Advancing Community Organizing Practice: Mediratta and Smith

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps

3. Grassroots Organizing in India - Three Profiles

During our field research in India, we visited 20 organizations and met with a number of researchers and individuals with extensive knowledge of organizing. Our analysis of organizing in India is based on the full range of these visits. This section focuses on three organizations with which we spent significant time, and which clearly exhibit some of the strategies we feel might suggest new ways of organizing to U.S. groups. They are:

As shown in the Table 1 and discussed in the following profiles, the groups are all people's organizations with some formal structure, or with some linkage to an NGO.(11) They span the range of non-violent, progressive organizing traditions in India, including Gandhian, Ambedkarite and Marxist. Together, they are diverse in terms of their geographic location, the issues driving their work, the constituencies they serve, the length of time they have been in existence, and their overall approach to change.

Table I and the following profiles provide a brief overview of each group's work. They are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to introduce each group's approach to organizing.

Table I: Organizing Group Characteristics

Name SEWA DJS & REDS YIP & its unions
Location Ahmedabad, Gujarat Tumkur, Karnataka Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh
Core Constituency Self-employed women workers Dalits Landless agricultural workers


To increase economic autonomy and self reliance for members To overthrow the caste system and establish a new and egalitarian society To organize land-deficit classes to fight for land, higher income and a more egalitarian society.
Core issues Worker's rights; gender exploitation; community quality of life issues. Caste oppression;

land reform;

gender discrimination.

Improved government services, land reform, and improved working conditions


Founded by Ela Bhatt in 1974. Later broke away from the Textile Labor Association. Founded by MC Raj and Jyoti Raj in 1970s. The Dalit Jagruti Samiti was formed in 1995. Founded by Narendar and Sonja Bedi in 1970. YIP began organizing in 1980.
Key organizing influence and central ideas Gandhi:

- Spread values of self-reliance, simplicity, anti-materialism;

- Increase women's leadership

- Pursue social,

economic and political change through non-violent mass protest.


- Assert a new Dalit identity;

- Build pride and unity in Dalit culture;

- Gain political power for Dalits through electoral strategies


- Assert a new class identity;

- Support class

struggle to redistribute surplus wealth;

Membership and organizational structure Trade union with 210,000 members nationally. Members are organized into 33 trade committees. They elect representatives to a 400-member Trade Council and to a 25-member Executive Committee. Membership organization (DJS) with 15,000 members, working closely with NGO (REDS) which provides staffing, training, and resources. DJS is made up of over 400 village-level committees, which elect representatives to a central governing board. NGO (YIP) which created and provides ongoing support for six trade unions with a total membership of 173,000. Unions are based in 6000 village-level committees, which come together form local councils and then district-wide unions.

The Self-Employed Women's Association

Five leaders sat cross-legged on the floor in the downstairs meeting room, drinking milky sweet tea and reviewing the events of the week. Two days earlier, the Indian Government had agreed to support SEWA's fourteen year struggle for a pension and back pay for beedi workers, who make small, hand-rolled cigarettes (beedis) in their homes. The women were elated - they had organized marches, strikes and public meetings with beedi employers and government officials and these efforts had finally paid off. Their victory was enormous - it would potentially affect over 150,000 beedi workers in Gujarat state and pave the way for similar battles in other states.

Later that night, SEWA leaders went into their neighborhoods once again to meet with members and plan how they would hold beedi employers accountable. Even with government support, it would take continued struggle to force the employers to compensate workers. But right now, these five women were enjoying their victory. It was a sign, they said, of what could be achieved when self-employed women workers united. "Before we were alone," Vasanthiben said. "We were not able to speak for our rights. Now we are in the union, and we speak together. That is our strength."

SEWA is an organization of poor, self-employed women workers who live and work in Ahmedabad city (population 3.5 million) and surrounding rural areas in the state of Gujarat. SEWA grew out of the Textile Labor Association, India's largest and oldest union of textile workers, and formally registered in 1972 as a trade union of self-employed women workers. With over 200,000 members, SEWA is the largest union in Gujarat and the largest union of self-employed workers in the country.

