“The only thing we are challenging is inequality”

Martin Macwan, a dalit human rights activist in Gujarat, has organised a gathering on 25th December 2019 to take to the public a message about how the amended citizenship law (CAA) and proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) negates the principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution. Ultimately, these two policies—one proposed, the other already a law—negate the message and life’s work of India’s first law minister, BR Ambedkar. Macwan talks to the Indian Cultural Forum and Newsclick about how exactly this is taking place.

Image Courtesy: The Quint

Indian Cultural Forum and Newsclick (ICF & NC): Why did you pick 25th December for your event?

Martin Macwan (MM): I picked 25 December because it is also Manusmriti Dahan Divas, the day Ambedkar set fire to the Manusmriti. It struck me that the ground, or justification, pleaded by the government in both the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), is of religious persecution. We are doing nothing about the religious persecution taking place in our own country and we want to solve the problems of other countries. We want to tell people about this double standard. Not many in rural areas know what the CAA and the NRC are all about. We want to explain why we consider it a direct attack on the Constitution.

ICF & NC: Why did you choose this moment?

MM: This moment, after the clearing of the amended citizenship bill and the proposed NRC, is the first time that the challenge that lies ahead of us has become clear.

The only weapon the dalits, minorities and all marginalised people have is the Constitution. Article 14 enshrines equality as a fundamental right. If that is taken away, there would be very serious consequences. The secular character of the country is under attack and it would harm everybody.

ICF & NC: When Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti, it was 1927. Even back then, he and his followers came under virulent attack from time to time. And now, with protests sweeping across the country, police brutality is peaking. Does this worry you?

MM: Frankly, I am not worried. For the last 40 years I have worked in this field and yes, this is the most difficult time. I do sense that the police are a little nervous about the protests against the CAA/NRC. But I told them too, that it’s our job to inform people what the bills are all about. We cannot be quiet in such a critical situation. The Act is challenging the Constitution and the character of the country. The majoritarian sentiment would dictate that CAA and NRC only affect the Muslims, but tomorrow it can be someone else, it will be dalits, women and other marginalised sections.

ICF & NC: What exactly is the message you’re going to try and disseminate?

MM: The Prime Minister, without a pause or change in the inflection of his voice, keeps telling lies. How can you trust the people in power when they do this? We have severe malnourishment in India, highest-ever unemployment. Among tribals, malnourishment is static at 61%, significantly higher than in the general population. This is why the North-east is angry about the CAA and NRC. It is also a build-up of rage over time. For, the worst-off communities in India are the tribals. See what happened in Gujarat, first for the Narmada Dam project and then for Sardar Patel’s statue of unity, we drove out the tribals. The tribals cannot even set up shops near the statue to secure their livelihood. This is the state of the poor. We live in one country which is really two nations. Come to rural areas, where only caste rules, where the wishes of the majority create a situation of crisis for the poor every day.

ICF & NC: How would you simplify these complex situations, and two complex laws, with a long history unique to every region, which serve different interests? How do you get people to relate to the dangers of its provisions?

MM: This is something I have learned from the rural people, with whom I have worked and lived since the 1980s. I was a student of St Josephs’ College, dreaming of doing my Masters and PhD, but I had a funny professor who taught political science. He said that I can get a degree but if I want knowledge I will have to stay in the “real” India. He told me that once I get this knowledge, it will be irreversible; and so, it has been for 40 years. I never pursued my studies after my bachelors. I now understand why Gandhi told Gokhale to hold off on his plan to start a newspaper until he had seen what India is like.

Last month I visited Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. I saw the living conditions in Jharkhand, I saw people who roll bidis to make a living in West Bengal—you roll 1,000 bidis to earn just Rs 120. So, we talk about development, we unleash dreams with no boundaries, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots is ever-widening. Development and inequality co-exist in a cruel reality in India and that is why I am propagating the truth about this law.

ICF & NC: Is this not the job of the government; to explain what new laws can mean?

MM: It is. And it is the job of educators. It is also the job of schools, but we all know what is going on with school curricula. No more research is happening in universities. This is also why people don’t know anything about these new laws and proposals. I have taken up a study of how primary education has changed over the last 60-70 years and I have seen that the stories that painted a picture of communal harmony in India are missing from our textbooks. What people of my generation were taught 45 years back is now completely absent in our school books. We know school curricula create a new generation and inducts them into citizenship. What kind of lesson are we teaching them today?

ICF & NC: Does it worry you that your message will not get through or that there will be polarisation as a result of your gathering?

