Arindam profiles the life and times of the human rights activist, Lenin Raghuvanshi, who has been working tirelessly to empower and emancipate the lowest of the low among Dalits, the Musahars and Nuts. A caste-driven society that functions on the exclusion of the Sanathan Dharma has to be replaced with the democratic and secular Sramana traditions. He has been championing the cause of the marginal and the voiceless, restoring dignity and helping them with their identity as respectable human beings.
It was in 2002 that I first met Lenin Raghuvanshi, a vibrant human rights activist. I was heading a renowned Delhi-based newspaper office, at Varanasi, as its bureau chief.
We often had animated discussions. An acquaintance soon became a friend. A year or so later, he and his wife, met my family, at my Allahabad home. They rode a bike and spent an evening with us. We talked about many things and had home cooked dinner together. Those few hours flew like a fleeting moment. After that evening, we became friends for life.
My wife, Ruma, a school teacher, wanted to devote her life teaching Dalit children after her retirement. She passed away in April 2014, unable to realise her dreams. Lenin’s wife, Shruti, inspired her.
Over the years, Lenin and I communicated oft and on – both of us busy in our respective areas.
With the launch of Different Truths, in November 2015, our friendship deepened. We had similar concerns, walking different paths of life. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to profile Lenin. I realised how little I knew about this person, a celebrity in his own rights.
The road to equality, liberty and justice is arduous. It’s a steep climb uphill. The path is full of thorns. Crusaders and real-life heroes belong to history books, novels or the celluloid.
But, the smiling young man here, with sparks in his eyes, can leap at the wrong-doer, lion-like, albeit nonviolently.
With his father.
Talking to Saddahaq.com Lenin says, “Since 1993, I am working as a full time Human Rights Defender, for rights of survivors, in India. I live under constant death threats for my human rights work. Threat, intimidation, attack, false implication and defamation are occupational hazards of the process of social transformation towards a plural democracy based on rule of law, non-violence and justice. But, mysterious non-support of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a premier human rights institution of India, in my cases as a Human Rights Defender, is a real lifetime surprise for me 1 .”
Lenin was born in Village Dhaurahara, in Varanasi district, on May 18, 1970. The eldest of seven brothers and a sister. “The lineage of Raghuvanshi family can be traced back to Lord Rama. Our forefathers were freedom fighters. Three of them rose against the tyranny of the Raj, in 1857, and were executed. My Great Granduncle, Markendey Singh, was a freedom fighter. His first wife, Rama Devi, who died of TB, handed over the Indian flag of the revolutionaries to my father, Surendranath Singh before she breathed her last.”
Lenin adds, “Rama Devi had defeated Kamlapati Tripathi in an election of the Congress, during her lifetime. Being a family of freedom fighters, my ancestors lost their land-lordship. Initially pushed to penury they struggled and became middle-class farmers. Some of them were in government jobs.
Shanti Kumar Singh (Grandfather)
“Meanwhile, my grandfather, Shanti Kumar Singh, protested the Raj and joined the agitation against World War II. He had to serve rigorous imprisonment. His son, my father, had joined the RSS. When he came home, one day, wearing a black cap, my grandmother objected and said that it was against our culture (my 107-year- old grandmother is alive). My father quit the RSS. He then came in contact with a Dalit leader, Hichchu Ram. He was in the CPI, and later CPM.”
He adds, “All brothers and sisters were named after prominent Marxist leaders by my father. Though he was a Leftist, he was deeply religious. Meanwhile, my grandfather, a Gandhian, was an atheist. An egalitarian, he had good grasp of grassroots politics. I grew up with my grandparents, in Bombay. Our home was turbulence of ideologies. These shaped me. Other influences on me were the ideologies of Gautam Buddha, Kabir, Dr. BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Agnivesh. Though a Left ideologist, with the politics of the marginal (read Dalits and minorities), I am a firm believer of nonviolence.
“I have combined these ideologies, along with my struggle as Human Rights defender and the long struggle against caste-based discriminations to shape a new ideology, Neo-Dalits. He aspires to reclaim human dignity.”
Sanathan Dharma vs. Sramana Traditions
Replying to a question about the politics of exclusion that led to untouchability, the pure-polluted axis of our social system, the young ideologue, explains, “The Brahmanical pyramid social structure of the Sanathan Dharma, based on exclusion, has somehow edged out the democratic, all-inclusive, Sramana tradition that traces its beginnings in theLokayata (people’s) philosophy of the Rig Veda. There is a long tradition of the Sramanic culture in the philosophies ofCharvaka, Sangha, Buddhist, Sikh, Sufi, Islam and Christianity; it has secular ramifications. We need to bring it to the center-stage, the mainstream.”
Other than the atrocities and torture of the police and other repressive powers of the state, Lenin had to face stiff resistance from within his kith and kin – the large extended family, for rising against the upper-caste- upper-class social dominance. When he was fighting for the dignity of the Dalits, those in the margins, working towards conflict resolution, there were others, who were baying for his blood. Piquantly, a much-feared mafia don of East UP is also from the same gene pool. They are as different as chalk and cheese.
The pro-conflict forces oppose him. He said, “In 2007, BSP supremo, Mayawati, held a press conference, against me. Though our politics is different, I have a good rapport with Rahul Gandhi.”
Lenin smiles and says, “I have many powerful opponents and some powerful friends too. Despite huge problems, life is fair and square, at the end of the day.”
Wife Shruti and son Kabeer
He candidly accepts that he was fortunate to have Shruti Nagvanshi as his spouse. They were married on February 22, 1992. She has been a source of great strength. They have an 18-year-old son, Kabeer Karunik.
Lenin has emerged as the symbol of resistance to millions of Dalits fighting for their dignity. He is credited with changing the discourse on Dalit politics, in India, and bringing into focus an innovative ‘people centric’ approach to reclaim ‘human dignity’ for the deprived sections, in a caste-ridden society.
The entire gamut of his activities reflects his personal and ideological span and provides credibility and a sense of completeness to the work he does. His care for details, meticulous planning, diligent patience, and sincere advocacy on the issues concerning the marginalized, has made millions of his supporters optimistic about a dignified future.
Lenin accepts that his vision on caste, conflict, and social change took a concrete shape while working with the bonded labourers in India. Though he was born in a high caste Hindu family, which he describes as “feudal,” he noticed that not a single child bonded in the sari or carpet industries came from an upper caste, even though some high-caste families were often just as poor as the lower castes.
He realised that caste, not class, was at work. By the end of 1996, Lenin was championing for a major cause that is to fight for the basic rights of lower-caste people. Early experiences taught him that confrontation was essentially dangerous and not the most effective emancipatory tool. Increasingly, he recognised the role of caste in all kinds of social conflicts and therefore envisioned a movement that could break the closed, feudal hierarchies of conservative slums and villages by building up local institutions and supporting them with a high profile and active human rights network.
Lenin told me that he understood from the beginning that Indian villages are the cradle of oppression and exploitation. Instead of tampering with the symptoms,’caste’ needed to be tackled by both its horns. On the one hand, he created a democratised structure for the ‘voiceless’ to enable them access to the constitutional guarantees, and on the other, his innovative advocacy forced the ‘state’ to sensitise its mechanisms to deliver social justice in a manner where justice is not only done but perceived to be done.
Furthermore, Lenin conceived of a folk school, which not only enabled empowerment of the poor, but also endowed them with the ability to access information and justice through the constitutional mechanism of the state. To translate policy into practice, he has begun working on the latest part of his strategy, Jan Mitra Gaon (people-friendly village). These villages have durable local institutions that work to promote basic human rights in the face of continuous discrimination.
Lenin told me that he has adopted three villages and one slum, as pilot projects, which include reactivating defunct primary schools, eradicating bonded labor, ensuring girl child education, and promoting non-formal education. The village committees comprise of at least 50 per cent Dalits, and seek to realise greater political representation of Dalits in village councils.
The heads of the village committee and village council, a government representative, and a PVCHR employee serve as a conflict resolution group and form the people-friendly committee. The approach of the organisation is two-fold: to have a strong grassroots organisation to work for democratic rights of those in marginalised communities, and second, to create the structure and dynamics to receive the assistance of national and international institutions.
Shift in Human Rights Movement
Lenin’s work marks a shift in the Indian human rights movement, which has been reluctant to address injustices in the name of caste as a fundamental human rights issue. He is one of only a handful of activists to declare that such discrimination goes against democratic principles by promoting inequality. While working from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh – one of the most traditional, conservative, and segregated regions – Lenin never fails to demonstrate his resolve.
With less economic resources, but rich with confidence and conviction, he in a short period of time has managed to amplify the voice of the marginalised in national and international fora through “People’s SAARC”, rehabilitation and resettlement of weavers of Varanasi; Benaras Convention; Election Watch; prevention of torture; voice against hunger and many such activities. Recognition by the international community of his work is indeed the recognition for the millions whose hopes and aspirations rest on his young shoulders.
Lenin’s Fact File: 1993-2015
Here’s Lenin’s fact file, in chronological order.
1993: President, United Nations’ Youth Organization (UNYO), UP Chapter. He was the founding member of Bachapan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) along with Kailash Satyarthi and others.
1994: Completed his Bachelor degree in Ayurveda, Modern Medicine and Surgery from the State Ayurvedic Medical College, Gurukul Kangari, Haridwar in 1994.
1996: Founded People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) along with Shruti, in association with Dr. Mahendra Pratap (Historian), Vikash Maharaj (Musician), GyanedraPati (poet) to work on child labour free village.
*Lenin was severely beaten and physically tortured at the hands of Indian paramilitary force, the CRPF, on July 17, 1996, while participating in a protest demonstration to demand the liberation of bonded child labourers and their rehabilitation. The case was later taken up by Amnesty International and NHRC.
1998: Organised, coordinated, and participated as Core Marcher in Global March against Child Labour.
*Fair Play Campaign against use of child labour in Indian Sporting Goods Industry. The campaign forced FIFA, ICC (International Cricket Council), World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry and Reebok to prohibit the use of child labour in the production of their industrial goods.
1999: Founded Jan Mitra Nyas, a public charitable trust, for carrying out work on crucial issues of governance and Human Rights in five adopted villages near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
2001: Awarded the Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurship and change maker by Ashoka: innovators for Public based in Washington, DC. (
to their plight in an organised manner. The forum has membership of 3000 people and has been able to make Planning Commission of India commit Rupees One Thousand crores for their rehabilitation. This body is led by indigenous leaders and is self-supporting.
*He conceptualised and formed the Varanasi Weavers Trust along with eminent economist and Ashoka fellow from Sri Lanka, Dr. Darin Gunasekara. The trust envisages the creation of a decentralised mode of production with a social control over the capital for the weavers. The Planning Commission of India and Government of Uttar Pradesh have taken note of the objectives of the trust and are in the process of giving concrete shape to the idea respectively.
*Founded the Musahar-Nut Adhikar Manch (Forum on Rights of Musahars and Nuts). They are the most marginalised untouchable castes in the hunger infested districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Advocacy at national and international fora has succeeded in prioritising hunger in government expenditure policy. Active mobilization of the poor Dalits has forced various political parties to include the empowerment of Dalits in their electoral manifestos. The liberation from social inhibitions has resulted in te creation of Martyrs’ dome in villages where hunger deaths occurred and this has helped in creating a pool of indigenous hunger activists among the poor. The Varanasi administration has sought Rs. 6.75 crores to fight prevailing hunger situation among Musahar localities in the district. As a result of PVCHRs’ pressure, the Uttar Pradesh Panchayat Act was amended to include a clause, which directed each local self-governing bodies of the village to allot fund to amount of rupees one thousand to mitigate emergency hunger situation.
2005: Conceived and convened People’s SAARC at Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The objective was to bring
the issues faced by the people of SAARC countries onto a common platform and forge a forum based on people to people relationship to fight against the evil designs of caste, communal, ethnic, and fascist forces in the region. The most important declaration read, “We cherish and uphold the Rule of Law, the sovereignty of the people, a system of governance that ensures devolution of power, People’s right to self-rule and control over resources.”The Convention led to the formation of South Asian People’s Forum (SAPF) of which Lenin was elected as the coordinator. The core committee comprised of PVCHR (India), INSEC (Nepal), People’s Forum for Human Rights (Bhutan), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, LOKOJ (Bangladesh) and Wiroslokh Institute (Srilanka).This convention also triggered off a series of similar conventions across the SAARC countries. Two major outcomes of the convention were the inclusion of Afghanistan in the SAARC, and the inclusion of civil society voices in the decision-making process adopted in the Dhaka declaration in SAARC, 2005.
2006: Founded Rozagar Haq Abhiyan (Right to work campaign) along with AIM, Parmarth, GSS, Musahar Manch for monitoring the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Uttar Pradesh.
*PVCHR’s leading work on torture victims resulted in Dr. Lenin being appointed as State Director of National Project on Prevention of Torture funded by European Union and FNSt.
*In the context of international advocacy along with AHRC, PVCHR achieved the rare distinction of being an organisation whose grass root work was recognised and reported by the UN Special Rappoteur on Racism and Xenophobia. In the same year three out of four cases reported from India in the report of representative of Secretary General for Human Rights defenders were part of the PVCHR work.
2007: Drafted along with Faisal Anurag the vision paper for NAFRE People’s Movement, an alliance of representatives from 16 states of India. This paper presented a road map for civil society movement drawing from the past experiences of traditional working class of India from the perspective of caste.
*Established Folk School for Dalits in Belwa region.
*PVCHR and Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) along with 210 NGOs across the state conducted the Uttar Pradesh Election Watch (UPEW). The objective was to sensitize the electors about the governance processes. By providing background information of the candidates, UPEW facilitated for the citizens of Uttar Pradesh to make informed choices. Dr. Lenin, coordinator of UPEW, successfully ran a media campaign and managed to bring the issue of criminalization of politics to the centre stage.
*Dr. Lenin received 2007 Gwangju Human Rights Award from May 18 Foundation of South Korea along with Ms. Sharmila Irom of Manipur.
2008: Developed Testimonial Model for the torture survivors in India with Dr. Inger Agger PhD, International Development Consultant, Psychologist, Denmark
*Received ACHA Star Peace award from Association for Communal Harmony in Asia USA along with B.
M. Kutty, Karachi, Karamat Ali, Karachi, Pakistan and MubashirMirza, Sadiqabad from Pakistan.
*Director for the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia USA
*Participated as co-presenter along with Dr. Inger Agger and Dr. Peter Polatin on testimonial therapy: experiences of India in An evidence –based International Conference: rehabilitating torture Survivors, on December 3-5, 2008, at Copenhagen, Denmark.
2009: Part of the formation of “National Alliance on Testimonial Therapy” (NATT) in the national consultation on “Testimony to improve psychosocial wellbeing and promote advocacy for survivors of torture and organized violence”. It was formed by the Panellists to be used further for testimonial therapy in India.
*Secretary cum Director for the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia USA.
*Co-author of Testimonial Therapy: A Pilot Project to improve Psychological Wellbeing among Survivors of Torture in India published in Volume 19, No. 3, 2009 of Journal ‘Torture’ published by IRCT.
*He is of the view that the glorification of encounter specialists by the media and the establishment has to stop if extrajudicial killings and torture are to end. Activists such as Raghuvanshi and organisations such as the PVCHR and the NHRC have raised their voices on these lines for long, but they are yet to get a positive response from the political establishment. (http://www.frontline.in/stories/20091009262002700.htm)
*Participated in 2010 Gwangju Asia Forum from May 17-23, 2010 at Gwangju, South Korea.
*Received Usmania Award from Madarsa Usmania, Bazardiha, Varanasi, for the development and welfare of education.
*City council of Weimar in Germany selected for 2010 International Human Rights Award.
2011: Participated in the National Seminar on Human Rights and Human Development and presented a paper (along with Shirin Shabana Khan) on “Impact of testimonial therapy and folk school on the survivors of torture and organised violence” organized by social work Unit, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi Chitrakoot Gramodaya Vishwavidyalaya, Chitrakoot, Satana, MP and sponsored by University Grants Commission (UGC) from 22-24 January 2011 at Chitrakoot.