SEWA's members are women who work outside of traditional employer-employee relationships. They work at home as weavers, potters, garment makers, incense rollers and beedi workers, or as hawkers or vendors carrying out trade in the streets and markets from their baskets or cartloads of wares, or selling and trading their labor as agricultural workers, head loaders, domestic workers and construction workers. These women face different problems than male workers. They are paid far less than men, and the income-generating labor they do in the home is rarely recognized as "work." Although women are often the primary earners in their families, many do not have control over how their earnings are spent. Such authority traditionally rests with the male members of their families. The vast majority of working women in India are self-employed workers. These women constitute almost half of the urban workforce, and yet they are rarely included in policy discussions about the workforce and worker rights. SEWA uses the term "self-employed" to give "positive status, dignity and recognition" to women who have often described negatively as unorganized, informal or peripheral.(12)

SEWA sees economic empowerment as key to women's ability to challenge social oppression and political marginalization. It works, therefore, to connect self-employed women to the mainstream economy. The organization's goals are to help members achieve full employment and self-reliance. For SEWA, full employment means that workers have sufficient income generating activities to achieve work security, income security, food security and social security (including at least health care, child care and shelter.) Self-reliance means that women are economically autonomous and have the right and power to participate in decisions that affect their lives. By helping women confront employers to demand higher wages, develop literacy and job skills to increase their earning potential, and accumulate savings in their own bank accounts, SEWA helps its members confront exploitation as workers while also challenging oppressive gender relationships in their homes.

SEWA is made up of local unions, active mainly in Ahmedabad city, and local cooperatives that operate throughout the state of Gujarat. Women pay an annual fee of 5 rupees (about 15 U.S. cents) to be members. SEWA's total membership in 1999 was 211,124, including members in Gujarat and in 10 other Indian states. These members are divided into the categories of home-based workers, hawkers and vendors, and manual laborers and service providers.

SEWA members participate in the organization through a multi-tier governance structure. Members are organized into 33 trade committees that meet monthly to discuss common problems and plan joint action within their trade. Every three years Trade Committees elect representatives to a 400-member Trade Council. Members of the Trade Council in turn elect leaders and organizers to the 25-member Executive Committee of SEWA, the organization's highest decision-making body. This Committee is made up of 25 trade leaders and four staff organizers, and is responsible for making the major political decisions of the organization and for assigning work to the paid staff. Members of the Executive Committee elect the union's President and General Secretary, generally from the trade with the largest membership.

The trade committees coordinate the organizing activities for their trade. Some trades run campaigns similar to those of traditional trade unions. For example, beedi workers, who roll small Indian cigarettes in their homes, are involved in long-standing campaigns to increase wages and win benefits such as pensions. Employers contract out the work to home-based workers largely so they can claim the workers are not actually employees. One of the workers' central fights, then, has been to gain recognition as employees and win the many benefits that come with this status. Vegetable vendors, another major SEWA constituency, have led major campaigns around the right to sell vegetables in street markets throughout the city. A major struggle took place at Manek Chowk, one of the city's main street markets where vending families have been selling vegetables for generations. The police often harassed the women, and forced them off the street unless they paid the officers. This led to a direct action campaign through which the women won vending licenses and reserved spots from which to sell their produce.

Although SEWA is a trade union, its approach has much in common with community organizing in the U.S. Organizers often work on community issues that arise in their neighborhoods, such as a lack of basic services like clean water and sanitation. These issues are identified through membership meetings, home visits, or in surveys conducted by SEWA organizers. The following example illustrates the way in which SEWA organizers move easily between workplace and community organizing.

During the weekly meeting of urban organizers, a new organizer raised an issue that had come up in her conversations with members. Some of the members lived in a settlement along the banks of the Sabarmati River. Recently, during her discussions with members about workplace issues, they had been telling her of the horrible conditions under which they lived - their housing was dangerous and they had no clean drinking water. The organizer asked her co-workers and supervisor for advice. How should she handle the situation? The others were unanimous in their recommendation. She should organize a meeting of the people who lived in this settlement (many, but not all of whom were workers and members of SEWA), help them identify the problems they faced, decide on their demands, and go after the responsible parties.

SEWA members take roles in the organization that are similar to the roles of leaders in many organizing groups in the U.S.. Members serve on SEWA's Executive Board and their concerns drive the organization's activities. Both members and staff lead organizing activities, and both speak for the organization in public meetings, press conferences, and negotiations with public officials.