MM: A few months back I was in Delhi University to deliver a talk and the professor who had invited me got very worried when I arrived. “The room is full of RSS people,” he told me. He said that earlier they had trouble in such situations. But when I spoke, there was no trouble—the students simply said that they had not known about many things I spoke of. For example, about our study of Untouchability, in which we found that 90.2% of Dalits—who are Hindus—are not allowed to enter temples in Gujarat. So, what does Hindutva or Hindu Rashtra mean for them, when within their religion they face so much discrimination? The problem lies with the dalit Christians in Kerala, with the Goans, who have separate cemeteries on the basis of caste. The very fact that we talk about religious persecution means that we don’t understand religion.

ICF & NC: Why do you say that?

MM: Because religion has become a platform to practice the politics of subjugation. And that’s where the problem lies.

Also Read: “There have been even more atrocities against dalits and adivasis since 2014…”

ICF & NC: Now, the home minister has repeatedly said that the Muslims are safe, that their citizenship will not be challenged by the NRC…

MM: The question is, what does one do with the other things the home minister has said? For example, in Parliament, he said that the CAA will provide relief to lakhs of persecuted non-Muslim immigrants, but then when the figures were revealed, it turned out that Pakistan—which we are so concerned about—had hardly sent any immigrants to India in the last few decades. Besides, we know that Bangladesh and Sri Lanka make up 90% of our refugees, but they have been left out of the CAA.

So, you have a government that creates a mountain out of a molehill, which continuously creates havoc to colour the minds of people with communal feelings. I met police, judiciary and other government officials throughout my travels and saw high levels of prejudice and fear. This is the kind of system that is being built in India today. If you create divides, don’t let even young people intermingle, socialise, have friends across religions, and then talk about the majority all day, then, ultimately, everybody becomes a minority.

ICF & NC: In what way does everybody become a minority?

MM: Well, because even all Hindus are not equal. In one of our studies published in Bhed Bharat, we have found out that in 65% of the villages, those dalits who have been elected as village representatives, are denied access to common water sources. Many are made to sit on segregated chairs, use separate teacups. Now look at backward classes or the OBC section of our society. For a 500-village study of malnutrition we are doing, we find many problems. For instance, the government of Gujarat claims that it has undergone the most “progress”. It says that 2.76 lakh Gujaratis are malnourished, but the government’s own National Family Health Survey (NFHS) says that Gujarat has 10 times higher malnourishment than that.

ICF & NC: Even though the NFHS is not a door-to-door survey of all homes but a sample survey…

MM: Yes, even then it shows 10 times higher malnourishment than the state government admits. The interesting thing is that in non-tribal areas, it is the OBC children who are most malnourished. Now, OBCs are 40% of our society’s population. So, we say that we are all Hindus, but the fact is that the stratifications in Hindu society are deep.

ICF & NC: It could be said, as a counter, that the divisions within Hinduism are an ‘internal’ matter of the Hindus, who unite, at least on occasion, for certain projects…

MM: The idea is that after Independence we are all guided by the Constitution. Recall that Gandhi and Ambedkar thought about this issue differently. Gandhi felt that for the nation to change, it is the conscience, or consciousness, that must change. But Ambedkar felt that you cannot govern by conscience alone. You need rules and regulations. A system has to be in place. You need a judiciary… The idea of “sin” as a violation of a moral code is very different from the idea of “crime” as a violation of a guaranteed right.

ICF & NC: What, then, can be an alternative and more accurate way to frame these debates on CAA and NRC?

MM: The alternative we always suggest is that people and governments keep their religion in their private sphere. You cannot have a public religion favoured by a democratic society. Unfortunately, the government is trying to marginalise the Constitution itself. The Constitution guarantees and confirms this essential separation, but the government is trying to do away with it.

ICF & NC: And this is why you have called people together to discuss Ambedkar in the context of this new law and the NRC?

MM: This is why we have called our first meeting of village leaders, 500 select people, to put before them this discussion and to have a debate so as to arrive at a program of action. For this, we are working with everybody; with people from all walks of life. Our definition of ‘attendee’ is anyone who believes in equality and practices equality.

ICF & NC: The protests, which are still ongoing, must have inspired hope that people can unite for a common cause. They did turn violent in places but on the whole the outpouring was intense and dedicated to the idea of equality.

MM: Yes, this aspect does inspire faith, especially because it has come from the students, the youth. Right now, because of social media, people are seeing through the aura that has been painted around certain institutions, around the situation in the whole country in fact. For instance, people know that JNU has students from very poor backgrounds, no matter what the government says. Students of JNU get to meet, and visit each other’s homes. They have seen the reality of their fellow classmate’s journeys to the big city. Many students have learned a lot from self-experience. They saw in CAA and NRC the stirrings of something terribly bad.

ICF & NC: Fundamentally, even if they cannot articulate it as such, they have realised that secularism is for everybody not just minorities?

MM: Yes, young people realise that if we are talking about modernisation then we have to change our way of thinking as well. Orthodoxy and modernity cannot live together.