January 18, 2017; Los Angeles Times
Navsarjan is a human rights group that has fought thousands of cases on behalf of India’s “lower caste” Dalit community since 1988. Now, the Los Angeles Times reports that the nonprofit has now been targeted by the Indian government. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has blocked Navsarjan from receiving funding that accounts for “almost all of its $400,000 annual budget.” If the decision is sustained, then three schools that educate 102 Dalit children will be among the group’s charitable works that will be suspended. The group would also have to lay off 80 staff members. District employee Niruben Chorsiya, who works on 40 cases that include sexual violence against women, worries about the future: “Our work is ongoing, but how long can we continue?”
The L.A. Times confirms widening government crackdowns on Indian civil society organizations. Many are accused of being politically motivated. India often projects a deep distrust of non-corporate sponsored civil society groups—especially those supported by Western countries. Despite its proclamation as being one of the world’s largest non-secular democracies, there is limited philanthropy allowed outside the corporate sector. The situation is similar in China. Meantime, former solicitor of legal aid group Lawyers Collective, Inidira Jaising, told the L.A. Times that India has a law (the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, or FCRA) that’s like “a sword dangling over the head of every NGO who receives foreign funding.” Greenpeace once called it “an instrument of repression” used by the government to cut off funding to groups holding positions that are contrary to the government’s stances.
Lawyer’s Collective lost its license last year. Could it be coincidence that its former clients were involved in a legal battle to convict Modi for his involvement in the deadly 2002 Gujarati religious riots? Another instance involved a Greenpeace employee who was banned from entering India in 2014 for speaking out against its coal-based energy usages. According to the L.A. Times and the Times of India, if it were not for a court intervention, Greenpeace would have recently had its license revoked as well.
Officials last month cancelled the foreign funding licenses of at least two dozen nonprofit groups for alleged “anti-national activities.” Besides Navsarjan, they include the Indian Branch of Compassion International, which intelligence agencies accuse of secretly converting children to Christianity; a trust run by high-profile activist Teesta Setalvad, who has led court cases against Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and a legal aid office whose attorneys have represented Setalvad and other vocal government opponents.
With respect to blocking Navsarjan’s funding, nearly half of which comes from US sources that include the Unitarian Church and Asha for Education and the Ford Foundation, the Indian government denies wrongful accusations. However, Home Ministry spokesman Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia offered no other explanation other than accusing the group of “carrying out activities detrimental to national interest” and upsetting religious and caste harmony.
Dalits have been shunned for being members of the so-called “lowest rung” of Hinduism’s ancient caste system for thousands of years. The L.A. Times accurately reports that his or her “mere touch, to some, would render [a] shrine unclean.” Although the Indian government officially banned such caste-based discrimination 70 years ago, Dalits “continue to endure social stigma and economic marginalization.” NPQ once offered commentary on a Washington Post piece indicating how at times they even endure cruelty from fellow Dalits who manage to move up in society. Yet, in most instances, Dalits fall victim to violence from “upper-caste” members. Navsarjan deploys representatives to various cases in their defense.
Navsarjan argues that their licenses are being taken away because of a Summer 2016 protest they organized after the public flogging of seven Dalits by so-called “cow vigilante” attackers. The attackers wrongfully accused their victims of killing a cow, an animal that Hindus hold sacred. The incident took place in a town called Una, in the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat was run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi until 2014, and is still run by his Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Meanwhile, the findings of a landmark 2010 survey that Navsarjan carried out in partnership with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights across 1,589 Gujarati villages indicated that Dalits—16 percent of India’s 1.25 billion population—“are still treated as subhuman.” The L.A. Times points out that the opposition referred to the findings in parliamentary debates following the Una floggings.
The government is particularly sensitive to social unrest in Gujarat…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.
Another incident that took place in Gujarat on March 2015 involved two upper caste villagers attacking an elderly Dalit man for venturing too close to a temple. The L.A. Times reports that although they “thrashed the 70-year-old farmer with sticks,” family members said that the police initially did not take the case seriously. After the reporting the beating, upper-caste members of the community even initiated a “harsh rural practice…a social boycott” by refusing to serve Dalits in their village shops. The boycott lasted for months until Navsarjan involved the police. Thanks to the group’s legal support, each assailant got tried and sentenced to two years in prison. The L.A. Times notes another case involved a campaign forcing the re-opening of an investigation into a 2012 killing of three young Dalit men by four suspected police officers.
Navsarjan’s hard work and efforts proves valuable to the Dalit community. The son of the 70-year-old farmer beaten outside the temple said that “before Navsarjan came, we had no awareness of our rights.” Meanwhile, the Gujarati-born founder of Navsarjan (who is also a Dalit), Martin Macwan, intends to continue advocating: “Navsarjan put a lot of pressure, and the government didn’t like it very much. They decided to hit us where it hurts [but] we are working for the development of our community…If the government shows us that we are somehow working against the nation, we are prepared to go to jail.”—Noreen Ohlrich