It is significant to note that Dignity Institute provided substantial inputs to the draft bill on Torture Prevention in India that PVCHR had utilised in its policy and advocacy interventions. PVCHR maintains that effective torture prevention mechanisms should include in particular an effective witness and victim protection system, an independent investigative body, a separate mechanism to register the complaints of torture and mandatory sanctions of public officers found to have obstructed the victim’s access to justice. Acting decisively to eradicate torture and bring the policing system under the effective framework of the rule of law will be a test for the resilience of democracy in India. It is by its ability to develop laws as a shield against abuses of power that the citizens of this country will be able to judge the capacity of their state to respond to their aspirations. (http://www.pvchr.net/2011/11/report-of- select-committee- on-ati.html)
2013: Lenin was awarded “Tarun Bharat Paryawaran Raksha Samman” (Tarun Bharat Environment Protection Award) for his contribution to include water right as human rights by the Swedish Ambassador to India. The award has been instituted by Tarun Bharat Sangh and the famous Indian water-man, Rajendra Singh, the Raman Magsaysay Awardee.
*Lenin was elected as a coordinator of South Asian Network against Torture and Impunity (SANTI) to handle the Secretariat on behalf of PVCHR in the fourth consultation organised in Dhaka from 22-23, 2013
2014: Lenin presented the paper titled ‘Crisis of democracy and the Caste System in India’ during the International symposium on ‘Globalisation and the Crisis of Democracy’ in Gwangju Biennial, South Korea
2015: Lenin was invited at the Global Tolerance Forum in Drammen, Norway where he voiced his strong opinion on the contemporary political situation in India, showed deep concern about increasing hold of fundamentalist and extremists’ elements in Indian society. (https://www.saddahaq.com/global-tolerance- forum-at- norway)
is the Lenin of his motherland
his nerves squirming with pain of injustice
his voice rising in passion for social justice
As Buddha suffered from pain
from his enclave
who found the path of freedom from pain
in the social code of conduct of spirituality
Raghuvanshi Lenin has seen and known
the reason of grief from depth
in the contemporary contexts
the nation and powerful energies
are more blameworthy than humane being
the claw of exploitation
the nerves of throat and wisdom
the silent roots of malpractice
are silent against oppression and injustice
(one has to work like ‘Chanakya’ to uproot them)
as an intellectual worker like a modern Buddha
not leaving behind a wife (Shruti) and son (Kabir)
but taking them along, so that they also feel
the wounds of society
the pain of people
living in the society
they can treat and cure
and give some first-aid
and feel Lenin’s pain and outcry
they should do positive revolt
like the two hands of Lenin – left and right
and fulfil the role as part of the family
not just as Lenin’s family
but also as people’s family
like the parts of the body
and can sacrifice the comforts
attachment towards luxuries
for the sake of global human being
for the interest of entire humanity
Raghuvanshi Lenin is the Lenin of India
related to the king’s lineage
associating with it, being with it
in the contemporary times
digging out a path for the people
from deep inside the system
He names his child as ‘Kabeer Karunik’
to make him walk through the life’s tough
and see the secret source of Lenin’s speech
the tragic sorrow caused by discrimination
and experience the meaning of being ‘Kabir’
as his father Lenin
knows the meaning of his name
in Indian contexts
He knows and wants to show
that the lineage of all the people
the lineage of ‘Shri Ram&’
can be cultivated
not by chanting the name of ‘Ram’
but by following the path of ‘Ram’- public service
in the true sense, including king’s lineage
along with Buddha
along with Kabir
along with Lenin
and the people of the Universe
in the form of entire Humankind.
Arindam Roy has 34 years experience in various newsrooms. He was the Managing Editor of a reputed Gurgoan-based Citizen Journalist portal and has held senior positions in several publications. As Correspondent and Bureau Chief, he has written extensively for Associated Press, Times of India, Hindustan Times and multiple news outlets. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications. Of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He is a co-author of a novel, Rivers Run Back that he penned with Joyce Yarrow. The novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, early this year. He lives in Allahabad.