Forum Asia interview with Pradip G More, Deputy Director, Dalit Foundation, and member, Forum Asia, on his human rights journey with the Dalit community and how he works to inspire and nurture the new generation of changemakers:
How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with Forum Asia?
During my undergraduate studies in social sciences, I was part of a team that used street plays to raise awareness on various social issues. In the last year of my studies in 2001, we established an organisation to work on sustainable development and I was the founding President. In the initial years, we mobilised women from marginalised communities for their equal wages and formed Self Help Groups (SHGs) so that they can be self-reliant. We also intervened in cases of domestic violence and children’s education.
During 2003 and 2004 I joined a Youth Advocacy Internship, and the six months field placement with the Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat provided me with an opportunity to observe the types of untouchability practices faced by Dalits, a community I belong to, and how activists can mobilise them and speak up against discrimination.
Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan Trust and a founding member and managing trustee of Dalit Foundation, has facilitated my self-reflection process and been one of my mentors since then.
It was shocking for me to witness how Dalits are discriminated based on their caste. They were not allowed to walk on the main roads or fetch drinking water from the common well, water tabs, and handpumps. Dalit children were forced to sit separately from other children. Sexual harassment of Dalit women committed by people from a dominant community was common, and atrocity against Dalits was prevalent.
One of the greatest lessons learnt through this placement was to understand and transform my anger into strength. This has helped enhance my commitment to continue to work with the Dalit community. It was very clear for me that though I have not faced any caste-based discrimination, I would not allow this to happen anywhere, and I would fight against it.
In 2004 I joined a three-month internship programme ‘Dalit Human Rights Monitoring (DHRM)’ initiated by People’s Watch, an organisation established by Henri Tiphagne, one of the founding members of Dalit Foundation and former Chairperson of FORUM-ASIA.
I learnt about using fact-finding missions and different human rights mechanisms to advocate for Dalits’ rights and intervene in cases of atrocities, and I had the opportunity to participate a training organised by FORUM-ASIA in Bangkok in 2005.
The training gave me a broader perspective of human rights and directions to continue my activism. It was a turning point for me and I felt like being in a new world full of energy and confidence, and I decided to dedicate myself to Dalits’ rights, as it was an urgent need of the community and very few youths were able to lead on this issue.
In 2006 I joined the Young Professionals Programme of Dalit Foundation and I developed a national perspective on Dalits’ rights. I understood more about the challenges Dalits and tribal communities faced in the country, and I had the opportunity to work with activists in remote areas.
The difference between working for Dalits and working with Dalits impacted me strongly. To promote and empower Dalits, we need to be with them at the ground and go beyond sympathy and theories, as even today they are hardly recognised as human beings in our society and their rights are not prioritised by the government.
What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?
The first motivation came from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution who fought to eradicate the practices of untouchability till the last breath of his life. It is his work that has given equal status to all Indians through several laws.
As a Dalit, Dr Babasaheb had suffered discrimination since his childhood, but he was able to be a social reformer who campaigned against the untouchability practice and made it as a punishable offence through revolutionary laws and policies. The quota system has enabled Dalits to have more chance for education and to work in the government.
Since childhood, we have heard about his stories and struggle against all odds which we also face now at all levels. His life has influenced and inspired us to continue human rights work.
I am also inspired by my father who was the first Dalit primary school teacher in my village. He was a bonded labour and suffered from the untouchability practice. He too was inspired by Dr Babasaheb and took initiatives to support the rights of Dalits in our village and surrounding villages.
He used to bring me in protests and liked the way people raised slogans and spoke about our social reformers. It was because of his efforts that I along with many other children had the opportunities to study and did not face any untouchability practice or discrimination. My father died from cancer when I was 11 years old but his work was continued by my elder brother who encouraged me all the time to work with the communities.
The innovative and strategic approaches that I experienced when working with Martin Macwan from Navsarjan Trust and Henri Tiphagne from People’s Watch have given me strength to continue working in the human rights field.
Their tireless work and advocacy for the protection of human rights have pressurised the government to priorities issues faced by marginalised communities. Their leadership has created thousands of young activists like us to educate people to build a stronger movement. We have become people’s voices, and that sense of responsibility has been inspired by both of them.
