Construction of monument of martyrs 18 children of hunger and malnutrition at Raup at Sonbhadra in India created a political discussion to bring hunger and malnutrition as political issue for election and policy of Government. It is also bring a hope, dignity and honour to Ghasia tribe.
Interviewed by Nilantha Ilangamuwa
(July 17, 2017, Varanasi, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Accountability and transparency are important values for me. There are no rights without accountability and transparency. If as a human rights organization, we are asking for accountability and transparency by the government and corporation, so we need to implement ourselves too,” Lenin Raghuvanshi an eminent human rights defender based in Varanasi, India told in an interview with the Sri Lanka Guardian’s recently launched initiative “Redefining the Civil Societies in Asia.”
“The people must believe in themselves. The need of the hour is to create new dynamics and debate for plural, humane and inclusive world”, he said
“Our forefathers were freedom fighters. Three of them rose against the tyranny of the Raj in 1857 and were executed,” Lenin recalled his ancestors.
The awards winning defender sat with Nilantha Ilangamuwa of Sri Lanka Guardian to talk the variety of issues in the area he works.
Excerpts of the interview;
Question: How do you introduce yourself to someone who has no idea about Lenin Raghuvanshi?
Answer: I was born in plural family. Each member was different from another, yet they lived under one roof. My Grandfather was Gandhian, but there was contrast in him as he was a socialist and atheist too. My grandmother was religious. My father initially joined RSS [i], but Grandmother told him that the uniform black cap of RSS is anti-Hindu. Then my dad became a communist, but he is still religious. There was always an ideological tussle going on between my grandparents and parents. My Grandfather wanted me to be a Gandhian and my Father wanted me to become a communist. Hence this tussle gave me an exposure to varied shades of opinion since my childhood. Later, I studied various philosophies, ideologies and religions, and five great people influenced my life and thoughts particularly and they include Prophet Jesus (pbuh), Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Karl Marx, Buddha and Dr.B.R Ambedkar. I have combined these ideologies, along with my struggle as a human rights defender against caste-based discriminations, to shape a new ideology, that of neo-Dalits. He aspires to reclaim human dignity. These are the cognitive and contextual factors for the energy in my life.
Our forefathers were freedom fighters. Three of them rose against the tyranny of the Raj in 1857 and were executed. My great granduncle, Markendey Singh, was a freedom fighter. His first wife, Rama Devi, who died of tuberculosis, handed over the Indian flag of the revolutionaries to my father, Surendranath Singh before she took her last breath. Rama Devi had defeated Lal Bahadur Shastri in an election of the Congress, during her lifetime. Being from a family of freedom fighters, my ancestors lost their landlord-ship. Initially pushed to penury, they struggled and became middle-class farmers. Some of them were doing government jobs.
Meanwhile, my grandfather, Shanti Kumar Singh, protested against the Raj and joined the agitation against World War II. He had to serve rigorous imprisonment.
All my brothers and sisters were named after prominent Marxist leaders by my father. Though he was a leftist, he was deeply religious.
Q. You are one of the founding members of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). Tell us the story behind the PVCHR?
A. From the beginning, Raghuvanshi was averse to the caste system. I refer to my higher caste Hindu upbringing as “feudal”. This sprung the seed of social activism in me. I became the president of the Uttar Pradesh chapter of United Nations Youth Organization (UNYO) at the age of 23 (1993).
With my exposure into the mainstream society, I realised that casteism is present in all walks of life. With the Indian Government tackling the issue with its reservation policies and making it perennial, I chose the path of uplifting them by making their voices heard.
I was influenced by the ideals of my grandfather, who was a freedom fighter and a Gandhian. Initially, I started to work on environmental rights and sanitation awareness. In 1992, I came into contact with Kailash Satyarthi (Nobel laureate) through Swami Agnivesh. I worked with him on issues of child labour and bonded labour. I realised that most people engaged in bonded labour belong to lower castes and that it was primarily lower caste children who were the victims of bonded labour. Thus, in order to redress the problem of bonded labour and caste discrimination, I founded the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in 1996, along with his wife, Shruti Nagvanshi, historian Mahendra Pratap, musician Vikash Maharaj, and poet Gyanedra Pati. It is a community based organisation, to break the closed, feudal hierarchies of conservative slums and villages by building up local institutions and supporting them with a high profile and active human rights network. The caste based violence, exploitation of poorer sections of the society and the marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis led to the establishment of PVCHR.