A unique aspect of SEWA's work is its joint strategy of struggle and development in working for change. Through struggle, women build the collective strength needed to ensure that employers and government officials treat them fairly and equitably. Through development, they work to create alternative economic institutions, generate new employment opportunities, build and control their financial assets, and obtain vital social security benefits such as health care and child-care. In the U.S., struggle and development activities are often undertaken separately, and by different organizations. In contrast, SEWA believes that the full benefits of each approach can only be realized when they are undertaken jointly.(13)

Most of SEWA's development work is focused on starting cooperatives that are directed and managed by members. Over the past two decades, SEWA has helped women build over 84 cooperatives with a membership of 11,610. They undertake a wide range of activities including dairy farming, handicraft work, agriculture, trade and vending, construction and other labor, banking and others. Through these cooperatives women are freed from dependence on merchants and other intermediaries for materials and credit, and are able to learn new skills and obtain better equipment so that the goods they produce will be of the quality and quantity needed to compete in the marketplace.

Ideology and identity also play a central role in SEWA's organizing. The organization's ideology weaves together class and gender analysis with a set of values based on the philosophy and forms of protest formulated by Mahatma Gandhi during India's struggle for independence. Gandhian values that are integral to SEWA's work include truth (satya), non-violence (ahimsa), simplicity of thought and lifestyle, respect for all faiths (sarvadharma), removal of untouchability, uplift of women and the poor (sarvodaya), and local self-sufficiency (swadeshi).

SEWA reinforces these values in a number of ways. The organization has developed a series of training institutes to teach new members the history, goals, and values of the organization. In annual gatherings, members are encouraged to discuss and explore the significance and implications of these values as they set the organization's priorities for the coming year. The organization also uses ritual to focus staff and members on these values. A daily morning prayer service, for example, is held at the main SEWA office each morning. Staff spend half an hour together in a large, open room. They sit on the floor, sing songs and prayers relating to SEWA's purpose and values, and prepare themselves for the day's work that lies ahead. The importance of a simple lifestyle is another SEWA value that is enacted daily. Members and staff generally wear khadi (homespun cotton cloth that Gandhi popularized as a symbol of anti-colonialism and national self-reliance during the Independence struggle), and shun synthetic materials and fancy clothing. Since Ahmedabad was Gandhi's headquarters for many years and he grew up in another part of the state, this Gandhian focus also invokes a sense of regional pride.

Most importantly, though, these values are acted out day to day in the lives and work of SEWA members. The uplift of women and the poor is the clear goal of the daily struggles of the various trade committees as they fight to build power and improve working conditions. Gandhi urged all true satyagrahis (a term for those who fight for truth) to fight without fear. SEWA encourages the same courage in its members during the confrontations that mark its organizing. SEWA's commitment to women's leadership is clear: of some 200,000 SEWA members and staff, only about a dozen (all staff, mostly drivers) are men. The values of economic equality and self-reliance are played out not only through these struggles, but also through SEWA's focus on creating co-operatives. These new economic institutions provide benefits to their members and serve as a model for the kind of society SEWA wants to build. The swavakanbanam (self reliance) that SEWA is fighting for encompasses both economic self-reliance, and a more personal independence in terms of decision-making and autonomy within the family and society.(14)

SEWA has built an organization that is remarkably diverse in terms of religion and caste. This has not been easy, and has required purposeful work to overcome societal divisions. SEWA's success in this area is evident in its actions during several of Ahmedabad's periods of communal and caste violence. Because its members cut across many castes and religious communities in the city, SEWA has been able to mediate communal conflicts where even the government has failed.

SEWA members consistently identify values such as anti-communalism, anti-casteism, economic and social equality, and simplicity as a central part of SEWA, and of what it means to be a SEWA member. They see these values as markedly different from those of the mainstream world around them, and feel pride in being part of a group with a vision for a better world. This creates strong ties between members, and helps them identify with the organization.

Since SEWA began in 1974, it has grown to a membership of over 200,000, and has built effective alliances at the local, national and international level, while winning victories that have produced concrete improvements in members' lives. SEWA describes its approach as the confluence of three movements: labor, women's and cooperative. The evolving nature of the organization is impressive. "We did not begin with a pre-determined blueprint for structuring our work. Our vision and ideology have been the guide for constantly evolving our structure and processes in response to the needs of our members."(15)

The Organizing Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi is well known for his role in India's struggle for independence from Britain. He developed the satyagraha (truth force) approach to change and transformed the elite-led struggle of the Indian National Congress into a mass movement against British rule. His strategies for bringing about social, political, and economic change have shaped the work of many activists and organizers throughout India.

Gandhi was born in Gujarat in 1896. He studied law in England, and worked as a lawyer in South Africa where he first developed the satyagraha approach to fight for the rights of Indians there. He returned to India in 1915 and led the struggle for self-rule until a Hindu extremist shot him in 1948, a year after India won independence from Britain.