Experiences from the communities have made me continue my struggle in human rights. When staying with communities, we listened to their stories and learn about practical and innovative ways to support our programme. This is when I understood the real sense of equality and the value of leadership. While human rights work is challenging, it is important to create more and more leaders to work in this field.
Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?
This is a very important question because historically we heard only about sad stories all the time when working with Dalits and we invested full energy to come out of it. Now we work strategically and have created many inspiring moments that lead to energy and strength.
One of the inspiring moments I had was the time when we initiated a campaign against the inhuman and unconstitutional practice of manual scavenging and filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the pilgrimage city of Pandharpur. Due to our advocacy, mobilisation, and the support from communities, the Bombay High court during 2012 and 2017 ordered to stop this practice and rehabilitate the people involved with an alternative livelihood.
Another inspiring moment was when I see the women we worked with start to speak up for themselves and raise issues of domestic violence, children’s education, and take a collective effort to fight for their rights. The creation of a safe space and support of women’s empowerment and leadership have enabled them to make important decisions in their families and society.
I am also inspired by young activists we mentored and trained. They are now the real changemakers in the society as they fearlessly raise their voices on injustice.
One young activist saved a woman’s life from two men who attempted to rape her. After hearing her shouting, he ran into her house and then registered a case in the police station. Villagers were quiet and no one came forward to help and save her. But his courage made him stronger in the village.
Another young activist fought for Dalits’ rights to drinking water in a village where Dalits were not allowed to fetch drinking water. She mobilised women and protested against the practice and brought this issue to the village head. Now all Dalits in this village are able to take water from the same handpump. They are the first generation from the village to speak out courageously and take the lead on fighting injustice.
I feel joy as I am part of these inspiring moments that make change happen and I must recognise the support of my wife in this journey, who is also from this movement and we work together.
What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?
For people working with Dalits, there are many challenges as we have to fight with the society for equality and with the government for implementing laws and regulations stipulated from the constitution to support the rights of Dalits.
Currently, the attitude of governments towards human rights organisations and activists, especially the Dalit human rights defenders, is terrible. Activists are jailed, beaten, and killed due to false propaganda. Organisations working with Dalits and tribal communities are not allowed to function and their registrations are cancelled. The National Human Rights Commission of India remains silent even when we work with them.
To counter these challenges, we need to involve with people from all communities to work against the issue of untouchability through new groups of fellowship programmes consisting of both women and men activists from various communities. In the past, it was seen that only Dalit community raised their voices against discrimination, but now many young people from other communities are also fighting against untouchability practices and creating change.
They have established libraries for children in more than 1200 villages to ensure that children understand the value of equality, respect each other, and raise their voice against any kind of discrimination. Those children will make a change in society when they grow up. It is great to see that many of the activists are now the real changemakers who make an impact on society.
Our efforts in cases of atrocities against Dalits, tribal communities and women, have led to moments when victims became the changemakers after our continuous work with them for legal interventions. Now they are transforming their energy to leadership and becoming voices of the voiceless. It is a cheering moment in the field of human rights movement when victims are taking the lead and fight for their rights.
What I believe is to keep our motivation alive for justice. We need to grow with passion to continue our work without getting demoralised. The focus is always on the positive initiatives for a stronger human rights movement and therefore we document the stories of change to inspire others to continue their work without being frustrated.
If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?
We need to come out from the comfort zones and stay connected with communities rather than just forwarding messages or posting on social media. Various forms of human rights violations are around us; turning away from them is simply not an option.
As a youth, we have the energy to do as much as we can from wherever we are with whatever resources we have. We need to go out and make a difference, make a change in all possible ways. The human rights work is all about collective actions. We need to involve and connect more people at the ground, especially those who are suffering.
We must challenge through innovative ways to reach the marginalised and speak up for the voiceless. Finally, real changemakers continue without losing hope and keep holding hands of each other for justice in the world. We, at the Dalit Foundation, are creating young brigades to continue the struggle with positive approaches by entering the roots of problems.