By Andrew Milner

Published on April 9,2021 at 9:20

This is the first of a series of blogs linked to the ‘Let’s build peace: here and now’ conversations being organized by the Foundations for Peace (FFP) Network. Through these conversations, the FFP Network and their partners want to create a space to tell the stories of peacebuilders who have been closest to the ground.

Let’s Build Peace: Here and Now – Featuring Martin Macwan

General propositions, moral precepts, and institutional resolutions are all very well. People telling stories about people is even more important.

25th January 1986. It was a crucial date in the life of Martin Macwan because it was when four of his colleagues in the work of organizing in Indian villages among Dalits were shot dead by local landlords. It was ‘a major tragedy which changed my life, and made me much more intense.’ He recalled the event for a recent broadcast conversation with Stephen Pittam for the Foundations for Peace Network.

“Peacebuilders are often witnesses to, even victims of, traumatic events. It’s work that requires courage and humanity and, in Martin Macwan’s case, it comes from his own deeply-felt experience”.

In spite of the shocking violence of the event, it was a good starting point for a discussion about peacebuilding. It reminded participants that peacebuilding is not simply something that proceeds from a theoretical moral position. Peacebuilders are often witnesses to, even victims of, traumatic events. It’s work that requires courage and humanity and, in Martin Macwan’s case, it comes from his own deeply-felt experience – he was born in a Dalit family – and his compassion. It’s not just a matter of what he thinks and believes, it’s who he is. The event made him realize that ‘when you deal with caste, ‘a lot of violence is involved because it’s a very systemic issue and because it’s a systemic issue, you also need a very broad-based organization of people who can fight it.’ Accordingly, he set up an organization called Navsarjan First in 1989 to take on this work, and ‘for almost 41 years I’ve been completely involved in this, in the villages.’

He reminded us, too, that, on the level of individuals and groups who have been at odds, removing an injustice is not simply a matter of signing a treaty or enacting a law because it is often deeply ingrained and is part of the mental make-up of the victims. ‘The people who suffer the injustice of caste discrimination believe that they are facing this treatment because of the sins they committed in a previous life, so they internalize the caste system and blame themselves for the injustice rather than somebody else and therefore a very prolonged educational process is involved to get people to understand that it is not they who are responsible for the position they’re in.’ So to the list of humanity and compassion, we can also add patience, which Martin describes as a ‘non-negotiable value’.

‘In my dreams, thoughts and actions, I always think of equality.’

Another of these is equality which is fundamental to his worldview. ‘In my dreams, thoughts and actions, I always think of equality.’ This has to be universally applied. No exceptions. ‘This realization,’ he says, ‘actually helped me to discover who a Dalit is; I define Dalits as all those people who believe in equality, all those people who practice equality, and all those people who protest inequality. Without embracing the value of equality and without bringing other-than-Dalits who believe in equality with us, we cannot break the caste system and bring about change.’

This not only gives us food for thought for the future of peace in an age when material inequalities are increasing almost everywhere, he points out that it has important ramifications for other forms of progress: ‘with the whole question of caste ….unfortunately people perceive it as the problem of the Dalits. Actually, it’s the problem of the whole of India because if some of the citizens of your country are not treated as citizens, then the whole country cannot grow, no matter how much development, so-called, you bring about.’ No exceptions.

And where is the place of anger in all of this? Injustice gives rise to anger, though Martin Macwan does not strike you as an angry person. In his case, a better word might be indignation. Whatever word is applicable, anger, not just among the victims but those who take their side – what veteran South African human rights campaigner Albie Sachs calls ‘volunteers to anger’ – can be used to positive effect. In a different conversation organized by ‘We Contain Multitudes’ on anger, atonement and healing Sachs talks to Simukai Chigudu of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement about the power of anger, about how it can be used to draw energy to fight injustice but cautions that it can be a double-edged weapon. Instead of being a source of strength, it can turn inwards and consume its victims. Like Macwan, he reminds his audience that fighting injustice is an endeavour that, ultimately, is pursued even for the sake of the perpetrators.

The Truth Commission in South Africa, he believes, was not about retribution but about moving forward. Yes, you need to shake people out of their complacency with your anger and indignation and yes, there has to be disruption because change is not always achieved by discussion and compromise, but beyond a certain point, if there is to be any progress, you have to encourage humanity.

Both men also stress the importance of symbolism and of creativity in the work of combatting injustice. In India, a new parliament house is being built and, explains Martin Macwan, ‘we have a tradition…of putting a coin in the foundation before the building work starts. The practice comes from a story about the digging of a pond. A Dalit man was beheaded as a sacrifice, because only with his blood touching the soil, would water come into the pond. The man was willing to sacrifice himself on the condition that untouchability was removed from society. Drawing on this tradition, we are going to get donations of brass utensils from thousands of houses, and we’re minting a coin of about 1,111 kilos – a huge coin. We are planning to give it to the government to put into the foundation of the new parliament house to keep alive the dream that we had in 1947 to make India untouchability-free and to try to accomplish that dream in 2047.’

Sachs, meanwhile, urges what he calls juxtaposition in place of iconoclasm. Don’t pull down the Rhodes statue, he suggests, confront it with another artwork that represents a different set of values and that calls into question the original. It’s what he describes as ‘having the last laugh on Rhodes’.

‘I’m not pessimistic at all,’ says Macwan, ‘because I’ve seen things changing. We need people who can have faith….who believe that this is possible.’

And despite their experiences – Sachs lost both an arm and the sight of one eye in a bomb attack – neither is bitter. On the contrary, Sachs has no patience with long-faced activism. He urges human rights activists to ‘be generous, have fun and celebrate when they give you the chance and the reason to celebrate. ‘I’m not pessimistic at all,’ says Macwan, ‘because I’ve seen things changing. We need people who can have faith….who believe that this is possible.’

Finally, both of them emphasize the importance of stories. The field of human rights has been overloaded with ideas – ‘theory, theory, theory,’ says Sachs. He wants to tell stories and to listen to them. Apart from anything else, Martin Macwan believes this is also an investment in the future: ‘we must take beautiful stories of change, and make a book for the children across the world. Because this a new generation, we have to invest in education, we cannot wait for the problem to come, and then find a solution. We have to pre-empt it.’ When he talks about children, his essential humanity is again apparent. He describes working with them as ‘very dear to me’ and regrets not having more time to spend on it. ‘We have to make sure somehow that the new generation is not exposed to this kind of discrimination. Unfortunately, we can’t do much work because of the lack of funding, but this is one thing that we should all get together and do, whether through textbooks, moral storybooks, videos or films, but we need to work on creating educational material for the children.’

Exaltation of the power of story is a fitting note to end on. This is not just because it illustrates the work of individual peacebuilders – the problems they face, the dangers they run and their triumphs – in a vivid and forceful way. It’s also because much of the work of peacebuilding happens at the level of individuals. If they cannot make peace with, and learn to recognize, their former adversaries, then a peace that is not confined to official rhetoric and formal institutions is likely to remain elusive.