Q. How far has the PVCHR succeeded or achieved its aims?
A. We work against the Caste system and the structural prejudice associated with it. We work for the reconciliation among communities. We are also working for making the environment conducive for Truth and Reconciliation. We are initiating a discussion about democracy and human rights in the cow belt of India. Presently we have more than fifty thousand members and in more than four hundred villages we are carrying out our activities. Yes, there is a lot of change in more than two hundred villages. Since 2000 there has been no communal violence in Banaras, heart of the cow belt. Many religious leaders have united against Hindutva Fascism. The Mushar community has become confident and an indigenous leadership has evolved among them. 2/3rd Dalits, Muslims and OBCs are elected members in Governing Board of PVCHR from 2010. Since 2008 we are using Testimonial Therapy developed by PVCHR and Danish Organization Research and Rehabilitation center for Torture Victims (RCT) for the survivors of torture, in order to make them overcome the aftermath trauma associated with torture. Our testimonial Therapy model are using by partners of RCT in Srilanka, Cambodia and Philippines. The organisation has dealt with over 3,600 cases of domestic violence and rescued over 15,000 bonded labourers.
Dr. Lenin concludes by recounting an empowering story that has stayed with him through his journey as a dedicated human rights activist,“Baghwanala, an urban slum located in the Hukulganj area in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, is home to nearly 2,000 people. Child marriage and domestic violence are widely rampant in this area. PVCHR initiated a non-formal education programme there to inculcate the values of women empowerment among residents. These sessions had a direct impact on Chanda, Pooja and Jyoti – young girls in the village who were about to be married soon. They started a campaign to raise their voice against the impending marriages, and also saved many other girls from the same plight. They are currently creating awareness through bal panchayat meetings, street marches, open letters, signature campaigns, street plays, etc. Everyone has the capacity to become a changemaker – only if we take the first step.”
External Link: Watch a video on Lenin and PVCHR
Q. What are the challenges you are facing and how are you trying to overcome them?
A. The threats, intimidation, false propaganda and false implication tactics are very common, both by State and Non State actors. Courage, values, solidarity and in depth planning based on learning, analysis and emergency are main factors to overcome challenges.
Q. According to the organisational structure, the PVCHR has an elected Governing Board. Tell us the major role of the board and how does it actively participate in ensuring the management is based on true principles?
A. Governing board (GB) is apex body of decision making on direction, policy and rules. GB elected from members of community based structure of PVCHR, staffs, members of partner organisations, partner communities, and associated intellectuals, so many elected members of GB are involved in deeper activities of PVCHR. There is mandatory two meeting of in a year. Management committee of paid staffs formed by GB is only body of implementation of decisions of GB. GB is legal body for annual planning, monitoring and evaluation. In practices, GB is pro-active agency in PVCHR based on principle of ‘collective decision and individual accountability.’
Q. Do you believe in accountability and transparency? Let us know your views on these basic principles of managements based on your personal experiences?
A. Accountability and transparency are important values for me. There are no rights without accountability and transparency. If as a human rights organisation, we are asking accountability and transparency by Government and corporates, so we need to implement ourselves too. Initially, it is painful to implement these principles of management due to mind of caste, feudal structure of society and sectarian thinking of hegemonic masculinity. So it is important to bring personal example of executor of these basic principles. In absence of these principles, we are going to develop ‘gang of individuals’ but not organisation.
Q. Financial accountability is one of hindrances most of civil society organisations in Asia. Most are reluctant to discuss this issue in public. This, we believe, has detracted from their reputations. What is your approach in enhancing financially accountable?
A. Financial accountability is one of most important value for PVCHR. Involving beneficiaries in planning, implementation review and audit is our key element for process. PVCHR has own financial manual of rule and procedure (https://www.scribd.com/document/58139744/Book-Voice-of-Voiceless-June-2011). PVCHR organised social audit every year.
Q. What precautions do you follow to maintain integrity, dignity and the trustworthiness of the organisation?
A. Clear action on vision and values with inclusive and participatory process of planning, implementation and evaluation are backbone to keep integrity, dignity and trustworthy of organisation. Continuous evidence based impact assessment and further planning on learning, SWOT and stakeholders’ analysis are key process.
A. ‘Collective decision and individual accountability’ based on hope, honour and dignity is main mantra or factor to facilitate the comfortable working environment to those who are working in organisation. Care of staffs and democratic space to bring their voices are most important tools to create working environment on freedom and dignity.
