagar where we have some relatives,” he said.
When Navsarjan found out and came to help, the refugees were living in makeshift tents, struggling for food and money.
“Navsarjan took up our case, mobilised the larger community and fought for six years in court so that we were recognised as boycotted refugees who deserved government-allotted land to live on,” said Pravinbhai Parmar. Today, the New Dangasiya colony in Surendranagar has 55 concrete houses in which the families have set up new handlooms. “Is this the kind of work the government wants to clamp down on, by taking away Navsarjan’s funding?”
Women fight back
In rural Ahmedabad’s Bautha village, 60-year-old Baluben Makwana feels the same. She may be illiterate, but she is the formidable leader of a 60-member Women’s Rights Council set up by Navsarjan in her village. Bautha lies on the banks of a unique seven-river confluence, and has several acres of government-owned fertile land that upper caste groups in the village have encroached upon.
“The land didn’t belong to them, but they made us Dalit women labour on it for very poor pay, grew cotton on it and then took all the harvest and earnings for themselves,” said Baluben Makwana. “They didn’t use Dalit men because they knew the men would begin fighting for their rights to the land and produce, but they never imagined women could fight back too.”
During harvest season in 2011, the women fought back with the help of Navsarjan’s field workers, who staged a roadblock to cordon off the government-allotted land. Then, with the upper-caste groups watching helplessly from a distance, Baluben Makwana and her team of women took up their sickles and spent 12 hours gathering the harvest for themselves.
“We would have never dared to do this without Navsarjan’s help,” said Baluben Makwana, who has now been accused by the upper caste groups of stealing from their land. The case is currently being heard in a lower court, with one of Navsarjan’s many lawyers representing her.
“We are not sure what will happen to the ongoing cases being fought by Navsarjan’s lawyers,” said Preeti Vaghela. “If they don’t get their salaries, perhaps they could be paid as consultants to continue their work.”
Navsarjan’s Martin Macwan, too, doesn’t have a ready solution to the problem.
“Our trust has been hearing hundreds of cases of caste-based atrocities over the years and increasingly, a good 30% of these are cases filed by non-Dalits,” said Macwan. “If we find merit in their cases, and if they are willing to share water with Dalits, then we take on their cases too. So the government’s accusation that we are disrupting harmony between castes is baseless.”
‘Now our movement will slow down’
Meanwhile, in Surendranagar, Natubhai Parmar and his Navsarjan colleague Shaileshbhai Makwana are worried about their ongoing project to secure minimum wages for manual scavengers employed via contract by the municipal body.
The movement began in 2014, when Baldevbhai Rathod and his wife Gauriben Rathod rallied nearly 400 other municipal sanitation workers in Surendranagar to demand a full wage of Rs 248 per day instead of the Rs 162 they were being given. They also wanted the protective gloves, masks, shoes and brooms that had been promised to them without which they were effectively manual scavengers forced to clean open defecation spots in the city with their bare hands.
“We needed organised support to take our movement forward,” said Gauriben Rathod, who has now quit sanitation work but is still working to rally other labourers. “So we went to Navsarjan, which had already been doing a lot to help our Valmiki caste.”
The Valmikis are considered the lowest caste even among Dalits because they have traditionally been forced to do sanitation and scavenging work. When Navsarjan took up the cause of Valmikis in Surendranagar city, Natubhai Parmar and Shaileshbhai Makwana added another demand to the workers’ list: end manual scavenging and build public toilets to end open defecation.
“In 2014, we took out large rallies for 13 days and led a media campaign to highlight the horrors of manual scavenging,” said Natubhai Parmar, emphasising that the daily cost for each rally during the 13 days – including camps, loudspeakers and posters – was Rs 35,000. “That is when the government finally built pay-and-use toilets.”
Said Shaileshbhai Makwana: “Our fight for minimum wages and protective gear has continued, but if Navsarjan is no longer our full-time job, the movement will inevitably slow down. We will be spending added time looking for other work, raising funds for rallies and then taking out the rallies.”
‘Where do we go from here?’
Across the board, Navsarjan’s employees are determined that they do not want their work to be stalled in any way, even as they struggle for solutions to the funding problem.
“A movement is not driven by just one organisation, so by blocking foreign money they can stop neither the organisation nor the movement,” said Manjula Pradeep who served as the executive director of Navsarjan for 12 years before stepping down in the last week of December. “A lot of people in the Non-Governmental Organisation have sacrificed everything for this work, but the question is: where do we go from here?”
According to Natubhai Parmar, one solution is to simply make more of an effort to collect funding from Indian donors.
“Our staff is very experienced and has built relationships with community members who we have helped,” he said. “So we can ask them to support us now that we are in need.”
In the past week, says Macwan, small donations from community members have started to trickle in.
But is it easy for Dalit rights organisations to receive funding in India?
According to Manjula Pradeep, Navsarjan’s own efforts in the past have yielded limited results.
“In India, barely a handful of Dalit and Adivasi rights groups get any kind of funding at all – foreign or Indian,” said Ashok Bharti, founder of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations, a public platform that lobbies the government and donor agencies to support Dalit organisations in the country. “Normally corporate funders and even foreign agencies don’t like to support organisations that take on the government.”
According to Bharti, at least two major hindrances crop up for a Dalit rights organisation applying for foreign or corporate funding.
“These applications are primarily based on the knowledge of fluent English, and Dalit organisations cannot afford the professionals needed to help them with that,” he said. “Besides, most donor organisations are headed by upper-caste, upper-class elites, so I have seen their environment to be often hostile towards Dalits or other subaltern groups.”
Bharti believes that 99% of the Dalit movement is funded through meagre donations by the community itself. “Navsarjan is a rare exception, so it is shocking that its FCRA license has been cancelled.”