Aruna Roy is a social activist and founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Her work and leadership led to the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005—a landmark act that empowers citizens to demand transparency and accountability from government institutions.
Over the last four decades, she has been at the forefront of several other people-led movements as well including the Right to Work campaign which led to the institution of MGNREGA, and the Right to Food movement. In 2000, she received the Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
In this interview with IDR, Roy talks about building and sustaining participatory movements, the role of sangharsh (struggle) in driving change, and the power of the collective voice. She explains why the right to freedom of expression is critical for India, why civil society must fight to sustain it, and hopes for a free and open society where the young can function without fear within the boundaries of constitutional morality.
Could you tell us a little about your early years and early influences?
I was born a year before Independence. This placed me squarely alongside the journey of the new and nascent country that we call India, or Bharat. I grew up in Delhi—I’m a Dilliwali as they say. My family was progressive and privileged by education—my mother had studied mathematics and physics, my father had been to Shantiniketan when he was a young boy of 10, and my grandmother had done her senior Cambridge. Issues of equality were part of the daily routine. Regardless of their class, caste, or literacy levels, everyone who came home sat together and had tea from the same cups. I did not realise at that time that this was not ‘normal’. I grew up celebrating all festivals and listening to the stories of great human beings.
I was sent to Kalakshetra in Chennai to learn classical dance and music, and to a range of schools after that. I studied English literature and completed my postgraduation from Indraprastha College, Delhi University, in 1967. I taught a year in my college and, in 1968, joined the civil service as part of the union territories cadre. I was posted in Pondicherry, and then in Delhi. I resigned in 1975 to come to Rajasthan to work with the rural poor.
There are several reasons I have worked all my life. My mother was an extremely intelligent and accomplished woman. She did not however participate in public life, which frustrated her, because she believed that women were not less capable than men. But in a man’s world, women were always looked down upon as domestic accoutrements. This was extremely distressing for my mother, and it became deeply ingrained in me that a woman has to have a life beyond the domestic sphere.
You could say that my first politics was feminism. The second was caste politics.
It is one of the fundamental postulates on which I have built my life—a woman must have a place where she can express herself with freedom. You could say that my first politics was feminism. The second was caste politics. My father, grandparents, and great-granduncle had fought discrimination, particularly related to caste. Understanding caste, untouchability, and the rigidity and discrimination of the caste system were part of my growing years. And since I grew up in Delhi shortly after Partition, religious discrimination and violence, and the havoc they cause, were also part of my emotional memory.
I joined the civil service because I felt that it was possibly a place where one could actively work to reduce discrimination and inequality in society. When I left the civil service, I started working with a nonprofit called the Social Work and Research Center, or Barefoot College, in Tilonia, Rajasthan.
In those nine years I de-schooled myself. I learned about cross-cultural communication and about poverty, caste, and gender seen through the lens of those who suffer discrimination. I understood what prevents the poor from upward mobility. I learned from extremely intelligent working-class men and women.
I learned a lot from one woman in particular—Naurti, who has stayed a friend for more than 40 years. She is Dalit, and a little younger than me. She was a wage worker when we first met. She chose to become literate, a labour leader who led the fight against unfair minimum wages, an acknowledged leader of women’s rights, a computer operator, and a sarpanch. I was part of her campaign on minimum wages. I took the law to her through an awareness programme, and she organised the people. Finally, in 1983, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement on minimum wages—Sanjit Roy vs the Government of Rajasthan—invoking Article 14 and Article 23 of the Constitution. Naurti has been a comrade and together we have fought against sati and rape, and for the RTI, MGNREGA, and other rights-based programmes. She is an extremely courageous woman, and we continue to be friends and equals.
At Tilonia, I learned about the need for an organisational structure for participatory management. It is critical to build democratic ways of functioning with equality. How do you facilitate participation and what are the non-negotiables? The first principle is that you have to listen, and you have to accept dissent. You must also accept that in order to reach a consensus, you have to give up something. This happens only if there is a structure to do so.
As I grew in my politics, I realised I didn’t want to be a development-wali. I wanted to be a participant in the struggles to access constitutional rights. I went to central Rajasthan to work with the workers and set up the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), along with like-minded friends—Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey. MKSS is a sangharsh (struggle) based organisation. It is located in a mud hut in Devdungri and doesn’t take any institutional funds. It is where the demand for the RTI was crafted and began, as did other struggles. It has been a long journey. At this moment, we are struggling for an accountability law, and are on a yatra to all the 33 districts in Rajasthan to ask the government to implement its electoral promise. I still work and struggle.