Gandhi's principal goals for India were to win swaraj (self-rule) and sarvodaya (the uplift of all). Swaraj had two dimensions for Gandhi. As self-rule in a personal sense, it entailed rule of the self by the self, or the rule of the mind over its passions, especially greed and aggression. As home rule, it entailed rule of the nation by its people. Gandhi believed that the quality of home rule India achieved would be in proportion to quality of self-rule Indians achieved.(16) Sarvodaya in a general sense meant equality, and included the concepts that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all, that all work is of equal worth, and that manual labor is both dignified and important.(17)

In Gandhi's view, the struggle for these goals was obstructed by Indians' aspirations to live by the values of British civilization. For Gandhi, this was a civilization built on greed and devoid of morality. The first task for Indians was to rethink the dominant values. It is not enough to find fault with the imperialists, he argued, for India was "being afflicted by both the external virus of foreign rule and the internal virus of domestic corruption."(18) "If, through cowardice or fear of dishonor or death, we fail to realize or examine our shortcomings and fail to draw people's attention to them, we shall do no good to India's cause, notwithstanding the number of external remedies we may adopt, notwithstanding the Congress sessions (we may hold), not even by becoming extremists."(19) Indians, he felt, needed to clarify their own values and be clear about what kind of society they wanted to build.

Satyagraha, Gandhi's mass action technique, is based on truth and non-violence. Gandhi believed that the key to resolving a conflict situation was for the parties to arrive at a mutual understanding of the truth. The idea was not to force your opponent to do something against his/her will, but to convince him/her to embrace your perception of truth, and act according to it. A key aspect of satyagraha was non-violence. Gandhi argued that no one could know with certainty the absolute truth, and that without such certainty, we could not presume to punish our opponent by using violence. Self-suffering, another important element of satyagraha, guarantees the sincerity of the satyagrahi's own opinions, and restrains him or her from asserting ambiguous truths.

A satyagraha campaign always began with efforts to negotiate the conflict through existing channels. If these efforts were unproductive, the group of satyagrahis was prepared for direct action through intensive discussions and trainings. Next, a propaganda campaign was launched to educate the public through mass meetings and demonstrations. A final ultimatum was then issued to the opponent, explaining the action that would be taken if no agreement were reached. Next up to three types of direct action could be used to pressure the opponent. Picketing, dharna (sit down strike) and other forms of strike and economic boycott were the first line of action, followed by boycott of public institutions, and, eventually, running a parallel government. (See Appendix B for more detailed guidelines on the practice of Satyagraha.)

The constructive program was also a central aspect of Gandhi's approach. It involved actively working to build an economically self-sufficient and egalitarian society. Through this aspect of his work, Gandhi tried to construct positive models of how society should be structured. Small scale models of the new society he and his followers hoped to create were developed, often in ashrams. Gandhi's goals were expansive, however. He aspired to expand such models until they took over all of India, and the British system of governance was eradicated. His constructive program was based on the practices of communal (religious) unity, removal of untouchability, prohibition, khadi (and the swadeshi program of economic independence it entailed), education, sanitation, and economic equality. The "wholesome fulfillment (of this program) is complete independence," he wrote, and urged its implementation by all Indians.(20)

In his organizing, Gandhi used and transformed traditions and cultural symbols to take new meanings that would connect common people to a larger mass movement. For example, he used the image of a chakra, a spinning wheel used commonly in many villages, to symbolize the importance of manual labor, and to protest against the tyranny of modern 'machinery' and technology and the economic exploitation of the poor.

These basic principles shape the values and strategies of many grassroots organizing groups today. Some have started ashrams and service programs that follow Gandhi's concept of the constructive program. Many others have built membership-based, struggle-oriented organizations that use the satyagraha approach to non-violent direct action.

The Rural Education for Development Society and the Dalit Jagruti Samiti

In a remote village in South India, a group of Dalits from a local chapter of DJS entered a small restaurant. They spoke to the owner of the establishment, and demanded that he end his policy of serving caste Hindu and Dalit customers from two separate sets of glasses. This "two-glass" system is not uncommon in India - it is used prevent caste Hindus from being "polluted" by drinking from the same glass a Dalit has used. The practice is formally outlawed, as are all forms of untouchability. When the restaurant owner scoffed at the Dalits and told them to leave, they smashed all the glasses on his shelf, effectively ending the system.

