Established in December 1988, Navsarjan started functioning as an organisation in 1989. Its primary focus has been Dalits, which largely includes people previously known as ‘untouchables’ — the most exploited class of Indian society. As time passed, however, and Navsarjan gained in respect, other communities and castes began approaching it for legal assistance.
The organisation has its roots in the 1970s when its founding-member Martin Macwan was involved in a sustained effort to establish consciousness within the Dalit community to fight socio-economic exploitation. The educational process led large sections of the community to assert their land rights and question their unequal and unjust social relationships.
The Golana Tragedy
As a result of its intensive programmes, Dalits began to stand up and demand for their rights. In January 1986, the feudal landlord Darbar community of Golana village in Anand district, unable to bear the loss of its social power, brutally attacked the Dalit community and those supporting it. Four of Martin’s colleagues were gunned down on the spot, eighteen others were badly wounded, and many houses were set on fire.
Thirteen long years of legal battle ensued, finally resulting in the life imprisonment of ten of the murderers.
Though the loss of the community leaders was unbearable, the knowledge gained during this phase in securing social and legal justice was immense. It reinforced the resolve to pursue struggle, strengthen movement and helped define all future programmes for the oppressed, leading to the establishment of Navsarjan.
Three basic lessons were learnt from Golana, which serve as today’s guiding principles:
1. Violence against Dalits is a systemic phenomenon. It can only be countered through a broad-based organization and movement.
2. Most crucial requirement in a movement is leadership, which must be stable as well as sensitive to its community. Such leadership best arises when it grows from within the community.
3. The war against injustice is more psychological than physical. There is therefore a need for mass awareness programmes on a continuous basis, side-by-side with action-oriented programmes.
Navsarjan is now solidly established in Gujarat, has built upon its foundation of fieldwork. It plays an active part in the overall Dalit movement of India and abroad. It is recognized as being one of the most successful and groundbreaking Dalit organizations of India.
Navsarjan works to help Dalits and other persecuted communities to escape the net of ideological deceptions through which the system has oppressed them for centuries. Promoting self-respect and dignity in all of its activities, Navsarjan dedicates itself to a variety of programmes.
As an organization and a movement, Navsarjan’s programmes can hardly be distinguished from other daily activities. Many of the programmes have been carried out since the inception of the organization, and will be pursued for many years to come. They may, however, be improved or altered according the needs of changing times.
Navsarjan promotes the use of non-violent action to protest the Dalit situation. With this aim in view, it provides services to both Dalits and non-Dalits.
Navsarjan’s Founder: Martin Macwan
Martin Macwan is the second born child of a poor Dalit family of 11 children from Nadiad, Gujarat. He worked as a child labourer for years, financing his education with hours of work in the fields. After graduating from the Gujarat University in 1980 with a degree in psychology, and two years later adding a law degree from the Sardar Patel University, Martin joined the Behavioural Science Center (BSC) in Ahmedabad. With the BSC, he served as a lecturer and worked in the field with Dalits and other exploited sections, including the Marijanas (a refugee tribe from Pakistan settled in the northern district of Banaskantha, Gujarat), and tribals from Bharuch district of South Gujarat. The BSC attempted to address the problems of economic and social exploitation of Dalits, raising awareness within different oppressed communities.
The tragic murders at Golana in 1986 had a profound effect upon Martin. Over the bodies of his murdered colleagues, Martin vowed to dedicate his life to the fight against inequality. This prompted him to found Navsarjan as a charitable trust in 1988 with the intent to pursue and intensify the fight to eradicate caste discrimination. Since then, Navsarjan has grown. It is now active in 3,000 villages of Gujarat, and has won major victories both in and out of court, having a concrete effect on the lives of Gujarat villagers.
Today, Martin Macwan is extensively involved with the Dalit movement at grassroots, national, and international levels. As national convener of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) between 1999 and 2001, he led the Indian Dalit contingent to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban. As treasurer and founding trustee of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, and founding member and chairperson of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and the Dalit Foundation, Martin has actively facilitated cooperation between Dalit groups across India and South Asia, helped train activists and leaders and improve upon the quantity and quality of research on Dalits at all levels in order to achieve better results in the fight against inequality and discrimination.
Winner of the 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and recipient of the Gleitsman Foundation’s Activist of the Year Award, Martin has also been honoured for his work by the Human Rights Watch.