India is the world’s largest liberal democracy. After its independence from the British colonial rule in 1947 India adopted the path of social and economic development and modernisation. The growth process led to increased levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization. Decades after the economic reforms in 1990 India achieved the economic status which is often portrayed as among the success stories of the developing world. This national progress was not without its pitfalls. Almost after more than 60 years of independence, a large section of Indian population still complain for not availing the benefits of development. The most marginalised sections of Indian society mainly the tribals, minority communities especially the Muslims and lower castes also known as Untouchables still live in stark poverty and without any civil and political rights.
India may be known as one of the world’s oldest living civilisations with a vibrant culture and diversity of its people and languages. Paradoxically, this enormous Indian diversity also hides a darker side in the shadows of its culture known as the caste system. Embedded in Indian culture for the past many centuries, the Hindu caste system is considered as one of the world's longest surviving forms of social stratification. It divides society into social classes or castes and this graded inequality has the sanction of classical Indian religious scriptures.
In India the caste hierarchy dictates the lives of its citizens even today. The tribals, Muslims and the lower caste or untouchable communities face discrimination and oppression due to their social status. As a result they have been further marginalised in the society and denied their basic rights. The People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), Varanasi took up the challenging and exemplary task to raise voice against the social, political, cultural and economic discrimination being practiced against the “Untouchable” communities mainly the Mushahars and the human rights violations of the minority Muslims in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.[i]
Mushahar means “mouse-eaters”. They are considered “Untouchable” – people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human. Mushahar are relegated to the lowest jobs and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighbourhood is a life-threatening offence. The main business for them, even today, is to kill rats.
Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned when India adopted its constitution in 1950, discrimination against lower castes and Musahar has remained so pervasive. In order to prevent discrimination based on caste and religion, the government passed legislation in 1989 known as The Prevention of Atrocities Act. The act specifically made it illegal to parade people naked through the streets, force them to eat faeces, take away their land, foul their water, interfere with their right to vote, and burn down their homes. Many of the youngest in the community do not found entry in the schools since the upper castes do not want their children to study along with the Musahar children. Since then, the violence has escalated largely as a result of the emergence of a grassroots human rights movement among Musahar to demand their rights and resist the dictates of untouchability. After the sustained efforts and various community capacity building programme in Mushahar localities by People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), the community has gradually undergone many changes as they have gained confidence to resist caste based atrocities and now they are gradually opting for alternative sources of food by changing their diet. Many of them can now afford to eat pork, chicken and fish.
In December 2013 PVCHR successfully completed the project on “Reducing police Torture against Muslims at Grass Roots Level by Engaging and Strengthening Human Rights Institutions in India” with the support of European Union. The project was implemented in the four districts of Uttar Pradesh namely; Aligarh, Meerut, Moradabad and Varanasi. The experiences of the project revealed that in India the poorest members of the religious minorities have been the targets of all kinds of discriminations, torture, cruel and degrading treatment. Muslim minority has been no exception as far as social prejudices are concerned. In a caste driven social and economic structure of Indian society there is a deep rooted perceptions about Muslim community as being inferior category in the given caste hierarchy. They are viewed below the status of the most deprived lower castes or untouchables. This perception has helped in justifying the acts of torture and other degrading treatment with greater acceptance to the use of torture against the Muslim community. Discrimination has taken institutional form and its manifestation can be seen in the working of crucial constitutional institutions of public importance like police and judiciary. Religious bias against Muslims has been found all pervasive in legal institutions and governing structure. An analysis of total 806 cases after the completion of fact finding exercises from January 2011 to April 2013, it has been observed and testified by the survivors that many of them were subjected to torture just because they belonged to the minority Muslim community.
Conflicts arising out of religious differences and violations of human rights of the marginalized sections especially Muslim minority have reached at a stage where they pose an imminent threat to the survival of democratic values and governance system. In an attempt to develop a communication framework so as to bring together policy makers, legislators, social activists from Muslim community and human rights defenders, an “Interface meeting was organized with the Parliamentarian, policy makers and political parties on the issue of Muslim minority in Uttar Pradesh” on 9th December, 2013 in Constitution Club in New Delhi. The programme was jointly organized by People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), Varanasi and Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), New Delhi with the support from European Union and Dignity: Danish Institute Against Torture. A comprehensive report, “Repression, Despair and Hope” - Mapping of Police torture in four districts of Uttar Pradesh and Strengthening Human Rights Institutions” was released on the occasion. PVCHR also screened a 36 minutes long documentary titled “Muslim & Police: A Perspective”. The documentary was prepared on the basis of interactions for almost three months at the grass root level with the members of Muslim community in various Muslim dominated districts of Uttar Pradesh. The film chronicled in historical perspective the role and status of the Indian Muslims and highlighted the views of the members of Muslim community reflecting on their deprivation in the fields of education, employment, business, socio economic development, political representation and physical and psychological insecurities.
Lenin Raghuvanshi is the Secretary General and Executive Director of PVCHR. He has been working for the rights of bonded and child labourers and other marginalized people in Varanasi and eastern part of Uttar Pradesh in India. In 1996, he and his wife Shruti founded the PVCHR, a community-based organization; to break the closed, feudal hierarchies prevail in conservative Indian villages and urban slums by building up local institutions and supporting them with a high profile and active human rights network. He has become the symbol of nonviolent resistance among the Musahar communities fighting for dignity. Due to his commitment on behalf of the marginalized, he has periodically suffered death threats.
Rightly Lenin Raghuvanshi says, “Change the word "Race" by "caste", the word "Angola" by "Kashmir", the word "Mozambique" by "North East states”, the word "South Africa" by" dalit Ghetto" and the word "African" by "Indian" in the song of Bob Marley, the renowned Jamaican singer-songwriter, then you can have an Indian revolutionary song[ii]”
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned -
Everywhere is war -
Me say war.
