From fear into power

I am working among the Adivasis (indigenous people) of Gujarat, the North West state of India.  I also worked among the Dalits (previously known as the untouchables) of Gujarat for over 20 years. I was already working as a Jesuit priest in Gujarat among the youth of Catholic community. I then participated in the International DELTA programme (this was the name for TFT in the early years) at Nairobi, Kenya.

Although I had been working for several years, my work was not focused nor had I much understanding of the Dalit community and its culture. DELTA gave me a direction and it made me understand how to work in a community. What touched me most was the approach of DELTA: that it is by knowing the community, understanding the felt needs of the groups that we can work effectively.  This was something that changed my work and ever since then, I found that my work to enable the community was transformed.  I was convinced that this method is the answer to empowering a marginalized community.

The Dalit community of Gujarat and elsewhere was exploited and suppressed by the so-called higher castes. In the caste structure the Dalits were considered outcastes and lived outside the official village.  Their rights and dignity were violated, atrocities were committed against them by the caste people and they had to accept it in spite of laws against such exploitation and discrimination. This community lived in fear and felt themselves to be inferior and helpless.

Our methodology

Fear, an inferiority complex, a lack of unity and self-confidence were some of the characteristics demonstrated by this community.  Through the DELTA/ TFT methodology our team tried to deal with these issues. One of the methods we used was to help the Dalits to accept their identity. For this we went into the caste structure and helped the members tell their story of exploitation and suppression. We asked the participants to prepare songs and drama to express their situation. This had tremendous impact on the group: analysis of caste, studying how it functions and how the oppressed community internalizes it and carries on caste hierarchy even when the oppressor is removed.  Naming the problem and understanding it from historical and sociological perspectives helped the participants to challenge it and to raise their heads. This has brought a sense of freedom and courage to the community.

Community leaders killed but the community became powerful

This is what had happened in Bhal area of Central Gujarat, a predominantly caste-ridden society: as the Dalit community became aware of their rights and started asserting themselves the dominant class – called Darbars in Bhal area – could not accept the change. They created a tension between two Dalit communities, Vankars who were in the process of awakening, and Valmikis who did not join the process. Darbars supporting the Valmiki community attacked the Vankar community and killed four of its leaders. This spread great fear among the Vankar community which had become slowly aware of their rights and dignity through our programmes. After this incident it was clear that now they would not continue with the programmes, and we thought it was the end of our transformative process.

But we continued being with the Vankar community and accompanied them in this situation without leaving them to themselves. That gave them faith in us. On the first anniversary of this incident we gathered all the leaders and discussed with them how to commemorate the incident.   We decided to organize a torch rally from the corners of the area carrying four torches representing the four leaders and to take that rally through the villages of Bhal area and to merge the flames it into one torch at the place of the murder. People were afraid of the consequences but after much discussion they decided to organize the rally.  It took them 3 days to implement the rally, covering the entire area and going through the villages where the Darbars were strong. We were with them throughout to support them in case any untoward incident took place. More than 20,000 people took part and on the third day they all gathered around the place where the four leaders were buried. The programme ended with a song prepared and sung by one of the leaders while the four torches merged into one. The Darbars did not dare come out of their houses. The confidence with which the Vankars implemented the programme and the sheer number that gathered made the Darbars very quiet.   The Vankars felt the power of their unity and  it was an affirmation of their courage.

This demonstration had such a powerful impact on the community that they lost their fear and started living courageously.  The court case that was registered when the leaders were killed was fought bravely and finally 14 leaders of the Darbar community were sentenced to life imprisonment by the highest court of the state, in spite of the Darbars having political and economic power. The judgment added to the confidence of the Vankars. Today the Vankar community of Bhal is confident and they live with dignity. This has given a good example and courage to other villages. They decided to forgive the Valmiki community, which had been used as a pawn by the Darbar community, and they decided to work together towards Dalit unity. Their fear was transformed into power.

