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A Dalit female activist in a male dominated field with close to no support system

By Aashika Premkumar, Arunika A, Saranya Sarkar, Vaibhavi, Vikas* 

We interviewed human rights activist Manjula Pradeep to understand intersection of gender and caste-based discrimination. Hailing from an orthodox Dalit family, Majula went on to become the Executive Director of Navsarjan Trust, a Dalit rights organization and has worked on multiple cases, especially those found at the intersection of caste and gender based discrimination and violence. One of the key reasons for her to enter this field were her personal experiences of being discriminated on the basis of her caste and being sexually abused at a young age. She chose to oppose her family by opting for the field of social work, something she believed would help her make a difference. She was well aware of the fact that the ground realities were often much severe and became interested in working closely with affected families and women.

Navsarjan Trust

Manjula joined Navsarjan at the age of 22, post graduation. As a part of her work, she was often required to stay for days in villages. According to her, her own experience of surviving with minimal amenities, helped her survive in these areas as well. Navsarjan gave her the platform to speak out. She quickly learned how important it was to be a silent observer by keeping your eyes and ears open at all times and also, to not rely on one’s personal theories and beliefs to interpret what was being perceived by being very objective about it. Gradually she realized how her mission to work on caste and gender based issues deviated from the core objectives of Navsarjan, which was primarily a Dalit rights organization. This was when she realized that she must pursue her own independent cases. She started off her fieldwork near Baroda and would often take off on her scooter to explore and learn more about the people she was to work with. Manjula found her work to be unique but the irregular working hours made her family unhappy. The living conditions at the villages where she had to spend several nights were often abysmal.

Prominent Cases

One of her major cases involved helping a minor Dalit girl, who has been gangraped. She had to protect the young girl from her own family and in the process received death threats from them. 40 policemen were deployed to protect Manjula and the girl, since she was scared that the family members would try harming the girl. Manjula also worked on a case from 2012, when 3 Dalit males were shot dead by the police forces. She protested for the accused to be penalized, however, since the main accused was a former Home minister’s nephew, the investigation was closed without a trial.
10 years later, Manjula found herself protesting in a similar case of violence wherein four Dalits were flocked by cow vigilantes (Una, 2016). They were tied behind a vehicle and made to walk, and then they were stripped and beaten up. When the video of the incident went viral, Manjula saw this as an opportunity to talk about the case from 2012. In 2016, she decided to sit on protests right in the state capital at Satyagraha Chavani with the families of the three victims, demanding a CBI inquiry into the murders. During this time they were called by various authority figures who tried to stall the protests.
Manjula was also one of the youngest members of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) delegation sent to the United Nations (UN) to represent Dalit rights. There she came across people with the misconception pertaining to one’s complexion and being educated, wherein a lady could not believe that Manjula could speak English so well, since she was a Dalit woman. Hence, Majula had to raise awareness to dispel such forms of stereotyping.

Challenges faced as a female activist

In her professional life, Manjula faced gender discrimination and had to traverse many obstacles in her path, owing to the fact that she was the only woman in her team. The men who worked with her, felt threatened to have a qualified woman in a position of power. Manjula faced several challenges in her career, both from within and outside Navsarjan. She was accused for abetting a suicide, was never supported by the men in her organization and even her family, had to work with a team who was not ready to accept her, was constantly disrespected and never received any recognition, despite being more qualified than most. The group was labeled “Anti-national” for the work they did and the Union Home Ministry canceled Navsarjan's FCRA certificate. Following this, a board meeting was held and Manjula was asked to step down.

Current work

Manjula has also set up National Council of women leaders and has trained multiple grassroots female activists over the years .This year they are going to focus on the issue of sexual violence against tribal women. Currently she is serving as the Director of Campaigns in Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network Project, a global platform connecting communities from different parts of the world who are also discriminated like the Dalits. Manjula takes pride in her decision of choosing the path of social work and maintains that it is extremely important to be humble and cautious, irrespective of what you choose to do with your life.

Key takeaways

Manjula’s experiences depict the importance of coming out of one’s comfort zone and speaking out against injustice. Her decision to protest for a case from 2012 by leveraging the awareness created about a similar case in 2016, demonstrated the importance of being proactive and mindful at all times. Remaining undeterred and persistent, in the face of opposition and challenges by staying focused on a higher order mission. As a female activist in a male dominated field with close to no support system, Manjula focused on persevering and never stopped looking for new opportunities to further her cause. She also stressed the importance of viewing each case as objectively as possible, by being a good observer.
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*Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad | PGP | 2021-23

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