Ashif Shaikh
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   India

Ashif Shaikh

Ashif is building a national movement to abolish the unconstitutional caste hierarchy in India, with community leaders from the lowest and most marginalized Dalit caste, at the center leading the…
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This description of Ashif Shaikh's work was prepared when Ashif Shaikh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Ashif is building a national movement to abolish the unconstitutional caste hierarchy in India, with community leaders from the lowest and most marginalized Dalit caste, at the center leading the movement, supported by institutions like lawyer networks, community based organizations and cultural groups and the constitutional law.

The New Idea

Ashif believes that victims of caste discrimination are going to be most effective in fighting against it, because of the power of their first person narrative, the courage and resilience they have built due to generations of marginalisation, and the inherent empathy which they feel with other victims from their community which brings the community together in a strong, unbreakable movement. In order to do this, Ashif is enabling victims to lead the change, by taking them through an internal journey of victimhood to leadership and building four pillars of support around them to facilitate this journey.

Ashif takes victims of caste discrimination, like manual scavengers, bonded labour, Dalit women subjected to gender violence, through an internal journey of empowerment to transform victims to leaders. This starts with victims recognising their own marginalization, taking action to end the atrocities committed against them, and finally taking other victims in their community through a similar process. This forms a spiral of empowerment with more victims transforming to leaders, who empower more victims to become leaders, who take charge of their own lives in order to end their victimisation.

Ashif has created a process through which the community leaders can lead change first within their own lives to stand up against marginalisation, then within their community to support other people and families to fight atrocities against them, and finally in bringing the community together so they can lead the movement for an equal society free to caste hierarchy.

The four pillars of support Ashif has built around the community leaders includes a network of lawyers that provide probono support to those fighting cases against atrocities they have faced, new laws that protect the rights of the Dalits, Sufi saint groups who preach equality and harmony amongst the castes in their performances, and alternate livelihood opportunities to those renouncing inhumane jobs like manual scavenging and bonded labour.

The Problem

According to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the total number of registered crimes committed against Dalits, considered the untouchable caste, is increasing: 14,318 crimes were committed against them in 1981; the number increased to 17,646 in 1991, 33,501 in 2001, and with some variations in the intervening years, remained high at 33,594 in 2009. The total number of reported cases of Dalits being murdered by the upper caste also rose from 493 in 1981 to 624 in 2009. A similar rising trend is evident with regard to rape cases as well. The conviction rate for rape cases brought by Dalit women stands at an appallingly low 2 per cent as compared to 24 per cent for women in general.

It is well documented that the police are reluctant to register complaints about caste-based discrimination and violence so national statistics on caste crimes against Dalits are grossly underestimated figures. However, even this limited data is enough to understand the gravity of the problem. According to a 2012 International Labour Organisation study, untouchability is practiced in 80 per cent of Indian villages. Crimes against Dalits – ranging from humiliating verbal abuses to rape and murder – are also widespread. There were 203,576 registered cases of crimes committed against Dalits by non-Dalits in India between 2003 and 2009; less than 50% of these cases were tried in courts. The slowness of the courts in delivering justice, with even the cases which make it to court being tried over 15-20 years, and low conviction rates, has encouraged upper caste perpetrators.

The justice system has been insensitive to the Dalit community because they are not represented adequately. Dalits and tribals make up nearly a third of India’s population (15% Dalits, 13% Tribals) but there are less than 2% Dalit or tribal lawyers at the bar or the judiciary. In Madhya Pradesh less than 0.5% of lawyers and members of the judiciary are from the Dalit community. In 2002, India’s only Dalit President, K. R. Narayanan, recommended to the Supreme Court to increase the number of Dalit lawyers in the judiciary, but the recommendation faced a backlash from the judiciary.

London School of Economics Professor A. Ramaiah examined why caste-based violence in India is increasing despite a history of legislation against caste discrimination, and found that the Dalit Activist movements in India have failed for two main reasons- they have traditionally been led by a single leader and they have failed to engage non-Dalits. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, for example, started multiple institutions to empower Dalits, but he was the president of them all, Namdeo Dhasal who positioned his movement “against” the upper caste, rather than trying to make them part of the movement as well.

