IARF-India Chapter: Organizing Human Rights Education

By Nicole McConvery

The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) works for freedom of religion and belief at a global level by encouraging interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Founded in 1900, the organization has member groups in twenty-five countries, from faith traditions including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, and Zoroastrianism. Since 2007, the IARF’s India chapter has been doing inspiring work in the area of human rights education (HRE), and interfaith event organization. Hosting numerous workshops, trainings, and conferences each year, IARF-India has trained over 3,220 youth/young adults, teachers, social workers, and students in the areas of interfaith understanding and human rights, highlighting issues around social inequality as well as the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). IARF-India organizes human rights education workshops for college students in collaboration with IARF-SACC (South Asia Coordinating Council), the regional IARF organization for South Asia. These trainings entail intensive, face-to-face interaction between participants, who come from diverse backgrounds and faiths, and are facilitated by highly qualified professors, lawyers, social workers/advocates, and interfaith leaders. With a uniquely interfaith approach, participants are introduced to various faiths through site visits and thoughtful discussion of their experiences. For example, participants might visit a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and an Islamic mosque; integrated into the visits are facilitated discussions about the various faiths and the current state of the caste system. Participants are encouraged to ask one another questions and to discuss personal experiences. Case Study: HRE Training and Caste Discrimination A recent HRE program hosted in Kerala, India, focused on the discrimination taking place in that region against Dalits (the lowest Hindu caste) and Adivasis (the indigenous or ‘tribal’ people of India), who together comprise approximately 17% of Kerala’s population of 33 million. They are mostly labourers, divided by sub-castes according to their work. Most hold a piece of government-donated land, usually valued around 4 cents (1 acre is worth 100 cents), but their access to education is very limited. Most live in small huts and struggle to earn their daily bread and send their children to school. They are still considered “untouchable” and are often disallowed from entering upper-caste premises or some of their worship places. Worse, they are also often effectively deprived of their right to worship, by frequent disputes with the upper caste over ownership of traditional places of worship. Such a dispute led to an upper-caste attack on the Kurumthar adivasi community around twenty years ago, over ownership of their worship place, the Kurumthar Kavu. Mrs. Thanka, a victim of the attack, inaugurated the two-day HRE workshop by recalling its brutality, and how it took 14 years to get their land and kavu back from the upper caste through the judicial process. During the interaction with the HRE team, participants voiced their grievances regarding their status as second-class citizens. One, Jincy Binu, said that even though they are invited to social gatherings such as weddings and other ceremonial functions, they are not allowed to sit and dine with upper-caste people, but must wait to eat separately at the end. A social worker from the community related how she was ill-treated at an upper-caste wedding. Another participant, Chitra Podiayan, said that in order to avail themselves of their right of worship as Adi-Dravida worshippers (‘nature worshippers’), the communities were forced to build their own places of worship. They felt that some in the upper-caste communities look down on their deities and do not consider them as "valid" Hindu gods. Another participant explained how some years ago, they were not allowed to take water from the upper caste-owned wells during summer. Recently this had changed, but still they cannot take water directly, instead it is brought and poured into their pots so that they do not touch the wells. [vimeo 15230093] An educated girl who is the first-degree holder from the community said that the root cause of the degree of social discrimination in the region was the lack of education. She related how some ‘forward caste’ students came to her for private coaching are even reluctant to drink a cup of water from her house. Participants related how dehumanized they felt, and how such behavior affronted their human dignity and challenged the secular constitution of India. They had never heard that the United Nations had a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all its membership; they enquired why it is not enforced, though it is agreed by all nations including India. The HRE facilitator informed them that HRE programs are organized and held to educate the masses about these important UN declarations, as a way of helping society to challenge religious and belief-based discrimination. Almost thirty participants attended the program, most of them women as men are the family breadwinners. Initially they were reluctant to respond when they found that one IARF facilitator was upper-caste, the other Christian, but when IARF aims and objectives were explained to them, encouraging them to feel as equal human beings, they commented how the program was an eye-opener to them, and asked for further such educative programs in their area. The HRE team helped them chalk out an action plan to tackle discrimination. More social interaction, education and awareness programs among both tribal and upper-caste society are important for the attainment of mutual respect of one another’s faith and human dignity.
IARF - India HRE