Published: 21st July 2020
The Martin Macwan Interview: How India can take inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement
In the backdrop of the BLM protests, removal of Confederate statues, we speak to the academic and Human Rights Activist about his letter calling for the removal of Manu’s statue from Rajasthan HC
Despite the raging pandemic that is threatening our life, the African-American community took over the streets of the United States protesting for a freedom that the world had assumed they had won in 1865. Too many from the community had been murdered, abused, exploited, robbed, harassed and threatened for too long, and now, after George Floyd, they had decided to escalate their demand for freedom and justice. Along the way they pulled down statues of men who had been celebrated by a history that had oppressed them — the Confederates — believers in White Supremacy and the institution of slavery.
And as the African-Americans rage on, the tremors of their footsteps have reached India and the oppressed communities in this land are now saying again that 'Manu Must Fall'. They mean the Manu statue which stands at the Rajasthan High Court. And the man who take these demands to Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, which is the ruling party in the state, is Dr Martin Macwan.
Macwan has been an academic and an activist for the last 40 years. A lecturer at the Behavioural Science Centre, he later served as the Founding Trustee of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, and Founding Member and Chairperson of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and is the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation based in Gujarat and is the recipient of the prestigious Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award. Macwan was forced into child labour in order to be able to afford his education and eventually, went on to pursue law besides other degrees, became a professor and in 1989, decided to start Navsarjan, dedicating his entire life to spreading awareness and uplifting the Dalit community. When the Black Lives Matter movement began to gain momentum and the protesters began to remove the Confederate statues, Macwan wrote to the USA President, Donald Trump about the BLM movement and then followed that up with writing to Gandhi about the removal of the Manu statue from the premises of the Rajasthan High Court. Ever since, people have been using the hashtag #ManuMustFall to demand its removal. Tamil Nadu MP Thol Thirumavalavan has also demanded the same.
The Manu statue was installed in 1989 and the idea to do so was first brought up on February 10 of the same year when Padam Kumar Jain, then president of the Rajasthan Higher Judicial Officers’ Association, wrote a letter to then Chief Justice NM Kasliwal calling for the statue to be erected as a part of a beautification project. The permission for the installation was granted on March 3. The sculptor, the late Sumahendra Sharma took several months to built the statue. However, from the time of its installment, the statue faced a lot of protests. Many oppressed groups demanded that the statue be removed because of the Manusmriti’s discriminatory writings on women and shudras. And on July 28, that year the judges unanimously voted to bring the statue down. However, a VHP leader filed a PIL against the move claiming that there is no discrimination or hate in Manu’s teachings and that it was important to have the statue as he was the first person in the world to draft a law. The court then passed a stay order on the removal of the statue.
In his letter, signed by over 700 others, Macwan wrote, “In 2020, it will be 93 years of marking the day when Dr Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti, a code/law which justified and upheld impurity of status for Dalits and Women. You would agree that the presence of Manu’s statue erected by non-State actors standing tall in 2020 in the premises of Rajasthan High Court is a shame for India and Rajasthan in particular. The Statue of Manu is also an insult to the Indian Constitution as well as Dalits, women and all those who believe in equality and justice. The statue weakens the call of Dr Ambedkar to annihilate caste so that India can grow as a nation.”
We sat down with Macwan to discuss why he thought it was necessary to write this letter, if India will ever have a ‘Dalit Lives Matter’ movement that involves students and the young and if a day will come when the country accepts that it has erected problematic symbols and celebrated oppressive ideas and be ready to pull them down, both physically and mentally.
There are people who deface Ambedkar statues almost on a periodic basis. What do you think about that?
There are two things — this is a systematically organised campaign with vested interest — it has been reported in Maharashtra before every election. Defacing a statue is a way to incite people. Second, Ambedkar has become an icon and is very popular these days, which is causing jealousy among the dominant sections in society. Ambedkar’s evolution, from his portrait being hung in the parliament from not too long ago, today, he finds a place even in people’s homes. The education system has failed as a means to eradicate caste. A country doesn’t become a nation if there is no sense of homogeneity, without equality - Ambedkar was right. How can we become one nation, if caste violence and untouchability continue to exist, or if 30,000 children are dying of malnutrition every year? All this is happening because of Manu's ideas about fate. This dangerous idea is internalised and passed down from one generation to another.