The police came, and later the caste leaders of the village met to discuss this affront to their privilege. They called a social boycott on all Dalits in the village to punish them for their insolence. The boycott meant they would not be able to use water pumps or wells, latrines, or other public facilities in the village, nor purchase goods from stores or markets. Soon a large group of REDS and DJS leaders from other villages arrived to back up the Dalits from the local chapter. After a tense standoff the Dalit leaders and the caste leaders from the village negotiated a settlement. The illegal two-glass system was discontinued, and the boycott was withdrawn.

M.C. and Jyoti Raj founded the Rural Education for Development Society (REDS) in the 1970s as an NGO working with the rural poor in southern Karnataka state. They began with a development approach that involved digging wells and developing village infrastructure, but soon turned to organizing the rural. Using a class-based approach, they sought to bring together poor villagers to fight for better wages and improved living conditions. They organized local village committees throughout Tumkur District. As they worked, however, they saw caste hierarchies develop within their organization. This led them to analyze the dynamics of caste in the villages in which they worked, and they found that caste oppression was at the root of most fundamental local problems. In order to build a strong new identity for the poor, they decided to organize Dalits not just against their economic oppression but against their social oppression as well.

As the organization grew through the 1980s and 1990s, its status as a formally registered NGO began to emerge as an obstacle. Being registered with the government constrained REDS, and limited the extent of the political work it could undertake. In 1995, to address this issue, the membership of REDS split off to form a more independent non-registered peoples organization - Dalit Jagruti Samiti (DJS). REDS provides staffing, training, and other support to DJS. REDS also increased its support of broader efforts to mobilize Dalits in other parts of India. M.C. Raj and Jyoti Raj still direct REDS, and are acknowledged as its charismatic leaders. DJS is today made up of over 400 local village-level committees with a total membership of over 15,000. The local units elect representatives to six county level committees, which in turn elect representatives to sit on the DJS governing board.

REDS and DJS work on three main issues: untouchability and atrocities (violent attacks on Dalits), land reform, and gender discrimination. Untouchability campaigns attempt to end the segregated and oppressive treatment Dalits experience at the hands of caste Hindus. Campaigns against atrocities usually involve demanding the arrest of those who have led or been involved in assaults on Dalits, and the protection of Dalits. These incidents are used to move Dalits into action and to mobilize them to be active in the collective struggle for Dalit rights.

Land redistribution is a critical goal for the organization, as many Dalits are landless and have no option but to work as agricultural laborers for low wages. India has seldom-used laws that both limit the amount of land an individual can hold and call for the redistribution of surplus lands to those without any landholdings. Land reform campaigns aim to recover such surplus lands and ensure that they are reallocated to landless DJS members. DJS also runs campaigns against gender oppression, including violence against women. It nurtures the development of new women leaders within the organization, and reserves half of its leadership positions for women. REDS and DJS have also run members for elected office in the local level of government, the panchayat raj. Over 200 DJS members have been elected so far in villages across Tumkur district.

REDS and DJS work to build a powerful organization of Dalits in part by winning local victories on these issues. They focus greater attention, however, on developing and spreading a clear ideology, constructing a new and shared sense of Dalit identity, and supporting the expansion of DJS from an organization to a broader social movement. They believe a shared ideology creates and sustains the unity, direction, drive, and strength of the group. The development of such ideology involves looking back to old traditions, and pushing forward to create a vision of an alternative society.

The organization's ideology is known as Dalitism, which has its roots in the ideas and philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and in what M.C. Raj sees as the basic traditional values of Dalit society. It is based on the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, with an emphasis on democracy and open communication. Ambedkar's action approach - to educate, agitate, and organize - is also part of this ideological framework. REDS and DJS believe this belief system is relevant not just for Dalits, but for all Indians. Dalitism, they argue, offers a new national ideology for India.

REDS and DJS also put forth an alternative cultural and political identity for Dalits in their work. They emphasize Dalit history, and urge people to embrace their age-old traditions, while adapting them for use in the present. One such tradition is drumming. Dalit drummers have traditionally performed only at the funerals of caste Hindus and at other caste celebrations. They were not paid for this work; it was considered their duty within the caste system. Dalit drummers now play at DJS events and demonstrations in order to celebrate and invigorate the work. Drumming has come to symbolize a new and assertive collective identity for Dalits, which weaves together the democratic values promoted by Ambedkar, a sense of pride in Dalit contributions to Indian society, and a bold vision of a new India and their place within it.

