By turning victims from the bottom of India’s caste structure into paralegals and advocates (on a large scale, so far over five big states), Ashif is uprooting both the psychology and the impunity that have long made change largely illusory. He is, of course, also greatly strengthening the rule of law.
“Manual scavenging” is a euphemism. In a country with very few flush toilets, this task involves scraping human waste out by hand and then carrying it in baskets to dump areas. Hundreds of thousands of women from the bottom (below caste) Dalit groups do this work, even though in theory it is illegal. They are shunned. Ashif’s mother sufferred this. And he grew up disadvantaged both as a Muslim and a member of this Dalit group.
Ashif won new national manual scavenging legislation and is struggling to get efective implementation, including rehabilitation. He is also pushing for tougher laws at the state level.
However, Ashif has always understood that for this law reform dimension of his work to have real bite, he must in parallel dismantle the caste system’s psychological and immunity foundations. And unite, in addition to manual scavengers, many classes of victims, including, for example, bonded laborers and Dalit women subject to gender violence. Both individuals and groups must go through the journey from accepting victimhood to becoming, in effect, partner leaders in the movement.
Ashif uses many tools. For example, culture: everyone in a village is invited, but they sit together and share snacks, and hear caste-challenging ideas. Another example: A cross-country village tour by former manual scavengers who speak to those still entrapped. But progress here has led to more upper caste “enforcement”, including violence.
There are so many reasons why Ashif’s cornerstone, breakthrough strategy is turning the victims from the very bottom of Indian society into paralegals and then, after more training, advocates. They serve other victims whose situations they fully understand and with whom they can communicate deeply. The fact that 65 percent of the victims Ashif’s movement has supported have themselves become “barefoot paralegals” says a great deal about the transformative power of this approach.
Here’s another measure of the power of Ashif’s barefoot people of the law: They have driven the rate of convictions in cases of rape against Dalit women up from 2 percent to 38 percent. That’s impunity going away.
There’s another reason Ashif’s approach works: He’s a great entrepreneur who keeps seeing systemic opportunities and seizing them. For example, he has organized both upper caste engagement and top legal support for his barefoot front line by organizing a large and rapidly growing legal support network, the Progressive Lawyer’s Forum.
A campaign – Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity) – launched by non-governmental organisation Jan Sahas helped liberate 11,000 manual scavengers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Sevanti, of Dewas district, says: “They told me that I could leave and this work was against the law. Before that, we were told we had to do it. There was no one who told us we didn’t have to do it."