(April 28, 2014)
Fighting Violence against Women
Manjula Pradeep, Dalit leader
I have watched Manjula Pradeep grow from a novice, an inexperienced young girl in the early 90's into a confident, assured, gutsy Dalit leader over the last 20 years. In this interview, Manjula traces the history of her struggle for Dalit rights from her early induction into Navsarjan Trust, as a raw, young recruit and her tumultuous journey to her present post as head of Navsarjan, often representing Dalits in the UN and other national and international fora.
This defeat left a very, very, bitter taste in the mouth. "I kept wondering 'how can parents send back weeping daughters to the in-laws house to their certain death?' It is pathetic. These girls' deaths were avoidable."
"Our own Dalit community leaders accused Navsarjan of dividing the community by publicly accusing and attacking a Dalit man. The dead Dalit girls, the young girls cruelly and violently murdered, the burnt brides didn't matter. As with most women, they are dispensable. Navsarjan came under a lot of pressure to settle matters 'amicably' to compromise and not file police cases when the perpetrators of violence are Dalit men."
Defying village landlords
"Being a woman myself, I could completely and totally understand their fears and help them stand up for their rights. I wanted to do this and empower our Dalit women. So, I began my mission filled with this anger and determination. I conducted 20 training programmes for women in '96. In June '97, we took out the first rally demanding minimum wages for agricultural labourers led by women leaders. The official minimum wage was 34 rupees yet these women were working for 6 to 12 rupees per day."
"There were two inspiring women both name Kashi. One of them, Kashi from Mahuvad, was warned by her village landlords. 'We will not allow you to work in our fieldsí, they threatened. Angered, she retorted, 'I dont want to work in your fields for your miserable 6 rupees anyway. I donít need your work.' Instead, the angry woman walked 2 kms every day to work in a brick kiln for 50 rupees a day. She was one smart, inspiring, brave woman," Manjula declared.
"I started learning about tribal womenís issues too." Manjula continued. "There was this woman Chanchal. Her son Phogat worked as a bonded labourer, this system of bondage is called 'Chakar' locally. They were paid Rs.3000 a year in '96. Phogat was brutally thrashed by the landlord merely for asking for his overdue, unpaid wages. When Chanchal tried to protect her son, the Patel employer, lashed out with a cane. His stick hit her hand instead of her sons, and fractured her wrist. I went to see her. The police wouldn't file an FIR (First Information Report) or any case under the Atrocities Act as they wanted proof of her ST (Scheduled Tribe) status. Her son had run away, terrified. He was in hiding at his in-laws village, seriously in fear for his life. I took Chanchal on my scooter. We picked up her son, three on the scooter, and went to the District Collector's office in Baroda City. He shouted at me angrily. He said: 'You are trying to lodge a false complaint. Creating unnecessary problems. Get out of my office.' We left, upset by the Collector's insults but still ready to fight for justice."
Sadder and wiser, but also stronger
"But it made me stop and think seriously. How to be more successful. How to be more strategic. How to be more savvy, to win these terrible cases for our people. I started a union, called Vadodara Majdoor Sanghatana (Vadodara workers Union). Later we changed it, added state level status to Gujarat Kamdar Ekta Sanghatana (Gujarat Workers Unity Union)."
"When I was working on these issues in '97 and '98, I took on gender issues. I was appointed Programme Director for gender equity and womenís rights. We started looking at Navsarjan in terms of gender. It was a huge challenge and also not very welcome by our male colleagues from feudal backgrounds. 'There won't ever be women ready to join', the men said. We got 40 women leaders. The newly trained women began to question gender and equality within Navsarjan. The question was, could these very young women, newly recruited, freshly trained on gender issues, become real leaders?"
The litmus test came when a new case turned up.
"It was not just our victory. The news spread to all the surrounding villages. It caused waves, and several local women from the area, got the courage to come to us with cases of violence against women. These women were ready to depose and testify for the first time. Our women activists gave them support and courage locally. They were there whenever needed, to stand by the victims, to offer a shoulder to cry on. To just be there for them when things got really tough."
"We had to empower our women within the team too. So as a policy decision, to empower our own Navsarjan women activists and leaders, 40 Navsarjan women got transport loans. For every single woman, as for most rural and urban poor women, it was the first time in their lives they were getting something so big, entirely and solely for themselves. Not for their families. Nor for their kids. These scooters were solely for them. It had an immense and immediate effect." The mobility was transformative and liberating. It gave the women a new found freedom.
"They learnt to ride cycles quickly. They loved the challenge. And then they started with their scooters." Manjula recalled. The pleasure on her face was evident. "For the first time, our Dalit women were mobile. It gave them a new sense of power. I enjoyed going with them to choose a scooter. Within Navsarjan, we started giving women positions of power. First locally, then at Block level and slowly at State level."
Perpetrators declared guilty
Navsarjan filed a case, but unsurprisingly, the investigating officer did nothing. "I wrote to the National Womenís Commission and National Human Rights Commission." Manjula recalled. "They responded by issuing a notice. The Deputy Superintendent of Police was suspended. A new officer was appointed. He swiftly took action. Arrested the accused."
"We admitted the girl in our hostel," Manjula continued. "She completed the 7th class. It was a challenge. What next? We put her into DSK (Dalit Shakti Kendra) our centre for Dalit Empowerment. She learnt stitching. It was not easy for her. The family didnít want her back. She had brought dishonour and disgrace to their name, they said."
"These incidents of rape and sexual and domestic violence continue. A 19 year old Dalit Shakti Kendra student was burnt to death. Our own student. Her parents forced her to go back to her in-laws house, in spite of her fears of the previous beatings and threats. In spite of her numerous pleas to let her return home."
And so the battle continues.
(interviewed Manjula Pradeep on 28th April 2014)