Fatima Burnad, Oak Fellow, 2011 (photo by Jesse Goldman ’12)

At age 11 Fatima Burnad was already making trouble for civil authorities. Near Chennai, in southern India, where Burnad grew up, one of her friends was severely mistreated — burned and beaten — by the family that employed her as a maid. The 11-year-old girl complained to the police but was taken right back to work at her employers’, who were not even reprimanded. Burnad was so outraged she wrote up a petition of protest, collected signatures around the neighborhood, and presented it to the police.

So began a lifetime of activism that led to more than one incarceration — and to Burnad being named the 2011 Oak Human Rights Fellow at Colby. The fellowship offers a semester of respite for research, teaching, and writing and is awarded to one front-line human rights activist each year.

For the past 35 years Burnad, 59, has worked to end India’s caste system and discrimination against the Dalit (sometimes called “Untouchable”) and tribal people. Those groups, which make up 24 percent of India’s population, are routinely excluded and marginalized. Affirmative action has led to educational opportunities, said Burnad. But, despite degrees and credentials, they are denied interviews, not to mention actual employment in government and private sectors, because their names reveal their caste.

“We have about 550 judges in the supreme court. Out of that, we have only 13 to 15 Dalit judges,” said Burnad, herself a Dalit who, like her father, is a Christian convert. “The Dalit will get the fourth-class job. First, second, third is occupied by the higher castes, so Dalits are always at the bottom.” The result: the Dalit people remain poor and largely landless. “The discrimination continues.”

Burnad previously visited the United States (Atlanta), Japan, and Australia, where she saw de facto segregation and discrimination against African Americans, Burakumin, and Aborigine populations respectively. She also studied United Nations human rights reports. “The worst thing is in my country. The worst of all. We are not able to change the situation, and it’s getting worse.”

And Dalits are increasingly afraid to challenge the status quo. “No other communities are helping them to develop,” Burnad said. “If a Dalit girl is raped, only the Dalit are raising their voice. Only the Dalit women — the Dalit men do not take it as a problem.”

Burnad said her father encouraged her to become an activist in the 1970s, when she was a teenager. “I was trained as a community organizer on Alinksy’s method — Saul Alinsky from Chicago ghettos.” A colleague of Alinsky’s came to her village to lead the training. “That was my beginning.”

Her father urged her to take up the cause of 30 poor shoemakers’s families in the village where he taught. They had been given 49 acres in the 1950s, but other Dalits sold the land to a higher-caste man for construction of a church. “It created a very big problem,” Burnad said. When she brought the church’s bishop to the village to confront him, local leaders disrupted the meeting and deported the trainer from Chicago.

In 1979 Burnad founded the Society for Rural Education and Development, which seeks economic opportunity and political influence for the marginalized people of India, especially Dalit women. She is now recognized as a national leader in India’s social movements.

Burnad was jailed in the 1990s for protesting land grabs by the government when it displaced Dalits from their ancestral community to build a naval air station. “They were all the time talking about national security,” she said. “For us, people security is very important.”

Soon after arriving at Colby she was mobilizing allies to protest the planned execution of Sri Lankans implicated in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi 17 year ago. They merely supplied batteries they didn’t know would be used to make a bomb, she said, but the moral issue was her opposition to taking anyone’s life. The condemned were granted an eight-week postponement by a court in Chennai, she said, vowing to continue the protest.

She also looked ahead to her semester on campus. “I want to read and write and then, in seminars, to learn from the students what their reactions are to what I’m doing,” Burnad said. “I want to see how far the protests, the demonstrations, the public meetings are exposing the issues. Is this enough? Or do I have to do something much more? What is going on? Why still our community remains the same? How are we going to change the mindset of the people? It’s not enough if we are not questioning the whole fundamental aspect of the caste system.”

Her goal — to take her activism to a new level. “I want this college help me to see a proper way of doing things.”