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India's "Untouchables" Break Through the Caste System

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In the bustling metropolises of Mumbai and Delhi, it's easy to forget about caste. In such cosmopolitan centers, people have a certain freedom to become what they will. But in the small villages of India, where Martin Macwan has labored most of his life, caste is an omnipresent reality.

I first met Martin at a Human Rights Watch dinner in 2000. He was in America to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for work on behalf of India's Dalits--or "untouchables." A few months later, I visited him in Gujarat, in western India, where I saw, first hand, his impact on the lives of lower caste people. We met again in South Africa, in 2001, at the World Conference Against Racism. Martin was trying to build support for an international movement against caste discrimination. Several months ago, I went to see him again and found Martin feisty and thoughtful as ever.

Martin is the second oldest of nine surviving children born and raised in poverty. The defining event of his childhood occurred when he was nine, working on a farm with his grandmother. His throat was parched and he asked for water. But instead of giving him a glass, the farmer told him to catch the water in his hands. Martin was learning an essential lesson for a child of his caste: how to interact with people without touching them: how to be untouchable. That incident, along with others, led Martin to dedicate his life to fighting discrimination against Dalits, who make up roughly 20 percent of India's population. Dalits, in the eyes of many Hindus, are condemned to suffer for sins committed in a previous life.

He started out with a Catholic-church-affiliated group working in small villages. And even though he was familiar with caste distinctions, he was stunned by what he saw. It "was unbelievable," he recalled. "The Dalits are not allowed ... water from the well. The Dalits are not allowed to ride a bicycle. If somebody has died in a family, you can't pass with the dead body from the main village... The so-called upper caste men would enter any house of the Dalits that they wanted and do anything with the women they wanted and nobody could say a word...So, for example a ... higher caste man has come and entered the house where a woman is alone. .. His shoes are outside the house. If the husband comes from market and sees the shoes, so he won't go inside. He will leave him alone with the wife. "

Martin's work focused largely on showing Dalits how to become more self-sufficient by setting up cooperatives. But in 1985, at the age of 26, he ran into trouble in a village called Golana. The government had given 33 acres to a Dalit cooperative as part of a land reform. But higher caste landholders refused to surrender the land. That resistance turned violent: "On 25th January, 1986...eight sharp in the morning, they attacked the community. Four people were shot dead on the spot," said Martin. Eventually fourteen got life sentence. "This was the first major case in the state of Gujarat where so many people were sentenced...We were determined that, no matter what happens, we have to win this case," he said.

That incident led Martin to create his own organization, which he called Navsarjan--or "New Creation" in Gujarati. Martin's new creation began with a simple rule: "Every single case of caste violence must be fought legally." So Martin added a cadre of lawyers who, at one point, were fighting nearly 1,500 cases annually. Today Navsarjan is a major force for change, working in some 3,000 villages across the state of Gujarat.

But recently Martin has shifted gears. He believes his movement must enter a new phase--where Dalits confront their own role in perpetuating the caste system. The insight came from a meeting with his colleagues, 200 of whom he called together one day: "I told them, see here is a map of Gujarat, twelve thousand five hundred villages where Dalits live. Now, here's a pencil. Take the pencil, draw a circle around the name of a village where we have been able to eradicate untouchability...Nobody got up." The problem, concluded Martin, was that they had never attacked the problem at its root: too many Dalits accepted their own subjugation.

Martin handed day-to-day leadership over to Manjula Pradeep, his longtime deputy, and focused his own efforts on education. He has written several children's books and also built three schools. I visited one with Manjula and Martin in the village of Katariya, about 85 miles outside the city of Ahmadabad. The boarding school has 140 students, ranging in age from ten to fourteen years.

The students get up at 5:30 and spend the hours before class helping to maintain the grounds and the rest of the facility. They are trained in math, reading and all the traditional subjects; but they also learn about ecology and making chapati, or bread. In one classroom, children were learning Sanskrit, the language of classical literature--and, traditionally of the upper caste Brahmins. By teaching the language to Dalits, the school is making a point: that "Dalits can learn any language. Dalits can learn any skill," explained Manjula.

I asked a group of students how the new school compared to those they had attended in their villages. They were no longer physically abused in school, said one. They were taught to use computers and speak English, said another. When I asked how many would like to return to their villages schools, not a hand went up.

Some sixty years after the Dalits gained equal status under the law, many of their fellow citizens still see them as the lowest of the low. But in Martin's boarding school, for the first time in their lives, Dalit kids are being treated as precious human beings with limitless potential. They are learning that it is okay to have big dreams, that they should aspire beyond the limits imposed by bigotry. That is the gift Martin has given them; and he hopes it will not only transform their own lives but eventually their entire society.

More information about programs featured in "Against the Odds" is available at www.elliscose.com.