An Ambedkar statue defaced
Have there been attempts in the past to bring Manu’s statue down or did you feel the need to write the letter to Sonia Gandhi only after the BLM movement?
See, we were the first people to file a petition in Gujarat High Court to abolish manual scavenging practices in 1996 after which the national agitation began. I, myself, have been fighting caste violence for over 40 years in Gujarat and I’ve seen violence from very close quarters, one of my own colleagues was shot dead in 1986. So all of this is ultimately connected to the ideology of the avarna. There’s a reason why Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti in 1927 — it is a symbol. When I used to go to the villages as a young boy, I found that all the names for the Dalits were derogatory. When talking about how one should name a child, the Manusmriti says that upper castes should name a child in a way in which reverence is exhibited and for lower castes, the name should be contemptuous. So here, the scripture and the statue are not just symbols, these are symbols that reinforce that ideology.
So when the George Floyd incident happened, I drafted a public letter to Donald Trump and it had more than 4000 signatories. When Trump came to Ahmedabad and visited the Gandhi Ashram, the government built a wall to hide the colony just outside it that consisted mainly of Dalits and poor people. When the Chinese Premier had come earlier, they had covered the entire slum with a green net, but when Trump came, they actually constructed a wall. After protests, they lowered the wall but it remained. So, I connected all these incidents, felt that Black lives and the Dalit lives face a similar kind of situation. And when the protests started there, the first thing that came to my mind was that statue of Manu. And so I decided to write the petition.
Are you optimistic about Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party paying heed to the petition?
By just writing a petition or an open letter, nobody listens. So we have a systematic campaign going on. First, we collected signatures from all over the country and over 700 people have signed. Now we are having a missed call campaign to get support, it was launched only two days ago but by this morning (July 1) we had over 9000 calls coming in, I think it will go up to one lakh within a week. Besides this, on August 15, in 1000 avenues across the country we will get women to hoist the flags. Manu has said that women are an inferior race and that they are born to serve men and there is also an obnoxious law detailing what should be done if women ‘break the rules’. The caste violence, gender violence or the systemic poverty that we have is all a promotion of Manu’s concept of karma — which is that the sufferings of this life is a result of one’s karma and therefore, you one cannot look at it as a violation of one’s right.
The Manu statue in the Rajasthan High Court premises
In the letter, we have informed the party that we will wait till August 15 for them to pass a resolution at their party office in Rajasthan and Delhi and, as a state, they should decide to remove the statue. If they don’t respond to us, we will be forced to look at other modes of agitation. We have also asked them to file an application for an early hearing of the Rajasthan High Court’s stay order on the removal of the Manu statue which has been pending for 31 years.
A stay order for 31 years? Could you tell us the details of this case?
All the judges of the Rajasthan High Court had resolved and passed an order agreeing to have the statue removed because of the protests that took place in 1989, when the statue was erected. But before the order could be implemented, Acharya Dharmendra, from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, applied for a stay and it was granted by a single judge. And for the last 31 years, only one hearing has taken place on the matter. The last time a hearing took place was in 2015 but the lawyers created such a hungama, that no hearing could take place. If this can happen in the High Court, what will happen in the villages? This is highly concerning and that’s why the letter calls this an attack on the constitution.
The Confederates described their ideology as being centrally based “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition". These men, however, were in politics. Do you think Indians will ever be able to draw a parallel here?
There are differences between race and caste but the underlying anger which is within Black minds, exists in Dalit minds as well. That’s what we saw in Una, when the four boys were thrashed in public, the issue got attention across the country. So the anger is there — how can the country promote such a thing so brazenly in a democractic setup even after 71 years?
A BLM protest
Now, the facts and statistics that are coming out shows that even in the US this anger was building up. When WEB Du Bois started the movement many years ago, there were hardly any takers, people were scared because of police brutality. Not many people know there was correspondence between Du Bois and Ambedkar, they wanted to come together and raise the issue of discrimination together. After Du Bois, there was Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the anger started to grow.