REDS and DJS believe identity and ideology are key to building a movement that can mobilize Dalits throughout India to fight against their oppression. These alternative frameworks can help unify Dalits and provide the strength, determination, and direction needed to win their struggle. REDS and DJS share this Dalit identity and ideology with new members through stories, songs and street theater in meetings and in formal training sessions. As the following example illustrates, however, the new identity and ideology are also integrated into demonstrations to send a clear message to caste Hindus that Dalits will no longer accept caste oppression.

The sixty Dalit families of Bychapura were tired of the caste oppression they faced daily in their interactions with the 400 caste Hindu residents of the village. As Dalits they had to do certain unpaid work for caste people - it was considered their duty. If an animal died in the caste village, Dalits had to remove the carcass. When a caste-Hindu died, they had to drum at the service. If the sewers were clogged, they had to clean them.

Several Dalits had recently attended the 45,000 strong meeting to inaugurate the beginning of a new era for Dalit liberation. They were energized and ready to organize, and had decided to establish a DJS unit in their village. That afternoon they held a ceremony to unveil their signboard, which proclaimed that DJS was active in their village. The day's program began with a procession led by four traditional drummers followed by two boys carrying a garlanded picture of Ambedkar. The group, which numbered close to 100, marched loudly out of the Dalit colony to the main intersection at the center of the village, and danced and marched on to the meeting grounds.

The program was delayed, as the power had been cut off, apparently by some of the village's caste Hindus. Electricity was needed to power lights, but more importantly to power the microphone hooked up to two loudspeakers hung high on an electrical pole. The group wanted to be sure the caste Hindus in the main village could hear every word that was said. The program started, and a group of people sang to the accompaniment of tambourines. They had composed the songs themselves - they were songs praising Ambedkar and describing the Dalit struggle. The DJS president spoke about the need to spread Ambedkar's values and ideas, and about the struggles in which DJS was involved. He stressed that it was important for every village to be part of DJS so they could effectively fight for their rights. Next M.C. Raj spoke at greater length. He spoke about the oppression of Dalits and how they needed to come together to struggle for the Dalitization of India. He told familiar stories from Hindu mythology, and pointed out how they sanctioned the oppression of Dalits. People in the audience, even the small children, listened intently, and at times whistled, clapped, and shouted their approval.

All religions had served to further the oppression of Dalits, Raj continued. They needed to return to their past - to worship their ancestors and mother earth. Caste people feared the dead, but Dalits didn't. They knew the spirits of their ancestors remained in the air to give them strength. People also needed to commit themselves to struggle. Youth, he said, should work for Dalit movements. They should marry later and give at least 5 years of their lives - from the ages of 20 to 25 - to work for Dalit movements. He showed a DJS membership card and said every family should have one. They all had to support the movement and fight for change. This is what Dr. Ambedkar wanted.

Black is beautiful, Raj said to cheers from the crowd. They should feel proud, and wear the Dalit colors of black and blue as he did. A new sign was hung in the center of the village, which stated that Bychapura was home to DJS. Even the presence of the signboard would help keep the caste people in line, Raj said, and would protect the village's Dalits. He raised a clenched fist in the air. "Jai Bhim!"(21)

The Organizing Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Bhim Rao Ambedkar was born in 1891 to an untouchable family. His father was a soldier in the British army in India, which gave him the opportunity to obtain an education that most Dalits of his time didn't have. He studied in India, England and the US, and was greatly influenced by American democratic theory. He was active in Indian politics at the same time as Gandhi, and is remembered by most Indians for his role in writing the Indian constitution.

Among Dalits, Ambedkar is viewed as a hero. Most Dalit organizations and houses have a photo or image of Ambedkar. In these images, he is generally depicted in western dress -- wearing a suit and tie, eyeglasses and holding a pen and notebook - that represents the kind of educated and defiant image he wanted for Dalits.

Ambedkar believed in democratic egalitarianism and spent his life fighting to increase the economic, social and political opportunity for Dalits. In contrast with Gandhi, who was his contemporary during the Indian independence movement, Ambedkar fought to end to Dalit oppression rather than to achieve a free India in which Dalits were still oppressed by caste-Hindus. His guiding principles include: (22)

1) Untouchables should revolt because they are slaves and slavery is inherently inhuman;

2) Only by acknowledging their slavery and by admitting their inferior position can untouchables unify and press for change. Only by governmental acknowledgement of their deprivation as a class and the correction of that injustice by special treatment on a caste basis could equality eventually be reached;

3) Only untouchables could understand their own condition and needs; hence only untouchables should lead untouchable movements;

4) Education and politics are the chief means to equality: education so that untouchables are able to participate in society equally; political agitation and participation so that untouchables can secure their rights and redress their economic and social grievances by law through the development of their own political parties;

5) Untouchables are totally Indian. No foreign ideology nor foreign religion could help them achieve their equality as Indians. India must be free before they are free, but their battle for freedom must never be subservient to other demands.

