Lenin Raghuvanshi, India
Madhurya Sai Amirapu on September 18, 2018 in Health & Sanitation
On May 18th, 1970, Varanasi gave birth to a hero. Lenin Raghuvanshi is one the country’s most prominent Neo-Dalit Rights Activist and Human Rights Advocate. He is famous for his innumerable and immeasurable contributions towards the upliftment of the downtrodden- notably his co-founding of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, his participation and leadership in the Weaver’s Society, Jan Mitra Nyas, Jan Mitra Gaon, the renowned People’s SAARC, and in the freeing of Bonded Labourers through his membership in the District Vigilance Committee. He is the recipient of numerous awards both Indian and international, including the M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award 2016, the Karamveer Award 2012, the Gwangju Human Rights Award and many more. His work is not just a long list of platforms and committees, but a revolutionary path of social activism, laid down with grit, honesty and a burning passion to bring about equality.
We at Deed Indeed tried to get a closer glimpse of the story behind this true man of the masses.
Dalit in ancient Sanskrit translates to ‘scattered’. Dr. Raghuvanshi took it upon himself to put back together their scattered pieces of dignity and human rights, that lay spread in difficult-to-reach crevices, as a result of casteism.
What was it that inspired this child of relative privilege to not just stand by or passively protest, but to take such profound action against this social evil?
Lenin Raghuvanshi was born into an upper caste Kshatriya family. He would go on later in life to denounce his caste and religion in protest to the caste system, however he would continue to selflessly protect and battle for those who can’t defend themselves, thus honoring the original role of his original caste. At a very tender age, Lenin was exposed to various ideologies. He comes from a family of freedom fighters, three of whom were executed on account of revolutionary activities against the British Raj. His grandfather, Shanti Kumar Singh was a freedom fighter who followed Gandhian principles and was a key influence over young Lenin’s ideas of freedom, justice and what bring a country glory. He would often speak about Grassroot politics and the change that develops from there. Lenin says his father was a communist (and the reason behind his and his siblings’ Marxist first names) and his mother a libertarian. Thus, not only was he witness to a number of heated dinnertime discussions, he also had ample political and conceptual material to digest as a child. With time, he found himself sifting through and arranging these into ideas and ideals of his own, focusing and choosing to believe in basic social justice, empowerment, service and harmony. He simultaneously and ironically promised himself to stay away from politics. He would let his heart lead him in life and he ultimately would lead with the heart as well.
Lenin’s uncle was a successful neurologist in America and so naturally the family was inclined to admit him into the State Ayurveda Medical College, Haridwar, in hopes that he would bring upon them further academic glory. Lenin says, “They had this particular idea in mind for me, and so I joined”, he chuckles and continues, “But it soon became clear to me that I preferred treating the community and society rather than the individual, and it felt like that was the way forward.”
Around the year 1991, a college going Lenin became acquainted with future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi through Swami Agnivesh. These new connections helped foster his innate desire to support the most marginalized of society and spend his time in welfare actions. He joined Satyarthi’s organization in their efforts of freeing children and releasing bonded labourers. He then made a simple but profound observation (Newton’s apple anyone?) during these numerous rescues- “I came across the fact that there was not a single bonded child labourer from my community or any upper caste community, even among those subjected to the same level of penury and I had to ask myself, ‘Why them?’”, Lenin said. He further learnt of the various cruelties and evils that the lower castes were being subjected to. It was in abject horror that he got to know of their standard of life or lack thereof, the inhuman mistreatment and altogether injustice of the system. It soon became clear to him that measures and institutions meant to prevent and aid the same were already in place, these had failed. It was then that he was convinced of his role as an upper caste-men. It felt only logical that it was his duty to help those who couldn’t help themselves. He felt an obligation towards them, almost akin to repaying a personal debt.
Other factors also helped shape the man he was to become, such as being the Chairperson of the UP chapter of the UN Youth Programme at 23 and other socialist activities throughout his adolescence.
It was in 1993, that Lenin Raghuvanshi came into contact with a bonded labourer from North Bihar named Nageshwar, whose bond had been sold 6 times already. Unable to bear the brutality, Nageshwar had run away from his then bonded employer (‘employer’ being a magnanimous word in the given context). Unfortunately, he got caught and as punishment was branded with hot iron rods. It was the witnessing of these marks and the disgraceful psyche of deep seated casteism behind these acts that ignited the fire in Lenin. For him, there was just no turning back from that point.