Q. Partnership is an inevitable area of concern. Tell us, how you develop partnerships nationally, regionally and internationally?
A. Values and ‘solidarity for survivors’ are driving forces for partnership. Draw national and international attention to torture and other violation of human rights in India through the use of web advocacy to disseminate testimonial narratives to a wider range of stakeholders. We need different skills and stakeholders for globalization of resistance to restore humanity and humane sensibility. For that, we joined state level, national level, regional and international network as active members such as VOP, MAHFOOZ, NATT, Forum Asia and IRCT.
Q. How do you react when you experience inconvenience with partners?
A. First we discuss and communicate with concern in charge. If we did not receive information or satisfactory answer then we communicate with management committee or governing board at partner level. If matter is very serious in term of values and we did not receive scientific and objective response then we communicate in open forum at large to globe, which is happen very rarest.
Q. Your mission states that “To provide basic rights to all, to eliminate situations, which give rise to exploitation of vulnerable and marginalised groups and to start a movement for a people friendly society (Jan Mitra Samaj) through an inter-institutional approach.” Tell us more about the inter-institutional approach.
A. PVCHR takes the “policy to practice” approach in villages and slums, where caste discrimination is acute. Thus, we focus on implementing policies laid down by law. The Committee campaigns on various issues concerning the Dalit community including schooling for children, fair wages, land titles, and basic rights. On the other hand, in our work with non-profits, activists, academics, and general supporters, PVCHR believes in the “from practice to policy” approach. Our focus at this level is pushing society to acknowledge caste discrimination as a fundamental human rights issue. These strategies complement each other effectively. PVCHR’s fifty thousand members participate in rallies, demonstrations and signature campaigns. The interest and support of people who have not faced caste conflicts reinforces that it is a matter of concern throughout society. PVCHR is also a network of human rights organisations that helps move from “practice to policy” by ensuring the justice system seriously considers caste abuse and punishes violators. To translate policy into practice, PVCHR has begun working on the latest part of his strategy, Jan Mitra Gaon, or the People-Friendly Village. These villages have durable local institutions that work to promote basic human rights in the face of continuous discrimination.
Inter-institutional approach is based on stakeholders and SWOT analysis which a strategy to involve different institutional at local, distirct,state and national Governments then inter-Governmental bodies and sub-regional level such as SAARC, regional forum such as APF (Asia- pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions) and Global level such as UN and ILO.
Q. What are the similarities and differences that so-called marginalised people, untouchables and minorities that live in India are facing?
A. The main problems facing the India emerge from two things: the implementation of a ‘culture of impunity’, which is a shared belief that few can act without be accountable for their actions, at the social, economic and political level and the cognitive problem in the context of market democracy and economic globalisation. This explanation reveals how the combination of those two factors – cognitive and contextual – allow the rise of a Neo-Fascism state – an authoritarian state, which wants to make one country with one nation – and the implementation of an aggressive ‘Neo-Liberal capitalism’ – which perpetuate social and economic injustice. In this way, we would see how the ‘Neo-fascist Hindutva project’ is used to perpetuate caste domination and allow the Indian leaders to realise profit by selling the country to national and international companies. This economic deregulation marginalised lower castes, and therefore, strengthened social division based on castes. all these ’cultures of impunity’, which allows a minority group to govern and exploit the majority can be partly questioned by civil society organisations and protest movements that wish to reverse this cognitive and social pyramid or flatten it. For those reasons, power holders use many means to divide the lowers caste majority and divert them from the key issues that face India – through communitarian hatred. So minorities in India are on target. We have seen that all problems, which look apparently different, are actually linked. We will examine how this multiplicity of causes might be overcome by creating a unity process: a people’s one. What is the best way to fight against a Neo-fascist politics of castes and communities divide? The answer is unity. What kind of unity may we create to fight against the deep rooted caste system – which is the origin of social division and cultures of impunity – and Neo-Liberalism that increase the gap between the haves and have-nots and deprives many people of the benefit of natural resources?
Q. How do you place your organisation among others in the country?
A. We do not believe in comparison and competition. World and India need a lot of organisations for multi-layer and multi-dimensional intervention to solve various problems and PVCHR is also part of this.
Q. Reports indicate that poverty, malnutrition and inadequacy of basic resources are widespread in the country, though the government of India claims the local economy is growing. Why are the state authority always reluctant to approach the root causes of the social crisis?