You’ve shown the country how to build a movement that has outsized impact. How do you build a movement and sustain it when you don’t have institutional funding?
A funded movement is limiting. Mahatma Gandhi said that when you fight your own people, you must not at any point open yourself to the criticism that the battle is funded by vested interests. Funding must come from people whose battle is represented, or from supporters of the movements and campaigns. A campaign for equality is not a project.
Participatory movements and campaigns are affected by many variables—the government that can put people in jail, the mafia that can beat them up, the societal and feudal structure that one has to navigate. It is impossible to tell exactly when something will happen. You cannot therefore predict the outcome of a campaign.
When you work with people there are three kinds of work: seva, nirman, and sangharsh. Seva is welfare or service—providing food to those who are starving or caring for those who are ill. Nirman is development—running schools or a women’s skill programme. MKSS’s work falls squarely in the third area of sangharsh, or struggle. It is almost always political work in its broadest definition—that of asking for constitutional rights within the framework of democratic participation.
All three ways of working are necessary to build a healthy society. The rights-based work done by organisations such as MKSS and the Narmada Bachao Andolan need not necessarily have a big budget. It can be sustained by what we now call crowdfunding.
MKSS and I believe all struggles for equality are rooted in a political understanding.
MKSS and I believe all struggles for equality are rooted in a political understanding. It is political not in the sense of competing for state power, but for realising constitutional rights. I am constitutionally enabled and mandated to fight this battle by the chapters on fundamental rights and the directive principles of state policy. In the course of the battle, we are not against the judiciary, the legislature, or the executive. But we demand that they function for the people, specifically in reference to constitutional norms.
At MKSS we draw the minimum agricultural wage as an honorarium. We are a small group of people—around 20 of us, and we have continued like this for more than 31 years. We live like the people we represent so that we know their hardships. We welcome and invite people to contribute to our movement in both kind and cash. We believe in asking for money from the people we represent. Firstly, because there is humility in the act of asking—we don’t exist without the people and their contribution brings them dignity and closer to owning the issue. Secondly, they evaluate us and hold us accountable. If we do not deliver, we will not be supported.
Money is less important than people’s participation.
But money is less important than people’s participation. The 40-day long dharna (a peaceful demonstration) in Beawar in 1996 was a landmark in the struggle for the RTI, and was a story of people’s participation.1 We walked through 400 villages asking for support. Every family gave us five kilos of grain and four to six days of their time by joining us at the dharna. It became a high point of life in the town. Everybody congregated at the dharna site because it was full of energy. We ate there, lived there, and had events there—poetry readings, celebrations of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birthday, Labour Day, and more.
The movement started as a working-class demand for the RTI to fight corruption and arbitrary use of power, and slowly expanded into understanding how essential it is for democratic functioning and the fact that it’s a constitutional value. As a friend of mine, S R Sankaran, an IAS officer, said, “It is a transformatory law, because through the RTI you can realise other rights—human rights, economic rights, social rights, and more.”
People realised that transparency is an important way to fight corruption and arbitrary power. But if that dharna in Beawar hadn’t been sustained and supported financially and politically by the local residents and the trade unions, it could not have happened. That is the power of the collective voice—it’s the coming together of people, where we own the issue, it becomes our own fight, and when this transition happens, people are with you to struggle till the end.
How can you get different stakeholders, each of whom may have different goals, to align with your mission?
There are a few non-negotiables. First, one’s own transparency and accountability must be an important component of our public life. I come from a privileged class by virtue of my birth and education. I work with very underprivileged people. When one is in a position of privilege, conversations have to begin by stating our probity and integrity, and with transparency. For example, there was a daily account of donations on a board at the dharna in Beawar.
Second, you have to be equal, not just talk about equality. Deep down we have to understand that everybody is an equal, that everybody has a right to think, to talk, to be. A dilemma arises when you talk to people who do not share the same basic principles. If I am in discussion with a person who believes in caste, I should have the ability to start a dialogue with them about how completely illogical caste is. But unless we enter into a dialogue we really do not have true engagement, friendship, participation, and growth.
The Dalits and the poor taught me that for them any expression of equality means struggle, and the courage to confront.
What is the role that civil society organisations can play to engage more actively with the current government so that the voices of the community are heard?
