In September 2012, three Dalit youths were killed in police firing in Thangadh in Saurashtra. The Gujarat government set up an inquiry, whose 2013 report was not made public. The Navsarjan Trust, an organization that campaigns for Dalit rights, challenged that. In August this year, it organized a protest against government inaction, during the tense days following an incident in Una, southern Saurashtra, where men claiming to be gau rakshaks (protectors of cows) beat up Dalit youths for skinning a dead cow.

Last week, the Union home ministry cancelled Navsarjan’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act licence, which permits the organization to receive donations from abroad. This was a crippling blow for Navsarjan because nearly 60% of its annual budget of about Rs3 crore comes from foreign contributions, according to its founder Martin Macwan. Rights-based non-government organizations are considered politically controversial and many find it difficult to raise money in India. Some donors don’t want to attract the government’s attention by supporting non-profits that challenge the status quo, and some donors are part of the status quo that social movements seek to confront.

Deprived of a significant part of its budget, Navsarjan announced it was letting go 80 staff members.

Macwan started Navsarjan in 1989 after four of his colleagues were shot dead in Golana village in caste-based violence. Having been a victim of violence and humiliation in the past, Macwan sought to respond through peaceful protest movements and legal empowerment, and so Navsarjan was born. Today, it runs programmes in 3,000 villages in 14 districts of Gujarat, including three primary residential schools for 350 children. Its path-breaking publication, Understanding Untouchability, outlined practices and conditions in 1,589 villages. It has campaigned for land rights and legal wages for farm workers, and it has assisted in more than a thousand cases of injustices and violence against Dalits and women. It has litigated to end manual scavenging. It has highlighted the case of teachers who forced Dalit children to clean school toilets and urinals.

Many in India believe that the issue of caste has been settled since reservations have been around for nearly seven decades. They think the Dalits no longer need special treatment. Heinous crimes, including rape, murder, lynching, and public humiliation through violence—such as in Una—continue, often with impunity.

Habits and customs haven’t changed. Caste-based matrimonial advertisements flood Indian newspapers. There are cases of people who marry outside their caste and then face social boycotts, and sometimes they are hunted down and killed. Crimes against Dalits are either unreported or, when reported, investigations and prosecutions are slow. The conviction rate is poor.

Many unaware of their privilege believe that Dalits who rise in spite of handicaps are undeservingly occupying the place that should belong to upper castes. Many among the elite lament “declining standards" because of reservations. To be sure, the implementation of reservations has flaws, and sometimes those in the “creamy layer", or the elite among Dalits, benefit at others’ cost. But many cases are genuine, and yet some among the elite questioned Rohith Vemula’s caste origins, rather than understanding the desperate rage that drove that brilliant doctoral student to take his life in January 2016.

Navsarjan needs foreign support because non-profits that highlight India’s flaws aren’t popular among many who are wealthy. This isn’t new. When Mohandas Gandhi set up his ashram in Ahmedabad, he faced an uproar from upper-caste Gujarati merchants, because the ashram’s residents had to take a vow to oppose “untouchability". To avoid alienating them, Gandhi said he believed in varnashram, the caste-based hierarchy of Hinduism.

When Gandhi invited Dudhabhai, the first Dalit, to join the ashram, a major crisis erupted. Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth write in The Shaping Of Modern Gujarat: “The merchants withdrew all financial assistance and the ashram was on the verge of shutting down. This time Gandhi stood firm and was prepared to shift to the untouchable (sic) colony in town but this move was averted by a timely contribution by an unnamed merchant (later revealed to be the mill owner Ambalal Sarabhai)."

Then, as now, donors seek anonymity: Some do so out of self-effacement, but may want to avoid being seen as supporting socially disruptive causes. A century later, India hasn’t changed much. Macwan draws support from Dalit donors too—he says that those with little money have been generous, but that the wealthier ones have an internal dilemma—to use the new-found wealth to belong where they were excluded from, or to side with those who are still being excluded. He asks: “Is the source of power rooted in one’s material wealth or in one’s own respect for their own liberty and dignity?"

In a more equal India of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s dreams where caste has been annihilated, Navsarjan would not have to exist. But caste won’t get annihilated by making it impossible for Navsarjan to function, nor by championing Ambedkar to undermine Mohandas Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. It will happen with recognition of, and abandonment of, privilege, commitment to social justice, and atonement by treating each Indian as equal, respecting his or her dignity.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns here.

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