The question, "Name one person who has contributed most to....?" is difficult to answer. We cannot determine a hierarchy of the exceptional in any field of human endeavour, even more so in social movements. Who can judge which struggle contributed most to the growth of an egalitarian, just society in independent India?
However, the mainstream is preoccupied with the establishment of individual excellence as crucial to all development and growth. So it is essential that while attempting a list—indicative and not exclusive—we emphasise the importance of collective action.
The legacy of the Gandhian tradition of merging politics with development and social change has influenced some of the movements that have had great impact. JP's (Jayaprakash Narayan) political work began in this tradition. From this genesis arose the call for sampurna kranti (total revolution). The JP movement was born in the '70s, a most critical period in post-independence India. Focusing on the ills of arbitrary, undemocratic governance, the movement attempted to bring politics back to the social domain. Most significantly, it established the strength and effectiveness of alternative ethical politics and the continual struggle for civil liberties.
It was in this context that the People's Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR)—now People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)—was created in 1976, as a people's expression of and determination to strengthen civil liberties. The vital need for human rights movements have again and again been reinforced by the arbitrary use of power by the State in the past decade; recent occurrences in Gujarat being a case in point.
Among the top organisations making a difference is the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), over the decades taking scientific thinking to the people, making it a way of life. Apart from an innovative new approach to literacy, they facilitated the creation of the popular People's Plan (Programme for Participatory and Sustainable Panchayat-level Development Planning) in Kerala. It combines important components for empowerment-development, grassroots politics and social change.
The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) began as a trade union for the exploited, unorganised mine workers in the state. After successfully raising the issue of wages, they then supported an anti-liquor movement, as well as evolving development-oriented socio-political alternatives for the exploited. Even after Shankar Guha Neogi's tragic assassination, the CMM remains a formidable organisation. Proving conclusively that true collective movements continue even after the death of a leader.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) symbolises the struggles of a people for their right to determine their own development, life and livelihood. The people of the Narmada valley have compelled citizens to notice contradictions in the policy, planning and intent of so-called development projects, forcing decision-makers and governments to respond. The NBA has also increasingly perceived the importance of building an alternative politics. The need for bigger collectives resulted in the formation of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM).
(Aruna Roy works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.)