Transformation through legal aid and legal education

TFT was used for legal education among the Dalits and Adivasis which helped empower these communities through information, enabling them to become aware of their rights and to deal with the injustice and discrimination they face. We started this programme when one of the Dalits who was working as a clerk in the tax collection office (octroi) was pushed out of his job by the village chief without giving any reason. He approached us for help. We used this incident as a code to make the villagers reflect on the situation.  Originally the entire community was not ready because the village chief was a powerful person. But the victim was ready to fight the case. We started with those who were ready. Within a very short time the village chief admitted his mistake and promised to reinstate the clerk and give him back pay. This has given tremendous confidence to the people in the village and among the marginalized of the area. With legal help they were able to teach the village chief a lesson and they have been able to get justice. This experience has helped the community and the Dalits of that area remain empowered because of the process.

Marginalized takes the Central stage

As I interacted with and accompanied the Dalit students I realized unemployment was a problem among them. They felt helpless and disadvantaged without opportunities. I went round the rural communities, conducted meetings in the villages and discussed with them about their situation and what could be done to improve their situation. What came up was the need for some job-oriented course. In order to help the most disadvantaged we decided to start an English course and training for secretarial work.  The criteria for admission were not having studied English at school, being from rural and economically backward areas and no opportunity for further studies. Our choice was for those who were most disadvantaged and marginalized.

English was taught through a needs-based approach where grammar was not taught but people were encouraged to speak English in the way a child would start learning its mother tongue. Teaching of English was also an occasion to have social awareness and social analysis. We asked the students to share in the group their experiences of exploitation. The group would translate their contributions into English. The English was corrected and used as an English text for the whole group. This programme was successful on two counts: not only all the students started speaking English but all those who went through the course got jobs and formed a youth organization to help other youth. Today that organization is affiliated to a National and also an International youth organization and doing a wonderful job of transforming the youth of Dalit community.

Failure of a programme transforms the community

As I started working with the Adivasis, I realized most people working among the Adivasi were outsiders – non-Adivasis.  I thought of preparing a cadre of young educated adivasi youth to work among their community. An 18 months programme was envisaged which was affiliated to a national Centre under the Department of Rural Development of the government of India.  We procured a small stipend for the trainees. During the course we experienced a large number of drop outs. After conducting two programmes the youth of Adivasi community did not show much interest. The programme ran short of participants and we had to discontinue. Reflecting on and evaluating the programme we realized the indigenous community was still looking for its basic needs and the families expected the educated youth to get jobs rather than enter community service.

Some of the trainees who completed our 18 months course enrolled for a university degree. One of them, Salu Moris, an Adivasi girl of the backward Bhil community is doing her Doctorate.  She is enthusiastic about her identity as an Adivasi and pursuing her studies on the women of her Bhil community. This year she has been selected to go to Canada to represent her university, a rare privilege. She may be the first Adivasi woman to go abroad from Gujarat.

Our team continued with our reflection and action process. With this experience of failure and listening to the youth we realized what the community wanted something to give further opportunities to the educated youth: support to find work and to establish themselves. We have now started a Career Development Training (CDT) programme with spoken English, computer skills, career guidance and personality development.  The students are also given training on interview skills, how to manage competitive exams and so on. We also dealt with the social issues as we did among the Dalits. The programme is going well. There is great enthusiasm among the youth and the community and we have had two years with 60 youth in each year. This programme is preparing the youth for social transformation through responding to their immediate and basic needs. The graduates of the first course have shown interest in their community. We are confident that this programme will bring about a transformation in the community.

