Formation of Voice of Dalit International (VODI)
(L to R. V.J. George, Kirsten Forrest, Eugene Culas and Irene Culas in Trivandrum in January 1999).
In September 1998 Kirsten from England while visiting India met Eugene in Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala State and discussed his work with the marginalised communities – fishermen and Dalits. As Kirsten showed more interest in the work with the people, Eugene introduced her to Harvipuram, a Dalit village on the outskirts of Trivandrum,. During that period Eugene was living with a small family of social workers in Harvipuram in a very small hut. After witnessing the life situation of the people in the village, Kirsten expressed her willingness to help the villagers and prepared a draft project –in the form of a booklet - Harvipuram Report. After the visit of her mother Irene, who she had also included her in the Report, Kirsten soon had to return to England to take up her further studies.
(Family members- L.R: Shalini, Pastor Sam, Mrs. Valsala Sam, Shyni in their home )
In January 1999, Kirsten introduced Irene to Mr. Eugene Culas and Mr. George V.J. who were working together among the marginalized people of Kerala, India. They introduced her to different development projects with which they were associated. Several years of work among the people, to their credit, they were convinced that in India, a great amount of developmental work was wasted in combating oppositions against development. This was due to the peculiar mindset of the people of India based on centuries old caste belief and practices.
Having studied Dr. Ambedkar's thoughts, they were of the opinion to form an international platform to explain to the outside world about the caste phenomena asthe best way to address the problem of the ordinary Indian masses, of whom 90% of them
are Dalits, "the historically broken people”.
In January 1999, Ms. Irene from Grimsby, UK visited India as a tourist. While in India, she happened to met Mr. Eugene Culas and
Mr. George V.J. who were working together among the marginalized people of Kerala, India. They introduced her to different development
projects with which they were associated. Several years of work among the people, to their credit, they were convinced that in India,
a great amount of developmental work was wasted in combating oppositions against development. This was due to the peculiar mindset
of the people of India based on centuries old caste belief and practices.
Having studied Dr. Ambedkar's thoughts, they were of the opinion to form an international platform to explain to the outside world about
the caste phenomena as the best way to address the problem of the ordinary Indian masses, of whom 90% of them are Dalits, "the
historically broken people”.
‘WEST BID TO HELP EAST':- 1999
Back in the UK, within few days, Irene made a Press conference which was reported in the Grimsby Evening Standard on April 1999. The newspaper carried an article with title ‘WEST BID TO HELP EAST'.
Irene also contacted the Charity Commission, obtained documents for the registration of a Charity and passed it on to India and then back to UK. As this procedure was time consuming, Eugene came over to UK in July 1999 for the registration of the Charity. But the registration procedure took long time. Meanwhile both Irene and Eugene with their friend Ms. Kathleen Bernard, who are the initial Trustees of the Charity, started contacting individuals, church and community groups by providing information on Dalits. However the local community was unwilling to accept the existence of Dalits, the “Untouchables of Hindu caste system”. This posed the first obstacle for the new organisation.
EXPOSURE TRAINING PROGRAMME:- 1999
The unwillingness of the local community to accept the existence of Dalits, made things very difficult for the initial Trustees to take the work forward. So we decided to have the presence of a few Dalit leaders and future leaders amidst the communities in the UK. The idea was to provide witness to the situation of Dalits in India/ South Asia as well as to learn the democratic and international mechanisms. Accordingly, we invited four persons from India. Along with them, we have also invited Mr. V.J. George, as one of the Trustee of the Charity.
The candidates were given orientation by Mr. George. However when the visa applications were filed, it was difficult for the candidates to get their visa. The visa officer offered to provide visa only to Mr. George, as the Trustee. But was unwilling to allow others to travel to UK. Upon this Mr. George refused to accept his visa and insisted that he would accept his visa only if the activists were also given permission to visit UK. After a couple of days, the officer consented to issue visas to all the applicants, who then came to Grimsby in two batches – first George in October and others in November 1999, thus giving birth to the first Programme of VODI – Exposure Training Programme.
All the new comers to Grimsby formed themselves into a team and started networking with individuals, church groups community groups etc. Those community and church groups who were once reluctant to accept the existence of Dalits now started accepting the fact on the strength of witnessing by the new arrivals. One generous couple Dr. & Mrs. Sarkar allowed the team to stay in one of their houses for one year, thereby giving us a contribution equalling to £5000/-. Other individuals and community groups also started to respond to the witnessing of the Team members, by providing clothing, food, furniture for the house etc. The team continued their interactions in the community. This attracted the attention of the Grimsby Evening Standard. On July 7th 2000 it reported the existence of the Exposure Training Programme in Grimsby for Dalit leaders and future leaders from South Asia with the title "Charity plays host to Indian Guests". We hoped to have a full-fledged Training institute in Grimsby. Meanwhile we also came in contact with an initiative called International Dalit Solidarity Network/Dalit Solidarity Network–UK.
SEMINAR ON CASTE & HUMAN RIGHTS: - 2000
The changed positive attitude of the community and interaction with the local educational institution etc. encouraged the Team to organise a Seminar on Caste & Human Rights at Grimsby College on 7 th June 2000. Rev. David Haslam of Dalit Solidarity Network- UK was the keynote speaker. This was the first time a Seminar of this sort was held in Grimsby, which was attended among others by three persons from London as participants. They were Mr. Hirekar, Mr. P.C. Sondhi and Mr. M.S. Bahal, originally members of the affected community living in the UK for several years as Non-Resident Indians.
They informed us that there are several members of Dalit communities who live in different parts of UK especially London and Midlands and they advised us to shift our office to the South and help unite them to pursue the cause.
EDUCATIONAL SPONSORSHIP PROGRAMME:
As a result of networking, some members of the local community in Grimsby offered the Team members with some small contribution on a regular basis to help poor children to pursue their education in a Dalit village called Harvipuram, where originally Irene met Eugene.
However, due to the non-coperation of some of the members in this village the programme did not take place, but later shifted to another village under the guidance of an NGO called CECT – Coastal educational and Cultural Trust.
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON DALIT HUMAN RIGHTS:
Taking the advice of the members of the affected community seriously, we started to visit the UK based Dalit communities in different parts of the country. Apart from the first three persons whom we met at Grimsby, some of the key persons we met from June to September 2000 were Mr. G.S. Chambers and Mr. T. R. Bali of Sri Guru Ravidass Sabha, Mr. Satpal Muman and Mr. Gautam Chakravarthy of Ambedkarite Buddhists, Mr. Dharmpaul Nahar and Mr. Baldeve Gill of Valmik Community. The constant interaction with them motivated us to convene the first international Conference on Dalit Human Rights in London on 16-17th September 2000. This was organised in association with D S N–UK and the communities of Ravidass, Valmik, Ambedkarite Buddhists and Christians. This became a historical event because it has brought together almost all Dalit communities in the UK for the first time. This Conference also brought together many eminent persons from India and other countries. Apart from other contributions, this Conference brought out two specific papers – ‘Caste in Britain' – by Mr. Satpal Muman, second being, ‘International Aid agencies Addressing Dalit Issues'- by Mr. Leo Bashyam of Christian Aid. The Conference proceedings were published in a book form and by www.ambedkar.org
DISCRIMINATION IN RELIEF:
On 26th of January 2001, the earthquake in Gujarat, India once again demonstrated the discrimination against Dalits in the matter of relief and rehabilitation. Having come to know the discrimination, VODI made an earthquake appeal based on the discrimination. We have also networked with the UK based Dalit communities, who refused to handover their collected amount to any Charities in UK. BBC reported the matter through the Breakfast news and International News on 26th of February, which was used by the Opposition in the Indian Parliament.
VODI sent its representative to the earthquake affected areas in Gujarat and made a film. This was shown to the audience of a Seminar attended among others by the representatives of India High Commission. VODI also made a report on the discrimination, which was published by international newsletters.
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON DALIT DEVELOPMENT:
Following the success of the first Conference on Dalit Human Rights in London and World Conference Against Racism in Durban, VODI, organised another international Conference on Dalit Development on 22-23rd of September in 2001. The same communities who co-operated in the first Conference behaved differently this time. This factor coupled with 9/11 incident brought a low turnout to the Conference.
EARTHQUAKE REHABILITATION PROJECT:
After realising that the relief aid sent from international sources were not reaching the deserving Dalits in Gujarat, some of the Dalit communities decided to hand over their collections to VODI. VODI decided to use the money thus collected to engage a Team of people to go and live in an affected Dalit village in Gujarat.
Accordingly in the beginning of 2002, it engaged a small Team of people to move into a village called Madhapar in Bhuj, Kutch district in Gujarat.
The original work was undertaken in co-operation with an existing local charitable organisation which is legally in control of an infrastructure for the community.
CONFERENCE ON DALITS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AID:
In May 2002, VODI organised a Conference on the above subject in Birmingham, inviting the then Secretary of State for International Development, Ms. Clare Short M.P. This was to draw the attention of the international community of aid agencies to the realities of poverty and its relation to Dalit situation. This Conference also highlighted the existence of caste in Britain, which was followed up by Radio-4 by interviewing different resource persons from the Conference.
In this Radio programme, VODI's director Mr. Eugene Culas was interviewed and he spoke about the existances of caste practices in British schools, educational institutions, work places, religious places etc.
DALIT DEVELOPMENT / JUSTICE AND DEVELOPMENT COURSE:
Towards the middle of 2002,VODI made an arrangement with Southall School of Languages and Missionary Orientation to start an international Course on Dalit Development / Justice and Development Course. The Course officially started in 2003 and the next two years it took almost all the attention of VODI. For the first time in the history of Dalits, such an international Course was started. VODI was able to provide opportunity to 23 participants from India and Nepal. Some of them, after training have gone back to resume their work in their countries with a greater responsibility, some others joined with international Dalit movements and the remaining are continuing their higher studies in UK.
INDIAN CONFERENCE ON DALITS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AID:
After the paper on International aid agencies addressing Dalit issues became a part of the first Vodi Conference in 2000, the subject became a hot issue for those who were working for the development and human rights of Dalits. Naturally the DSN-UK has adopted it in the name of Dalits and International Development Aid in 2001. In 2002, Mr. Bashyam presented the same paper in a seminar in the presence of the then secretary of state for international development. In 2003, to test the waters VODI took this subject up through two national conferences- first in New Delhi, India. This was followed by state level conferences in several states of India. This conference produced "Delhi Declaration" (See Conference for details). However, to test the waters, in 2003, VODI took this subject up through two National Level Conference and Seminar in India and Nepal and several state level conferences in India.
NATIONAL SEMINAR-NEPAL ON DALITS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AID:
In july 2003, a similar conference was organised in nepal, in association with Jana Uttaan Pratishthan (JUP) of Nepal and other members of the Dalit NGO Federation of Nepal. It was held in Kathmandu on 27th July 2003. The Delhi Declaration and the DSN papers on the subject was widely discussed and debated.
Everyone present acknowledged that this was the first time such a subject was discussed from the people's point of view, for which all who were present appreciated the efforts of VODI (Se Report for details).
VODI-UK / CASTEWATCH-UK:
In 2003–2004 the networking efforts of VODI bore fruits in the form of VODI-UK mainly to take up the caste discriminatory practices existing in UK. A committee was formed. During this time the same Radio, which interviewed in 2002 after the Birmingham Conference requested VODI to associate to produce a documentary on caste in Britain and later involved members of VODI-UK committee. Some of the members of this committee helped to produce such a documentary, which was relayed by Radio-4in April 2003, and later repeated. Upon this the VODI-UK Committee decided to focus on 'Caste in Britain' and subsequently decided to rename and reconstitute as CASTEWATCH-UK. This was officially launched in 2004 through a conference at Coventry for which VODI provided funding.
TSUNAMI AND DALITAID:
The 2004 tsunami once again established the existing discrimination against Dalits even during times of disasters. Along with highlighting this practice even by the aid agencies, VODI used the opportunity to form a Working Committee under the leadership of Mr. Jagdish Rai, one of the community members with the aim of developing it into an aid agency in the future to reach out to the discriminated groups during times of disasters and to fund other developmental projects. One of the first contributions to DALITAID from the community groups was used to produce a film on ‘Tsunami and Dalit Resurgence'