6) Only as some untouchables become elite can the whole group be raised. Only if ability and ambition enable some untouchables to be at the top of the pinnacle can the mass below realize its own potential.

Ambedkar spent the early part of his life fighting to abolish the caste system and the restrictions it imposed on Dalits. He organized non-violent mass actions in which Dalits demanded the right to join in religious festivals and enter temples which had traditionally been closed to them. He saw these as ways to mobilize Dalits into an organized constituency -- to make them aware of their oppressed position in society and lay the groundwork for building local organizations and leadership. His work to establish a sense of pride in Dalit culture led him to reject Hinduism and lead mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism, claiming it was the original religion of the Dalit people.

In the political arena, Ambedkar fought to establish a representative governance structure in India through quotas to encourage Dalit participation in government and education. He also formed a political party that attempted to unify Dalits and other lower and middle caste Hindus behind an electoral strategy. Although this political party was ultimately unsuccessful, new parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party have emerged recently that are attempting to build a coalition of Dalits and other oppressed Indian around their shared experience of caste and class oppression.


The Young India Project

Islapuram is a village of stonecutters in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In 1996, many of its low caste residents became locked in a tense conflict with upper caste villagers. For many years, these Scheduled Caste and Backward Caste villagers had very poor housing, and no decent road connecting their village to the main road several miles away, but finally they had begun fighting for improvements.

Two years earlier, these villagers, with backing from their local YIP union, had begun a campaign to get better housing. There was plenty of unused land around the village, but it was owned by a Hindu temple in the next village. The union members spoke to the temple about using the land, then went to the government to demand that the surplus land be given to them, complete with titles, so they could build new houses. The upper caste villagers strongly opposed this plan, as their children used this land to play cricket and other games. The union continued to build pressure on the government through a series of meetings, and finally the government bought the land from the temple and gave 70 families title to the land. They immediately constructed temporary houses on the land to mark it as theirs.

The first night the houses were complete, upper caste people burned them to the ground. The union members called the police, who arrived in the morning to make arrests. The upper caste residents wouldn't allow the police to enter the village, and a tense standoff ensued. Finally, the police threatened to open fire, and the upper caste villagers backed down. Arrests were made. Over the next several years, the local union pressured the government to build new houses for its members and to make other improvements in the village. Eventually 70 houses were built, and a new road and several water pumps were installed. Building on their victories, several members of the local union committee were elected to the Panchayat Raj.

The Young India Project (YIP) is an NGO that created and continues to support seven local unions of agricultural laborers in the state of Andhra Pradesh. YIP began its work in 1970 with a focus on traditional development projects such as digging wells. By 1980 its class-based analysis of the area's problems led it to begin organizing the rural poor to improve their economic and social situation and protect their rights. YIP organizes members of the "land-deficit" classes to fight for land, higher income, and a more egalitarian society. Many of its members are Dalits, but it uses the language of class, not caste, to mobilize people to fight for justice.

The organization has a membership of over 173,000 through its unions. The unions are legally independent, but were started by YIP and continue to work in close coordination with it. The unions are membership organizations, and YIP provides them with staffing, training, financial oversight, monitoring, and guidance with strategy. The primary objectives of these unions are to help members access anti-poverty programs and other government services; to protect their rights - especially for Dalit, Adivasi, and women members; and to contest Panchayat Raj elections and fight for the creation of pro-labor laws.

The unions are structured in four levels. At the most local level are the village committees, which number over 6000. Groups of approximately 30 villages come together to form a Mandal union, which works on issues common to these villages. There are 190 Mandal unions. The Mandal unions, in turn, are grouped into 6 District unions, which are formally registered as trade unions. Each level elects representatives to sit on decision-making committees at the next highest level. Along with five other district-wide unions, YIP has formed a statewide agricultural laborers union with a membership of nearly 400,000, called the Andhra Pradesh Vyvasaya Vrithidarula Union (APVVU).

