North Stars ft. Ashif Shaikh

Soft spoken, plain speaking, calm demeanour. As I heard Ashif speak of unspeakable social evils the first time we met in our office, I struggled to reconcile his decency with the horrors he was speaking about.  But that is Ashif for you.  He embodies what should be, while fighting against what should not.

Ashif has endured, absorbed and responded.  Hailing from a backward caste within the Muslim community, he has lived the narrative he is working to change. Being bullied as a child lower in the power structures of caste dynamics, he was also neighbours to a family belonging to a caste lower than his.

We may be divided by religion but are united by the caste system in India. It is beautifully designed. It has a place for everyone. While we may want to rebel against those who sit above us and exert their power, we stick around because there is someone below us to sit above and exert our power on. The system ensures everyone has a place, and that everyone has enough to survive. But, it removes all dignity for the last in line.

I struggle with the choice of words. Beautiful? He urges me to think about it. How seductive it is for us to stick around in the status quo because of power structures neatly woven within caste. 

There was a fakir in Ashif’s locality. For eleven months of the year nobody looked at him. They gave him leftovers, but barely a glance. However, as Eid would come, things would change. Families would gift the fakir a set of brand new clothes each in the name of those who had passed, so that they would secure a place in heaven. It was the fakir’s duty to wear all clothes simultaneously. So he would sometimes wear a dozen clothes all at the same time, to ensure a seat in heaven for all who had gifted him clothes.  And he did it with gratitude.

The system ensures everyone has a place, and that everyone has enough to survive. But, it removes all dignity for the last in line.

I understand. 

With a father who was active in politics, and a mother who supported her son through his awkward attempts at finding ways to actualize his calling, Ashif’s observations about what lies beneath the well-designed structures of society are extremely clarifying. 

Bullied as a child for his backward caste, a 15-year-old Ashif started the Sahasi Ekta Group with young people from his community to demand their rights. Today, he reflects on that as his first mistake. 

Unless we break our own mental barriers to look beyond our religions and communities there is no chance of change. We must join hands and become one, as people who suffer.

In the year 2000, a 19-year-old Ashif began Jan Sahas with 4-5 friends and a two member working team, with a single point agenda i.e., to combat caste-based discrimination. 

The forced profession of manual scavenging bothered Ashif immensely. The fact that it was normalized to expect a human being to clean dry toilets with their bare hands was painful for him. As a 20-year-old youth, he started approaching women to encourage them to give up their profession. This is when his education with the design of the caste system began. 

She is called ‘mhet-rani’, elevating her designation to that of a queen, even if she is actually a scavenger. Her engagement to clean toilets is referred to as her jaagirdari, which is usually a term used for land owned by landlords. So we can say she has a jaagirdari of 50 toilets, giving her a sense of ownership. She gets food for cleaning toilets, bakshish during Eid and Diwali, keeping her chained in an eternal state of gratitude.

Asif was very conflicted. If people were happy, should he seed doubts and discontent in their minds? As he tried to advocate with the women, he was hustled, thrown stones at, and left feeling very dejected. Once he connected with the children of the women however, change began.

This first breakthrough for Ashif came in 2001, when 27 manual scavengers (out of which 26 were women) renounced their bestowed profession after being relentlessly convinced to do so, by their children. He understood that no outsider can transform a community, it will happen only if people take charge of their own narrative. He then convinced women who have left, to convince more women to leave this vocation. Today, 60,000 women working with JS have left scavenging and have respectable alternative vocations. 

Jan Sahas was started by us, but its growth is in the hands of the people of the communities. If communities don’t find these solutions useful, they will reject.  If they find it useful, they will let it grow. 

He began to further understand why people don’t speak up. How they are normalized into suffering, and shamed into believing they deserved it.

Ashif with Dalit Women in Dhar district of MP (Pic. Courtesy: Jan Sahas)

Ashif saw this first-hand, as his work with rape survivors deepened. Survivors of rape bear the blame of being raped, while the perpetrator usually escapes punishment from the law, or ostracization by society. It didn’t seem right.

Hence, the Dignity March. Organised by Jan Sahas, 25,000 women walked 10,000 kms to speak in public forums, about being raped. During the March, a journalist had the audacity to ask a rape survivor why she didn’t feel shame about speaking of her own rape. She sharply retorted, “Why should I feel ashamed? The man who raped me should be ashamed!”

Rape survivors speaking at the Dignity March in 2019. (Pic. Courtesy: The Wire)

I had the privilege to attend the March with the EdelGive team when it came to Bombay. A large tent hosting thousands of people, all from very humble backgrounds, and openly speaking about enduring rape. Standing proud and expressing themselves. It was one of the most powerful moments I have been a part of. It also demonstrated to me what I had often heard Ashif say –  Enable the powerless and they will demand the change they want.

Gandhiji was distressed with manual scavenging and wanted to end it. He had appealed to people that they must clean their own dry toilets. Nothing changed. Ashif says Gandhiji’s approach, was to ask people in power to give up their power. Imagine if Gandhiji had appealed to Dalits to stop cleaning toilets. If the powerless realise they have the right to refuse, power structures will truly be challenged.

Consultant on legislation for rehabilitation of manual scavengers (Pic. Courtesy: Jan Sahas)

As Ashif’s work intensified, he started working with different marginalised communities. To his dismay, he saw discrimination practiced even among people of different marginalised communities.  They did not sit or eat with each other, and considered themselves either different or superior to those below. 

To change this social behaviour, Ashif started with his own team. He ensured 90% of his team came from the excluded communities he works with, with many of them being the ‘beneficiaries’ who overcame. Post the initial inhibitions, team members broke caste barriers to become friends within Jan Sahas, before going out to communities and asking for the same. 

When the migration crisis began during the first wave of COVID, I would often speak to Ashif. His team had put their full force behind providing relief to the millions on the roads. The devastation was difficult to watch, and the grief was distressing in the deepest ways. He spoke of watching young children being orphaned on highways, people dying of fatigue and hunger, and the vulnerabilities of women who had lost their male family members. The pain was unbearable.

Jan Sahas worked with a large network of smaller organisations across the length and breadth of the country, to assist families on the road. Through this process, they learnt, documented and understood the broken systems. More importantly though, they began attempts to rebuild the lives of distressed daily wagers. Thus, the Migration Resilience Collaborative was born, with a mission to ensure the dignified restoration of 10 million migrant workers, through social security schemes and ethical hiring. All through a network of small NGOs in the interiors of India.

The road ahead is incredibly tough. But this young leader backed by a team of people who represent their communities, is one of the reasons I have hope. 

There is so much I have learnt from Ashif. So much he clarifies, simply through his work. Speaking of inclusion is easy, embodying it in one’s work is rare. I see the embodiment of principles in the leader and his organisation. 

When we engage with communities, when we form groups, when we make projects for funders, we may want to pause and ask – What are we doing? Who are we working for? We have to represent the problems of our people, mere participation will not do. 

When we merely participate, we merely mark our attendance. But when we represent our people, they join us to take what is rightfully theirs. If we forget our people, we will be no more.

At a time when leaders forget their people all the time, when positions of power corrupt the most brilliant minds, when inequity has deepened, and the dignity of the excluded is compromised every day, Ashif and his tribe become my conscience keepers.  And his words stay with me forever.

Who are we working for? Are we here to participate or to represent?

Ashif Shaikh, a regular human, a leader of his people, a North Star.

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naghma mulla

Owner of the loudest laugh in the room and a development sector professional by day, Naghma is a by-mistake CA, who writes what she feels and feels what she writes.