My first recollection of Aruna Roy is of a small, intense woman sitting behind a large wooden desk piled high with papers in a government office in north Delhi. As university students, we were somewhat in awe of alumni who had made it into the hallowed portals of the civil and administrative services. At that time, for many who entered the services, idealism was the catalyst, commitment the driver. Aruna Roy is one of those.
Disillusionment came quickly enough, but few left, and even fewer left to put their commitment, energy and passion into something different and more meaningful. Aruna Roy, born to Tamil parents and brought up in a totally secular tradition, is one of those who did. Six years (1968-1975) in the IAS were enough to convince her that reality lay elsewhere.
In her words: "Frankly speaking, I was not happy with bureaucratic functioning.... There are times when one knows that the decisions being taken by higher-ups are blatantly wrong, but nothing can be challenged."
Aruna left the IAS to join her husband Bunker Roy's Social Work and Research Centre in Tilonia in Rajasthan: "I had my schooling in grassroots work in Tilonia. Before that, I did not even know what a village was!" In 1990, she moved away from Tilonia to join the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an organisation of poor farmers, both men and women.
The MKSS fought for fair wages to workers, and also became centrally involved in the campaign for the Right to Information (RTI). As Aruna describes it, the RTI campaign—later to blossom into a full-fledged movement—was born from an agitation for minimum wages by MKSS in the late '80s.
Involving people across the board, the campaign began to spread its message via jan sunvais (public hearings), dharnas (one for as long as 40 days in Beawar village!), hunger strikes and padayatras. Ordinary people became involved in the hundreds: giving food, money, water, tea and great support. Government officials were shamed into attending, forced into responding to questions, asked by those they claimed to represent. "The RTI campaign," in Aruna's words, "was created to ask for a share of state power. Democracy gives us the right to govern ourselves, and MKSS has been a space in which the poor have demanded this right." But for MKSS activists, democratic functioning also needs to be fully transparent, which is why they're unwilling to accept the government's recent attempts to water down the RTI Act. The same uncompromising idealism led to Aruna Roy resigning from the National Advisory Council of the
UPA government. For Aruna, confronting the State, and negotiating with it, is important and necessary, but so's the right to exit, if negotiations fail.
The poor have been Aruna's support and inspiration for the many years she has worked. As she puts it, "I owe my ideas to the clarity of others, my courage to being with people who confront injustice with fearlessness, my hope to the persistence and resilience of men and women struggling to get themselves heard, my generosity to the poor family that shared its last roti with me, and my sense of well-being to the many who have supported me in life."
Sixty per cent of the members of MKSS are women. It is these women and men who provide the breadth of vision that characterises MKSS. For them, as for Aruna, the RTI is not just a campaign for the right to information. It is a campaign that links together all the natural rights of citizenship—to food, to wages, to work, to dignity, and to a life free of violence.
The presence of women is essential for, according to Aruna, women instinctively understand what it is to be marginalised, and, over time, men in the movement have begun to understand the importance of involving women.
In 2000, when Aruna Roy was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, she dedicated it to the 'ordinary' people—both women and men—she works with. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to this intrepid and remarkable activist came from the women of Devdungri, where she has made her home, when her mother, herself a remarkable woman, passed away. The bier was carried by women of all castes, religions, backgrounds. Her pyre was lit—in an important deviation from the Hindu ceremony where only males have this privilege—by all the women in her family, giving Aruna, and her mother, a sense of peace.
(Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher.)
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