We are losing our right to protest, the right to dissent, the right to access public spaces. And what is democracy if you don’t have the public ear and public space. All of us must ask for the right to dissent in a democracy, the right to be heard. The problem with Indian democracy is that despite the presence of millions of voters, the pool of decision makers get smaller and narrower at the top. The voice at the bottom ceases to be heard. Decisions that affect millions of people are taken by a few, not in Parliament, not even in the Cabinet. MKSS believes that the street is our Parliament and our policy room. That’s where we go to protest and converse. When you’re on the street, you communicate with people who are not exactly part of your campaign or movement. That’s the kind of stimulation you need to have a civil society movement. We filed a PIL in the Supreme Court to regain access to the Jantar Mantar, and were successful in July 2018 in regaining the use of public space to protest.
My generation was very fortunate—we were not denied the right to freedom of expression. We could say what we liked. Today, we are beginning at the drawing board to get a system of governance that allows free expression and freedom of speech, which are fundamental to a democracy.
Engaging other stakeholders is equally critical. The RTI movement involved everyone—the media, academia, lawyers, and others. MGNREGA would not have happened without economists such as Jean Drèze, Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, and others who used fiscal arguments to counter the government’s constant refrain of ‘no money’. The RTI law was drafted by Justice P B Sawant, an ex-Supreme Court judge and chair of the Press Council of India.
Civil society is a target today because it amplifies the voices of justice and equality.
If you want anything to succeed, you have to involve a range of people. And you have to convince them about your idea—this must happen through public communication. Civil society is a target today because it amplifies the voices of justice and equality. We also have to understand that civil society is a large umbrella; it’s not just activists. It includes practically the entire population of India, because except for the state and the market, everyone else is civil society. We have to fight to sustain what we have.
What is your message for young people in India? How do we make sure that we don’t waste the legacy that you and your fellow travellers have bequeathed us?
The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to everyone’s well-being. Any system that tries to repress and suppress this right denies not only a democratic or constitutional right, but also a human right. It denies the right to life and liberty. Hence, for many of us today, the major preoccupation is India’s democracy, global democracy, and the attack on the right to freedom of expression, on account of which so many young people have suffered.
The most important right being corroded in the last seven years is free speech and expression with equality. It is such an important part of life and an important guarantee of real democracy. And today we must regain whatever we’ve lost, and sustain whatever we have for a better future. It doesn’t matter whether you’re involved in sangharsh, seva, or nirman, whether you’re a small or large organisation, whether you are a woman or a man. It doesn’t matter where you’re located. The right to free speech and expression is fundamental for freedom and liberty.
In this new, contemporary India, young people have a big struggle ahead to regain this right. The RTI is critical because it has brought a sense of reassurance to the nation and to the eight million users of that right that we are sovereign. The closest any campaign has come to set the discourse on public ethics is perhaps the RTI. The MGNREGA, by bringing in social audit, has spread the ideas of transparency and accountability across the board. These two big campaigns of which I am a part not only fostered participation, but also translated an ethical principle into implementable policy. And that’s critical. Because if you can’t convert those principles into an implementable, practical, pragmatic, tangible reality, they only exist on paper.
Young people must also understand that there is no such thing as ‘my work’ and ‘your work’. There’s simply work to be done.
Young people must also understand that there is no such thing as ‘my work’ and ‘your work’. There’s simply work to be done. The issue should be far more important than our individual selves. We are all instruments that bring an issue alive. We all want to be recognised and acknowledged—it’s a human condition. But at what cost? Understanding that one’s personal good lies within the general good is important.
Do you have any concluding thoughts for all of us?
We see an increasing slew of attacks against religious minorities, Dalits, and other marginalised communities. Civil society, which speaks out against oppression and amplifies the voices of the marginalised, is also under attack. Violence, instead of discussion and debate, has become a common response for settling disagreements. But what makes all this worse is the state’s covert and overt support for perpetrators of violence.
We need to nurture a culture of non-violence. Non-violence is born of tolerance, courage and a respect for life. It is a great Indian heritage, which is being undermined. We need to build forums for exchange of ideas and dialogue, which is what a constitutional democracy is all about.
I wish for a free and open society in which the young can function and do whatever they want to do without fear within the four corners of constitutional morality.
Finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the thousands of people who have contributed to my growth, reassuring me that there is goodness in humanity and that we all have roles to play as more equal, just people, and that we can bridge the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. I hope that in the years I have to live, I never stop talking truth to power.