Unlike trade unions in the West, YIP unions do not focus on demanding higher wages. Most landowners in the area are peasants with relatively small land holdings and few resources. They only hire agricultural laborers for four months of the year when there is enough rain for crops to grow, and cannot generally afford to pay high wages. YIP unions focus instead on holding the government accountable for meeting the needs of YIP members. Many poor families depend for their subsistence on government services, which are seldom provided with consistency or quality. The unions have fought successfully to obtain new housing, clean water, sanitation, schools, health clinics, small loans, and land re-distribution. These benefits are won through negotiation with local government officials, as well as through the use of direct action tactics such as sit down strikes, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and even forcibly occupying land.

YIP helps its member unions press local government officials for change, and looks to transform local power dynamics. One aspect of this involves running union members for elected office. In 1995, for example, 7000 YIP union members ran for office in local Panchayat Raj elections, and 6,100 were elected.

YIP bases its work on a Marxist analysis of society, and attempts to integrate social factors into this economic analysis. Identity in India has long been defined by people's place within the social system of caste. YIP's approach is to challenge these traditional identities and build a new collective identity that is centered on class. Narendar Bedi, founder of YIP, explains:

(W)hen we talk about rural poor unionizing we are not talking about unions of workers working in the same trade, we are talking about unionizing because of the same economic condition: poverty. The unions of rural poor are therefore different from trade unions. They must address themselves not only to the range of economic problems and economic needs, such as need for land, housing, drinking water and credit. They must also address the social problems caused by caste and religious differences, such as untouchability, caste inequalities, and religious intolerance.

YIP has worked to adapt a class-based analysis to local conditions. When YIP started its work, it held meetings with members to identify the causes of their economic and social oppression. This led to a class analysis that divided people into several land deficit classes and several land surplus classes. Land deficit classes include landless agricultural laborers, marginal and small peasants owning five acres of less of land, artisans and self-employed petty businesses such as tea shops, fruit and vegetable vendors who are working for themselves and earn less than 1000 rupees ($20) a month. In addition to caste, YIP has identified gender, disability and age discrimination as forms of oppression. Thus, while the organization draws upon Marxist theory, it is also grounded in the reality of members' lives.

Recently, YIP has focused on helping the district and mandal unions become more independent and self-sufficient. To do this, it is helping the organizers deepen the connection of existing members to the organization, while bringing in new members who understand YIP's vision and strategy for change. This is done largely by training organizers to communicate the organization's ideology effectively, Bedi says.

The mandal unions take up struggles on issues brought to their attention by the village committees, which are members of the union. The base of the mandal union is the village committee, for that is where the poor join the union. This committee therefore has to be constantly strengthened in ideology and in increasing its membership. This means that each and every member must understand the political philosophy of the union and what the struggles are they can undertake through the union. The members must not only think of the benefits they can get through the union, they must understand that the union is the only organization of the poor through which struggles can be undertaken against a system controlled by the ruling classes in which they have no power.(23)

YIP uses music and dance to draw people into the organization, but transforms these familiar forms of entertainment to expand people's thinking. Kollatum, for example, is a traditional dance; the songs which accompany it deal with religious themes that convey how people should live and relate to each other in society. Kollatum was first converted into a liberatory form of cultural expression by Gaddar, a leader of a revolutionary Marxist movement known broadly as the Naxalites. He put revolutionary lyrics to the music, and made it faster and more energetic. Instead of celebrating the virtues of Ram and Sita, an epic marriage in which Sita, the dutiful wife, serves Ram, her husband and lord, Gaddar talked about the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich. "Look at the big house of the richest man in the village," his lyrics said. "We built this house with our own hands and tools, its sits on land in our village. It belongs to us!"

Songs like this help people become more militant. Bedi explains, "People generally listen to their elders, who accept the status quo. These songs help to change their thought patterns. They are a good entry point for introducing revolutionary ideas. If we just talked to people about these issues in a meeting, the elders would sit in the back and say: it's always been like this, there's nothing we can do." The organization has a staff person in charge of developing ways to integrate culture into their work. Each mandal union has a cultural troupe with its own colors and uniforms.

Although organizing is YIP's primary focus, it has also worked with village committees and county unions to set up Women's Self Help Groups that help women build savings and access credit and provide a forum for women to express their concerns. In much of rural India, jobs are segregated by gender. In agriculture, for example, weeding is men's work while planting and spraying pesticides is women's work. Women are paid far less than men for their work even if it may require more physical labor and longer hours. In the home, women must often run the household with little assistance from their spouses, but they rarely have the authority to decide how family's resources are spent. YIP has also created self-help groups for people with disabilities and children. These groups provide services and help to raise members' concerns in the unions.

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps