“Without land, there’s no life for us. So once we have the land, then we have to work towards political power also. It’s land rights and political rights. We have established a solar water pump in one collective farm using solar energy—this is also a response to climate change.”
The Oak Institute welcomed Fatima Burnad as our 2011 Fellow. Ms. Burnad is the founder and president of the Society for Rural Education and Development (SRED) and has been working among the Dalit (untouchable) community in that country for the past 35 years. In India, she has become a national leader in the social movement seeking greater economic opportunity and political influence for these largely landless and poor people and has been especially active in organizing Dalit women. SRED, under her leadership, documents human rights abuses: from police brutality to the assassination of Dalit women leaders; from social and economic exclusion to abject poverty. In addition, the organization trains Dalit women on their legal rights and how to document these abuses and campaign on their own behalf. This work puts Ms. Burnad at great personal risk as she is frequently working in direct opposition to police and other authorities. Indeed, she has been detained, arrested and threatened on several occasions. Outside India, Ms. Burnad has become an international leader in the effort to end institutionalized discrimination against the world’s most socially marginalized citizens.
Ms. Burnad, who has studied in India, at the University of Chicago and at the University of Sussex, received an honorary Doctorate from the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and the Rastriya Gaurav Award (National Honorary Award) from the International Friendship Fellowship in New Delhi. She also was honored as an “International Woman of the Year” (1997-8) by the International Biographical Center in the UK. Among her many affiliations, she is serving on the board of directors of the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), a Tokyo-based NGO that consults with the UN.
We are delighted that Ms. Burnad will join the Colby community for the fall of 2011 as the Oak fellow. During her fellowship, she will teach a one-credit, non-graded course, Human Rights and Poverty (IN111). The course will examine the economic impoverishment and socio-political marginalization of entire groups of people, with a specific focus on the Dalit in India.
When she returned to India, she resumed her work with SRED, where Katy Lindquist ’14 went to intern in January 2012. “The Dalit movements in India, they talk about public cast discrimination,” Burnad said, “whereas we are saying caste discrimination cannot be eradicated immediately, but slowly. Because it is a four- to five-thousand-year-old caste system where the Hindu hierarchical system perpetrates it. So it’s not a caste alone.” That’s why SRED is working with women to reclaim lands and work on them collectively. Currently, Dalit women have 15 collective farms, which the organization provides with seeds, plowing, and irrigation. “We have established a solar water pump in one collective farm using solar energy—this is also a response to climate change,” she said.
Besides operating at the local level, SRED is also active nationally and regionally. Currently, they’re working on a significant problem that the indigenous people from the forest are facing—an ongoing Indian Supreme Court case that might leave millions of indigenous people landless. “Without land, there’s no life for us,” she said. “So once we have the land, then we have to work towards political power also. It’s land rights and political rights.”