DUDHABHAI Kalabhai knew the rules: He could stand outside the village temple and join his hands in a quick, whispered prayer. He was not to linger or attempt to climb the steps. As a Dalit, part of the lowest rung of Hinduism’s ancient caste system, his mere touch, to some, would render the shrine unclean. But one morning in March 2015, two upper-caste villagers thought Dudhabhai ventured too close to the temple entrance. They thrashed the 70-year-old farmer with sticks, hospitalising him with arm and leg injuries.
Family members said police in the western Indian state of Gujarat at first refused to take the case seriously. It wasn’t until the human rights group Navsarjan deployed representatives and a lawyer that the assailants were arrested, tried and sentenced to two-year prison terms. It was one of thousands of cases that Navsarjan has fought since 1988 on behalf of Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” who continue to endure social stigma and economic marginalisation 70 years after India’s constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination.
Now the non-profit group finds itself under attack, accused by India’s government of harming the national interest. In December, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs blocked Navsarjan from receiving funding from overseas, which accounts for almost its entire $400,000 annual budget. The group said it would have to lay off its 80 staff members and suspend its charitable work – including three schools educating 102 Dalit children – if the decision isn’t reversed. The action is part of a widening Indian government crackdown against civil society organisations that critics say is politically motivated. In a letter, it accused Navsarjan of carrying out “activities detrimental to national interest” and aiming to upset religious and caste harmony.
The government is particularly sensitive to social unrest in Gujarat, a prosperous coastal state that Modi led until 2014, and is still run by his party. The powerful prime minister has held up Gujarat as a model of economic development, but recent protests by Dalits and other marginalized groups have chipped away at that carefully constructed image. In parliamentary debates following the Una beatings, opposition lawmakers referred to a landmark 2010 survey that researchers from Navsarjan and the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights carried out in 1,589 Gujarat villages. The findings laid bare how many Dalits, who make up 16% of India’s 1.25 billion people, are still treated as subhuman.
Outwardly, nothing sets Dalits apart from other Indians. But caste is hereditary, and in places where the pre-modern hierarchy is still observed, people born as Dalits are seen as intrinsically impure, able to defile something merely by touching it. In 90% of villages, Dalits were not allowed to enter temples, the survey found. In 53% of villages, Dalit children were seated separately from others during school lunches. In roughly half the villages, Dalits were forced to use separate cups at tea stalls and barred from entering shops. “This report took all the air out of the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of development,” Macwan said.
“It showed that development and inequality can coexist.” India bills itself as the world’s largest democracy, but it has long nursed a deep-seated distrust of civil society groups, particularly those backed by Western countries. The previous government, led by Modi’s arch-rival Congress party, denied foreign funding to church-based groups and those that protested India’s development of nuclear energy. The contributions law “is a sword dangling over the head of every NGO who receives foreign funding,” said Indira Jaising, a former solicitor for the Indian government whose legal aid group, Lawyers Collective, had its license cancelled last year.
Greenpeace had its license revoked, too, until a court intervened last month and stopped the move. The environmental group said the law had “turned into an instrument of repression, one that the government has used to cut off vital funding to groups that may hold positions contrary to the government’s own.” Meanwhile, Modi’s government quietly amended the funding law last year to exempt political parties, making it easier for foreign companies to contribute to Indian politicians.
— Courtesy: Los Angeles Times