India abolished discrimination against its “untouchables,” or dalits, more than 60 years ago. But despite real progress, centuries of subjugation have left a residue of discrimination that has proven difficult to eradicate, especially in rural areas, where Dalits suffer atrocities at a disproportionate rate, and authorities are often slow to respond to complaints.
It was against this backdrop that Martin Macwan, a Dalit, began encouraging dalit tenant farmers to stand up for their rights. Afraid of this threat to their social standing, members of the local landlord class killed four of Macwan’s colleagues in 1986, an attack that became known as the Golana Massacre.
Two years later, Macwan founded the Navsarjan Trust in the western state of Gujurat to work on behalf of dalits’ rights. Today, Navsarjan Trust operates in more than 3,000 villages.
“Before the cooperative started,” Macwan says, “the landless could only get work during the six months of the planting and harvesting season. After that, they had to migrate for the rest of the year in search of low paying jobs. The cooperative provided year-round labor: improving the land, trimming the trees, and making the charcoal.”
Laxmiben Macwana, a Dalit farmer, says, “For the first time in years, my family and I are not sleeping on empty stomachs. It’s the first time we have a sense of dignity.”