Power of a United Community

I work with the indigenous community (Adivasis) of Gujarat who form 15% of the total population of the State of Gujarat.  8.2% of India’s population is made up of indigenous people – about 85 million. The Adivasi community of India is the most exploited and marginalized community in India.  The Adivasis can be fearful, afraid to face outsiders, much less a government officer. Unable to face difficulties or tension they will run away to the forest or give up easily. They will often keep silent, and will not show any initiative or interest in anything, even in things that affect their lives directly. They can be apathetic and might not express themselves easily.  Though they are the original inhabitants of the country, they have been driven out into forests and mountains.  During the British rule several laws were passed that dispossessed the Adivasis of their land, forest and natural resources. After Independence, the government of India continued these polices. To make matters worse, the Department of Forests made a decision in 2002 to prevent Adivasis from “encroaching” on the forest. This meant more than 10 million Adivasis were dispossessed of their livelihood and were turned overnight into beggars.

When we started the programme of community transformation through TFT methodology Adivasis were facing displacement. The problem was too large to deal with it on our own. We contacted other NGOs and local groups and started networking with them, initially to make the Adivasis aware of the impending danger of eviction. We formed a network of 43 organizations called “Adivasi Mahasabha” in Gujarat and a national alliance called “Campaign for Survival and Dignity” with 11 states where the Adivasis were affected by the order of the Forest Department.

We organized awareness programmes for rural communities with capacity building for the leaders and the youth. We used drama groups which would perform dramas and folk dances regarding the rights of Adivasis and the need to fight for them. These drama-cultural groups would perform at night in different villages where 300 to 3000 people gathered for every performance. This, together with leaflets in simple language with relevant information was used to raise awareness.  We formed a national network.  Through awareness and organization of grassroots communities – and advocacy and lobbying – we worked for national legislation to protect the Adivasis and to recognize their rights over forest and natural resources.

This resulted in getting a bill passed in the parliament of India in favour of the Adivasis.  This new legislation acknowledged the rights of the Adivasis and promised to undo the injustices done to them. Farmers were given up to 10 acres of land each and every village was given community rights over the forest around it. What was taken away from the Adivasis by the British is now in part returned to the people by this legislation.

It is encouraging is that the struggle was won through local people’s efforts.  Neither the national not local network organizations received any foreign money for this project. There was now a change in the mind-set of people. It challenged their dependency and brought out their resourcefulness.   The struggle was the beginning of a transformation of the community.

Today more than 182,000 individual applications are filed in Gujarat alone to get these rights. The whole process helped the Adivasis recognize their rights and their strength. In several cases they started challenging the forest officials and the police and even filed criminal cases against them for not following the new legislation. The implementation of the legislation is still under way.

TFT and my Personal transformation

During the first DELTA programme, I did not realized that I had changed but I went back to Gujarat a changed person. Being a priest means to me an openness to the reality around me.  I am called to experience the earth as the incarnated Jesus did. I now understand that my work is to create a better world where people can become fully human.  More recently I understand that I have increased my consciousness to include a greater connectedness to the universe. Previously it had been me who was working, it was my ideas and my plans. I was enthusiastic about work for the people. Now I realize that working with people, giving them a central place, understanding their culture, aspirations and needs is more important in any particular project. When we work with people we are there as a person learning, reflecting and challenging to bring out the best in them and to enable them to take decisions that will affect their lives and situations. We are like leaven, interacting with the people transforming themselves and their community. In this process, unlike the leaven, we too are transformed.

My capacity to observe, reflect and understand has increased. I have developed the ability to challenge groups in a non-threatening way. I have begun to give importance to the process rather than the product. It has made me open to different realities – and patient with situations and people that do not change easily. I have learned to work in a team. My religion has become a religion that unites rather than separates.  My spirituality has become a call and challenge to be who I am and to become who I am meant to be. God for me has become an all-pervading God who gives hope and comfort, who leads me, irrespective of my response to his/her plans. Failure, though difficult to accept has become a challenge for me to look for better options and to change my plans. I am aware that I am becoming, that I am being transformed but the work is not yet complete. I can with sincerity and humility say, “Be patient with me because God has not finished with me yet.”

By Xavier Manjooran