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Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi: Caste, not class, is at the root of bonded

labour
Realising that the problems of caste have to be tackled at the roots, Lenin
Raghuvanshi has adopted four villages and one slum in which he is reactivating
defunct primary schools, eradicating bonded labour, ensuring that girls get an
education and that dalits have a minimum 50 per cent representation on village
committees

Though 'untouchability' was outlawed by the Indian Constitution 50 years ago, in reality, caste divisions still reign. Subsequent
laws have elaborated the rights and protections due to dalits and tribal minorities. But the contradiction between the laws
supposed to govern a society, and the ethics and beliefs which in fact rule the streets, runs high. Civil society treats the
symptoms of caste discrimination without attacking the disease itself. There is a tendency to reduce problems originating from
caste conflict to problems of poverty. Higher income, however, does not preclude cultural discrimination. Each case is treated
by giving out aids to the person suffering from a particular rights violation without looking at the underlying caste
discrimination. The greater impact of such an approach has been negligible because it sought to achieve equality among people
whose inherent inequality was accepted by society, perpetuated by government, and seldom challenged.

Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi's work springs from the conviction that unless civil society deals with the injustices of the caste system
head-on, it cannot attack social conflict at its root. Translating these convictions into action, Lenin has built local, regional and
nationwide institutions that challenge caste. His People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR) is a large
membership organisation that draws in people from different walks of life. Among the 50,000 members in five northern states
are 3,000 former torture victims whom PVCHR has helped. Their continued solidarity demonstrates how Lenin is creatively
building an inclusive social movement. Also participating are famous intellectuals whose integrity and credibility raise the
coalition's public image.

To translate policy into practice, Lenin has begun working on the latest part of his strategy, Jan Mitra Gaon, or the People-
Friendly Village. These are places that have durable local institutions that work to promote basic human rights in the face of
continuous discrimination. Lenin has adopted four villages and one slum to mount his pilot projects, which include reactivating
defunct primary schools, eradicating bonded labour, making sure girls get education, and promoting non-formal education. The
village committees consist of 50 per cent or more dalits, and seek to realise greater political representation of dalits on village
councils.

PVCHR draws on international human rights organisations like Amnesty International to increase pressure on the Indian
government and broaden support for the movement against caste. He has influenced other human rights organisations and
funding agencies to begin setting their own goals and priorities in terms of caste. PVCHR also has the distinction of using the
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to award the highest amount in compensation to a caste violence survivor.
Working to bridge the gap between the community and the NHRC, Lenin has now appealed for a State Human Rights
Commission in UP.

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Lenin's views on caste, conflict and social change took shape while he worked with bonded labourers in 1995. Lenin, who was
born into a high-caste Hindu family which he describes as "feudal," noticed that not a single child bonded in the sari or carpet
industries came from an upper caste, even though some high-caste families were often just as poor as the lower castes. He
realised that caste, not class, was at work. By the end of 1996, Lenin recognised caste in all kinds of social conflict and
envisioned a movement that could 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.

Lenin is a Fellow of Ashoka Innovators for the Public, a global non-profit organisation set up in 1981 to build an association of
social entrepreneurs who will undertake socially productive and innovative work in health, education, human rights, civic
participation, environment and economic development (www.ashokaind.org/ www.ashoka.org).

(InfoChange News & Features, September 2002)

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