A. India has one of the highest GDP rates of the world. As a ’developing economy’ in a global world-wide economy, the country tries more and more to immerse itself in the international market for goods and capital. This amazing economic growth is beautifully accompanied by the establishment of democracy, and seems to make India a paradise-under-construction. But this lovely facade hides many inappropriate practices such as poverty, brutality and destruction of nature. Let’s review these practices in the context of economic policies.
We may describe Indian economic policy as a conversion to the Neo-Liberalism religion with a brutal ’shut up’, steeped in ritualisation. On one hand, politicians use India as a reservoir of raw materials. They allow big corporation to exploit nature, and destroy the fragile ecosystem, which allows rural people to live, as they have been doing since ages. They sell the entire national key infrastructure – such as water, electricity, health, telecommunication, transport, education, natural resources to private companies to make money through corrupt practices. This privatisation process of state and land is strongly encouraged by Neo-Liberalist global institutions – as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc.
On the other hand, such practices of piracy against people – who are dispossessed of the wealth of their country by political and economic leaders – are perpetrated through by authoritarian and violent measures that government takes against people, who resist, and in the power-that-be’s lingo, try to mutiny against this spoliation. Police uses torture, army is called to crush the innocent citizens, who dare to speak the truth. The state machinery that is supposed to defend people and the hazardous legislation make them safe from any penalty for the violation of human rights are enacted – as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Armed Forces Special Power Act, which are used more against people, who dare to criticise these policies than against dreaded terrorists. During that time, other legal texts are enacted to protect and attract multinational companies to provide them fiscal and legal advantages on a very broad definition of what we call the ’free market’– as the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, which limits liabilities of Transnational Companies (TNC) from nuclear industrial disasters.
Thus, Indian leaders create a good ‘investment climate’ for big corporations. They allow these companies to play their dangerous economic game with all the rights and no duties and with a few and controlled popular contestations. This transforms India into a beautiful dream for TNCs, though they pose and remain a daily nightmare for rural and urban workers. Furthermore, we should understand that this situation is dangerous, not only because this seems to foreshadow the establishment of an authoritarian regime, which allows brutal political repression with impunity, but also because this political impunity is put in place alongside with the implementation of an economic policy of corporate impunity.
But this political and economical culture of impunity cannot only be fully understood by the opening of the Indian market to the international one or by the corruptive practices that plague public and private institutions. Behind those external factors, there is a cognitive reason, which is also very important to understand such behaviours among the actors: the caste system and the mind of the caste.
Q. You along with many others have constructed a monument to commemorate the victims of hunger in the country, a few years ago. What is the impact of symbolising grave social scenarios like that?
A. Construction of monument of martyrs 18 children of hunger and malnutrition at Raup at Sonbhadra in India created a political discussion to bring hunger and malnutrition as political issue for election and policy of Government. It is also bring a hope, dignity and honour to Ghasia tribe[ii].
Q. How do you mobilise the people, in general, to get together to enhance the organisation’s objectives?
A. Breaking culture of silence and bringing oppressed communities as Human Rights defenders through Testimonial Therapy, folk school, capacity building and space to learn knowledge, attitude and practice for human rights struggle are our main strategy to mobilise people. Amplify narrative of communities and survivors for solidarity is a powerful tool to mobilize intellectuals, policy makers and academicians.
Q. How do you develop trust between the organisation and the victims of human rights violence who are seeking your help?
A. If you are survivor centric then there is no problem. All of our initiative are based on hope, honour, and dignity of survivors and marginalised. We always to listen survivors and people as active listeners based on empathy and solidarity.
Q. What are the specific strategies or modules your organisation is using in redress, rehabilitate and relieving the victims of human rights violence?
A. The core strategy of PVCHR is based on four pillars is as follows
1. Policy to Practice: Grass – root level implementation as model village
2. Practice to Policy: People Centric Advocacy
3. Collaboration for solidarity, learning and replication of model
4. Organisation Building and Capacity Building
In the model mentioned above process policy changes are turned into reality with a tedious process towards the establishment of torture free villages.
This process is focussing on survivors and institutional reforms through;
1. Healing (Testimonial Therapy)
2. Legal Redress
3. Solidarity and Protection in a local context
4. Institutional Reform (Advocacy) [iii]
Q. Lenin, it has indeed been a bit long but very useful conversation with you. Let us wish you all the best and feel free to let our readers know if we missed anything you think should be highlighted here.
A. The people must believe in themselves. The need of the hour is to create new dynamics and debate for plural, humane and inclusive world. The people must make alliances with marginalised, Anti-fascist Movement and progressive forces.