That until there no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation.
Until the colour of a man's skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes -
Me say war.
That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race -
Dis a war.
That until that day
The dream of lasting peace,
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never attained -
Now everywhere is war - war.
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa
Have been toppled,
Utterly destroyed -
Well, everywhere is war -
Me say war.
War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south -
War - war -
Rumours of war.
And until that day, the African continent will not know peace,
We Africans will fight - we find it necessary -
And we know we shall win as we are confident in the victory
Of good over evil"[iii].
Lenin believes that "India's many problems are interconnected. In order to understand and solve them, they must not be divided. What is needed is a comprehensive multi-layer and multi-dimensional approach that takes into account economic, cultural, political and social factors.” Lenin Raghuvanshi and his organization PVCHR are actively attempting to fill this opportunity space by courting constructive dialogue with other of all stripes and ideological leanings. Focusing on the diversity of caste experience, rather than counter-intuitive to movement goals of creating Dalit self-esteem, represents a primary step toward creating lasting structural change in the process of creating Dalit self-esteem. Dialogic interaction among different castes is making this clear. For an independent society, education is a primary requirement. Therefore PVCHR creates space for free thoughts – folk school, schools and kindergartens teach basics from the grassroots level. Model village process of the PVCHR is a unique way of the non-violent peoples’ movement based on inculcating empowerment of hope, honour and human dignity.[iv]
According to Lenin, unless Indian society deals with the injustices of the caste system head-on, it will not attack social conflict at its root. Translating these convictions into action, Lenin has built local, national, and regional institutions that challenge caste. His People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR) is a large membership organization that draws in people from different walks of life. Among its fifty thousand members in five northern states, three thousand are former torture victims whom the Committee has helped. Their solidarity demonstrates how Lenin is creatively building an inclusive social movement. Also participating are famous intellectuals whose integrity and credibility raise the coalition's public image.
The father of independent India, Mohandas Gandhi, clad in his homespun loincloth, launched his nationalist movement to defy colonialism by encouraging Indians to stop wearing cheap British machine-made cloth in favor of Indian-made fabrics, partly as a gesture of self-reliance. The hand-loomed saris from Varanasi became a national symbol for India's independence.[v]
Varanasi Sari, a six yard long piece of cloth, signifies the elegance, charm, grace and beauty of Indian women, with almost eight hundred years old tradition, has an important niche in the cultural contours of India. For centuries Varanasi was the cradle of ancient Indian tradition in the tailoring of the Sari. Today however, the lives of the weavers (or creators) of these wonderful saris are not as beautiful as the creation itself. Majority of small artisans and their families, though mostly on the brink of survival (on average they work 10 -12 hours a day to earn about 0.5 dollar), are dependent on this traditional craft for a living. In the era of globalization, the traditional art of hand weaving of the Baranasi sari is under serious threat by electrical looms and also by new technologies coming from China. The life of the weavers, passing through a time of crisis, is characterized by abject poverty, chronic malnutrition, varied health hazards and even starvation death and suicides.[vi]
Lenin Raghuvanshi said "This is the ugly, painful side of globalization. It's a real crisis. If India is booming, you don't see it among weavers or farmers or other rural laborers, which is to say most of the country," "Helping those left behind is India's greatest challenge."
Lenin, despite his name, does not want to overthrown the capitalist system; he wants to bring it in. He wants to eliminate feudalism but preserve the art of weaving, using the Internet to market handcrafted silk. For this he needs to unravel the free trade agreements made by the Indian government under the WTO.
This is not a Ghandian type of thing, this is a democratic capitalist thing: we want to create a weavers' trust, a joint company to cut out the middlemen and sell our produce to the world direct. I want to eliminate the feudal system but in the feudal system some things are good. No body wants to destroy the Taj Mahal for instance! In the same way I think it is possible to preserve our economic status, our social rights and our art.[vii]
Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India's new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people that live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than the cities and where close to 70% of India's population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually.
Advocacy at national and international fora has succeeded in prioritizing hunger in Government expenditure policy. Active mobilization of the poor Dalit, weavers and Muslim has forced political parties to include the improvement of Dalit, weaver and Muslim with elimination of hunger and malnutrition in their electoral manifesto. The liberation from social inhibitions has resulted in creation of Martyrs' domes in village where hunger deaths occurred and has created a pool of indigenous hunger activists among the poor. As a result of PVCHRs' pressure the UP Panchayat Act was amended to include a clause which directed each local self-Government of village to hold a fund of Rupees one thousand to mitigate emergency hunger situation.
Neo Dalit movement is a sign of hope, honour and human dignity for most marginalized people facing discrimination based on race, caste, religion and gender. Nelson Mandela legacy is path for PVCHRs' Neo dalit movement to bring unity of different communities against Caste system, feudalism, Communal-fascism and Neo- Liberalism in India through reconciliation for justice.[viii]
With less financial resources, but rich with confidence and conviction, Lenin in a short period of time has managed to amplify the voice of the marginalized in national and international fora through "Peoples SAARC", rehabilitation and resettlement of weavers of Varanasi; Benaras Convention; Election Watch; prevention of torture; voice against hunger and many such activities. Recognition by the international community of Dr Lenin's work is indeed the recognition for the millions whose hopes and aspirations rest on his slender shoulders.
“Introspect to realize what went wrong, only then you find new approaches to engage with various problems of India.
To get in touch with the many problems, still existing in Indian society, the work of Lenin,Shruti and PVCHR should be a symbol to feel and don’t forget, what’s still worth to fight for-the beauty and variety of India and its people. Don’t leave them behind!
You have a problem in hand. Own it to solve it.”
24th January, 2014
Prof. Dr. Ahmad Saghir Inam Shastri