The Strategy

Ashif started Jan Sahas in 2000 as a movement to end caste discrimination. He started working with those at the lowest rung of the caste system- manual scavengers. While trying to convince families from manual scavenging, Ashif quickly realized that due to centuries of oppression, the communities had accepted this illegal and dehumanizing work as their fate and did not recognize it as a caste atrocity against them. Ashif chose to work with the children of manual scavenging families, as they were facing the brunt of the discrimination, by not being allowed to enter schools, places of worship, not allowed to drink water from the village well, not given mandatory government vaccinations. By facilitating dialogues with the children about why they thought they were being deprived, the children arrived at an understanding that it was because their parents were engaged in manual scavenging. The connection that their profession was what was marginalizing them became clear to them. Ashif leveraged the children to then convince their parents to stop practicing this profession for the sake of a better future for their children. Once the first group of 20 families in one district of Madhya Pradesh had renounced manual scavenging, publicly announcing it by burning their manual scavenging tools symbolically in the middle of the village, Ashif organized a cross-country journey for these families, where they travelled from village to village convincing other families to also stop manual scavenging. Having been through the internal process of first realizing their victimhood, taking action to end it and then leading the change for others in their community, these Dalits were best positioned to take others on a similar journey.

After liberating 150,000 manual scavengers from 200 districts across 18 states in India from the dehumanizing profession, and rehabilitating them through education programs for their children and alternate livelihood for their families, Ashif realized that Dalits challenging the upper caste status quo had resulted in a backlash from the upper caste perpetrators, and increased violence against Dalits. Ashif realized that swift justice and a high conviction rate were critical to deter perpetuators and prevent atrocities, because of the fear of imprisonment and high compensations the upper caste violators would have to pay. In order to make the justice system responsive to the Dalit community, Ashif started building the first pillar of support- a lawyers network that enabled Dalit victims to represent themselves in the legal system, because they could tell their story the best and fight their case with most conviction.

Upon identifying a case, a barefoot paralegal, who was once them self a victim, supports the victim in filing a First Incident Report (FIR) with the police, ensuring the correct sections of the laws that were violated are mentioned. For example, if a Dalit woman is raped, both Section 375 on rape and Section 360 on Dalit atrocity prevention, should be implemented. Often, the police will leave out mentioning Section 360 because that involves more paperwork, as under this section the case will be fast-tracked to a special court.

In order to create roles for non-Dalits in this movement to end caste discrimination, Ashif has built a network of lawyers, Progressive Lawyers Forum (PLF), who have also been marginalized based on gender, socio-economic class. These lawyers are passionate about supporting the victims Jansahas is working with as they empathise with them. In return Jansahas supports their professional development by bringing in guest trainers on new laws and amendments, exchanging knowledge and being supported when they are stuck in a case by the other lawyers in the network. The network’s professional development activities are financially sustained through the Rs. 120 (US $ 2) annual membership fee they pay.

A PLF member mentors the victim through the legal process. They provided legal orientation and support to the victim and all the witnesses.

The barefoot paralegals and the PLF members also work closely in partnership with other institutions to change the protocols in the medical and legal system to make them sensitive to the victim’s needs, for example, by working with medical colleges to establish modules training medical students on how to examine rape victims sensitively, how police officers should examine and preserve evidence.

After the resolution of the case, or even during, as many as 65% of the victims who have been supported by Jansahas sign up to be trained as barefoot paralegals. 90% of the 180 staff members of Jansahas are also previous victims who became barefoot paralegals with support from the organization. They are trained by PLF members for another 6 months on advanced legal procedures. PLF also supports members of the Dalit communities, once victims, through scholarships and mentorship to study law and become advocates at court.

Starting in 2008, Progressive Lawyers’ Forum currently has a membership of 450 lawyers, who have provided legal support in over 10,500 cases of atrocity, across 100 districts in 5 states of India (Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar). This includes over 2,000 cases of rape against Dalit women, raising the conviction rate from 2 to 38 percent. Jan Sahas has trained 800 victims as “barefoot lawyers”, and another 600 as advocates, who have fought their own cases for justice and now support other victims currently going through the criminal justice system.

