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Empowering “the Oppressed”

NVC with the ‘ex-Untouchables’ of India

For the last couple of years, my partner Shantigarbha (an NVC trainer and a Buddhist) and I have been travelling to India to share Nonviolent Communication with the ‘ex-Untouchables’ of Maharashtra. These are people whose touch (and even shadow) was regarded by orthodox Hindus as religiously polluting. The practice of ‘Untouchability’ has been outlawed in India since 1949. However, people are still treated differently, particularly in rural areas. Because of the associations of the word ‘untouchable’, people from these communities have asked not to be called even ‘ex-Untouchables’ but ‘Dalits’, which means ‘the Oppressed’.

The first time we travelled to India to share NVC was in the wake of the killing of four members of a ‘Dalit’ Buddhist family in the village of Khairlanji, 100 km from Nagpur on 29 September 2006. Early reports and the later court case agree that those who carried out the killings were other members of the village. The response by Dalit youths in the surrounding area was to take to the streets and damage public property, including trains.

We arrived in early December, when the incident was still fresh in people’s minds. They recalled other, earlier attacks, in their lifetimes and those of their forebears. They remembered with horror stories from the times before the mass conversion of ‘Untouchables’ to Buddhism under Dr. Ambedkar in 1956.

We began by teaching some NVC skills, but it became clear to us that most of the young men who came to our sessions weren’t engaged – they sat at the back and only spoke when they were spoken to directly. They needed something else. So Shantigarbha suggested a session on ‘recent events’ – to work with a live situation. Our intention was to use the tools of Nonviolent Communication to create a space in which they could be heard.

Shantigarbha asked what was left over from ‘recent events’. Several participants spoke about their pain and shock at what had happened. We empathised with them: that they wanted people from their Buddhist community to be safe, that they wanted to be treated as human beings. They agreed, and added that ‘nothing would change’. We asked if they were hopeless of seeing a change in their lifetimes. They said yes.

Then a young man called Ramesh, with shoulder-length black hair, who hadn’t spoken until now, started speaking with an extra passion in his eyes. We waited for the translation (he was speaking in Marathi) to find out what he was saying. Four members of the Bhotmange family died in Khairlanji: a middle-aged woman and her three grown-up children. Accounts of the incident said that the attackers had demanded that one of the sons have sex his sister. When he refused, according to the accounts, some of the men forced her to have sex with them. It was this part of the incident that stuck in Ramesh’s mind:

“What was it like for him – for them to demand that he have sex with his sister? What must that have been like for him?” I saw tears coming to his eyes.

Shantigarbha asked, “Are you upset because you want people in your community to be safe?

“No, I really want to know how painful it was for him. Imagine – if it was my own sister! And to watch her being raped!”

“Do you want to acknowledge the pain that he felt?”

“Yes. Imagine what it must have been like! To your own sister!”

“Are you desperate to be aware of the pain involved in being demanded to have sex with your own sister? The horror of seeing your own sister being treated like this?”

“Yes – it was because she was better-educated than the rest of the village.”

“Are you desperate to protect members of your community and hopeless how to support them to improve their lives?”

“Yes.” He sighed and went silent in mourning and grief. “If everybody was aware of what it was like to be her brother, such things couldn’t happen any more – you couldn’t do it to someone else’s sister.”

I got the sense that he was deeply sad, and somehow relieved. I noticed that he had spoken more words, with more energy, in the last half an hour than I had heard him say in the last four days.

Shantigarbha checked with him: “Do you want everybody to be aware of the depth of pain that the brother felt?”

“Yes, then they wouldn’t do such things.”

“Would they treat other women like their own sister?”


“And, if everybody could do this, would it be a safer world for all of us?”

Ramesh nodded – he didn’t need translation of this.

The room went quiet for several minutes. I was amazed with the sense of depth – how this young man wanted to imagine this kind of suffering as his own. How he wanted everybody to imagine this suffering as their own. And his belief that we would all treat others like our own sister if we could do this. I’d learned something about the power of imagination. And I noticed that Ramesh now seemed much stronger, more in his power. He was sitting up straight and looking around him. He reached for an exercise book beside him:

“I want to finish by reading a poem that I wrote about the Bhotmange family.”

We all agreed with this way of finishing the session, and he read it out: imagining himself as the brother, watching his sister in pain, in public, his fear and horror. But now, to my eyes, Ramesh was entirely in his power. With the empathy he had travelled through his anger and fear to get in touch with his own roots, what was most deeply important to him: to be treated as a human being and to treat others in the same way. With that connection inside himself, he was in his natural power. With that strength, he could think about more than one way to respond to ‘injustice’ in the future.

For more information and to donate to Social Development Programmes, visit the Manuski Institute website.

Written by Christa Gronow and Shantigarbha. This article first appeared in the German political magazine Contraste, Autumn 2008