People began to get more vocal after they got to know the extent of the violence that was taking place. Now with social media and the digital space, there is scientific data available. So in the US, they’ve found this is not a single incident, in the last 5 years, there have been 5000 murders. There are people who have been keeping track of every single incident, that is something that we did 32 years ago in Gujarat, documenting every single incident that happened. In Gujarat, the Scheduled Caste population is 7.01 percent but representation in jail for those convicted both of major or minor crimes is 32.9 percent. This pattern replicates across the country. On the other hand, when we look at the implementation of the SC, ST (Prevention Against Atrocities) Act, the conviction doesn’t go up to more than 5 percent. Now, when it is against Dalits, the conviction rate is high because there are judicial prejudices - this is systemic. But, students and the younger generation cannot tolerate this anymore. That’s why the language is changing, the articulation is changing and there is renewed anger. 32 years ago, when we were saying these things people would listen, but ask - what can we do? Now, that is changing.
How have the land reforms led to the increased anger among the oppressed?
In Gujarat, two Acts were brought in — The Gujarat Agricultural Lands Ceiling Act, 1960 and The Gujarat Tenancy and Agricultural Land Act, 1948. They were the most revolutionary Acts brought in post-Independence. It stated that 3.75 million acres of land would be made available to Dalits and tribals in Gujarat. Now, 54 years after its implementation, government figures say that they have been able to give just one-third of the land, that is 12.5 lakh acres of land. But even this is not true because when we were working with the villagers, we got complaint after complaint from them saying that they have land in their name but don’t possess it. When I go and teach in colleges and Universities, the first question to me is: Sir, but for how long can we have reservation? That has become a focal point, no one looks at land reforms. Nobody looks at the violence and inequality in society.
The protestors have demanded the removal of slave owner/ trader statues
Two years ago, two women Kantabai Ahire and Sheela Pawar blackened Manu’s statue in protest. They, unfortunately, continue to battle criminal charges in court, but what was your reaction to this incident?
These two women had gone there with a plan to give a petition to the Registrar of the High Court demanding that the statue removal matter be heard earlier. But when they got there and saw the statue, all the plans went haywire (laughs) and they decided to follow their own conscience. With their bare hands, they blackened the statue. In my experience, I have found that the anger among women is much more than men. Both Dalit and Tribal women suffer the most. That is where the feminist movement in India has failed — it has failed to address the caste violence on women. I’m the biggest supporter of feminist groups and I’m a part of many too but this is something that I tell them too. That is what the parliament is here for. But no politician wants to open their mouth about the Manu statue, it is a very small matter but this shows what their ideology is. To win an election, they choose not to become reformists. In our letter, we’ve asked Gandhi to also withdraw the cases against these two women.
White people are coming out in large numbers to support the Black Lives Matter movement and they are also taking responsibility for their actions and the actions of their ancestors and are promising to change to provide a safer environment for their African-American brethren. Do you feel we will ever see a day where something similar would happen here?
I’m very hopeful because I have seen change coming through. This is how I see it: 40 years ago, it felt like we were taking one step forward and three backward and now, I feel we’re falling only two steps behind. As a 17-year-old boy when I went with my professors to the villages, I saw with my own eyes how men from dominant castes would enter any Dalit house and do whatever they wanted with the women. Nobody would protest, even their husbands would be helpless. It is something that tore me apart but my professor had told me then: Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. He told me to first learn, listen and understand. It took me more than 10 years to understand this. I understood that people have limitations and they are helpless but today things are different. Today, because of reservation, many from the younger generations have been able to get jobs and become assertive of their rights. That’s why young people who have mustaches or put a ‘Jai Bheem’ sticker on their bikes are getting attacked.
Macwan with his Human Rights Prize
A huge section of the OBC community are falling behind some Dalits too and this has become new grounds for violence. But I work with them on a day-to-day basis and I speak to them and today, those are the people who are giving those missed calls (to support the removal of the Manu statue).
How do you think the removal of the statue will impact us as a society?
This is not just about Manu statue, but about the statue being erected in the premises of the Rajasthan High Court. That is what is most hurtful. If it was in somebody’s private home I won’t bother but this is a judicial institution that is supposed to give justice. When people go there and they see Manu standing there, what message are we giving them? And this was installed by the Judicial Association of lawyers with permission from the High Court. Going back to what Ambedkar said about us becoming a nation only when we become equal - this is how we can do it - our language has to change, articulation has to change, customs have to change AND symbols have to change.