On further analysis and probing of the issue, Lenin began to see that it ran much deeper than expected. The years of conditioning in a caste riddled society had led to the altering of the backward caste peoples’ own perception of themselves. They had accepted the truly helpless circumstances that they lived in. Lenin undertook the gigantic task of restoring self-respect and self-love among these people. On being asked about how he initiated the major task of upliftment, and how he fostered trust with the chronically ill-treated, Lenin replies, “Initially they did not trust me, they just did not. But the fact of the matter is that they are always in dire need. So, a group of us, we went and studied their problems, and tried to learn what we could from them. With empathy and active listening, we began to understand the various facets of their life, their ideas and so forth. All this played a major role in not just fostering relationships, but also improved communication and helped us in implementing various schemes for them more efficiently.”
Lenin and his team have gone to slums and have educated their residents of their constitutional human rights, the various schemes and opportunities being made available to them. They have encouraged them to file FIRs in necessary circumstances and to stand up for themselves. “It was a long process, but then they started to realise they too have choices.” That is where the empowerment starts from.
They gave them multi-dimensional support, in the form of knowledge, education, money, infrastructure and care. They opened schools for their education called folk-school, where practical information for a dignified, independent life was being imparted.
The team started offering scholarships to female students. They also would compensate the bonded labourers with the promised bond amount, thus enabling the labourers to believe in another future. They called it a ‘Rehabilitation Package’ and the amount would vary from 20,000 – 60,000 based on the bonds being broken, for example Child labour bond was about Rs.20,000, whereas a Husband and Wife labour bond was around Rs.50,000 and the rehabilitation packages were constituted such that they match the amounts. It was through such dynamic mechanisms that they made a difference. “We could independently fund the schools and scholarships, but we received a great deal of financial aid from other charities for the rehabilitation packages.”, Lenin explains. He cites Desmond Tutu as a great help in this regard. “We always support charities that have supported this cause in return, in our full capacity”. In terms of infrastructure Lenin lists some of their achievements, “Till date, we have built 3 irrigation pumps, established 17 cognitive centres and kindergartens for them with the help of the government.” He is also grateful to various international charities, namely from Korean and Germany, for their monetary and financial aid.
Lenin Raghuvanshi’s voice is all buoyancy when saying, “We have former child labourers like Pooja and Jyothi who were rescued and went on to receive a wholesome education. They have achieved so much, becoming lawyers, joining the Peace Corps and are now coming back to help uplift the others.” He speaks of them like a proud father. The sheer success and momentum of Lenin’s actions have many such examples of invigoration.
When watching any of Lenin’s interviews, one is quick to notice the fervent enthusiasm with which he speaks when talking about the abolishment of discrimination, or the radiance on his face when describing even the smallest victories they’ve brought to these people. It is obvious that he feels as one among them, their happiness is his and their liberation his life. He constantly reminds people that the prosperity of all citizens is a win for the country, and more importantly that they too are our fellow human beings.
The above said was and is no easy task, as it meant uprooting from society and the collective Indian mindset, something that was as established as religion itself. But undeterred, Lenin set out to do the impossible, meticulously planning and diligently executing. He went forth knowing that salvation was to come one freed labourer at a time, one educated Dalit girl at a time and so on. He faced challenges from a number of sides- authorities, politicians, law-keepers, members of the mafia, his fellow caste-mates and extended family (some falling into more than one category), he nevertheless persevered through it all. It was through his intelligent and truly sustainable, hand-in-hand approach that he made headline worthy headway.
When asked about his wife, Shruti Nagvanshi, Lenin acknowledges her fondly. In her, he has found a kindred spirit and a lifelong companion especially in regards to his chosen life and ideologies. Both have converted to Buddhism. They have a son together, Kabeer Karunik. On being asked about his conversion, “I see it as a protest, a protest against the rigid caste system that prevails in Hinduism. I still pray to Mother Kali though, whom I see as a rebel of sorts, while still practicing Buddhism. I studied Hinduism and while going through the Manusmriti and other texts, I realized we had a parallel stream of religions being formed called Shramana Dharma which was a movement that gave rise to Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivakas and such. These had no caste system and thus I drifted towards them.”, he says with candor and simplicity.
All in all, there are many lessons to be taken from this man’s incredible and arduous journey. Here is a man who finds fulfillment in the ascension of those below him. Through his persistent and innovative efforts towards the rehabilitation of the Dalits, he has proved and reminded us of how far reform is possible when passionate about it. His convictions shine through like a lighthouse on a foggy ocean night, and those on the sinking boats of unjust discrimination row towards him with the greatest hope. He showers them with a compassion that is long overdue. Lenin Raghuvanshi is one of the Caste System’s greatest nemeses and is one of Society’s Downtrodden’s most dynamic champions and we can all take a humane leaf from his book.