The second pillar to support Dalit leaders in their fight for equality are laws that protect their rights. Ashif built a movement of the freed manual scavengers, who did a campaign called Knocking the Door, in 2012 and 2013 in New Delhi for early passage the legislation and inclusion of demands regarding rehabilitation and total elimination of manual scavenging in Indian Railways. Through this campaign, liberated manual scavenger women are knocking the doors of Parliamentarians and appealing them for an enactment of the bill. As a result, in 2013, landmark new legislation, Manual Scavengers Act, was passed, which reinforces this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging in all forms and ensures the rehabilitation through alternate livelihood of manual scavengers to be identified through a mandatory survey. Kabir was a 15th-century Indian mystic poet.

The third pillar of support Ashif built was cultural groups spreading the message of equality. Realising that the philosophy preaches equality and respect for every human being because God is inside each one of them, Ashif has successfully engaged singers and Kabir (15th-century Indian poet) performers to bring the different castes together in villages. Ashif organizes free performances in villages and invites all the villagers from different castes. At the performance they are mandated to sit together, eat and drink together, which breaks down the caste barriers between people. Simultaneously, the performers’ messages of equality and brotherhood through song, dance, theater, and not preached or forced by law, brings about a mindshift change in the community to stop marginalizing Dalits.

Ashif is currently starting to build the fourth pillar of alternate livelihood, through a new for profit company, Dignity and Design (D&D), which will provide a range of alternate livelihood opportunities to Dalits who are leaving demeaning professions like manual scavenging and bonded labour. D&D will train members of the community in a variety of skills, from stitching, to handicrafts, to farming and cooking, and provide a platform to sell the products to global markets. The entire profits of the company will go towards the salaries of the rehabilitated manual scavengers working there. By 2018, Ashif aspires to build a fifth pillar of microfinance for Dalits to support them to become entrepreneurs and start their own business, like grocery stores, carpentry shops, garages, in villages.

The Person

Ashif was born into a rural lower caste family himself, but thinks himself privileged to have been supported by his family to go to school. He was discriminated at the Madrasa for being lower caste Muslim, and doubly marginalized in the mainstream school he went to later for being both Muslim and Dalit.

At the age of 17 years Ashif started the student membership union Sahasi Ekta Group (Courage and Unity Group) in order to increase student's participation in social development and problem solving, especially to fight the caste based atrocities he grew up facing, as did many in his peer group, which helped hundreds of Dalit children not included in the mainstream formal education process, go to school and college without fear of violence from upper caste perpetrators both in the form of peers and teachers.

While still in college, in Ashif’s home district, a child laborer along with two adult labors died in a firecracker factory accident. On further investigation Ashif found that out of the 19 workers in the factory, 7 were child laborers, and the others bonded labours made to work under extremely hazardous conditions. Bonded labour was made illegal in India during independence in 1947, where a person is made to work up to 18 hours a day, every day, for an employer they are enslaved to because they took a debt from the employer. Ashif visited other similar factories in neighbouring villages in the district and realized and discovered that there were 300 factories using bonded labour in the region.

Unable to bear the injustice, Ashif presented his findings in a report to the state government of Madhya Pradesh that proved that the original bonded labour's death, that started his journey, was due to the hazardous condition they are made to work under. When he got no response from the government, Ashif went through more than 5 years of old newspapers in the public library and found 150 other cases of death of bonded labour because of working in similar hazardous conditions, that had been termed as “accidental deaths.” Ashif aggregated and documented these cases and sent the story to major media houses. This created a huge media uproar, with the leading dailies, publishing this story on their cover page. Ashif had done this to create public pressure on Labour Minister and it worked. The Labour Minister called Ashif for a consultation, after that Labour Ministry and ILO started NCLP scheme in Ujjain to rehabilitate 3500 child labours through education in Ujjain city, under this scheme government provided a small stipend, food and other facilities to the children. Ashif marks this victory of justice his inspiration to commit his whole life towards ending violence and discrimination against marginalized communities.

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