In the “multiple Indias” where firebrand social activist Aruna Roy has earned herself a world-wide reputation for integrity and commitment, women of all castes, classes and creeds come together more easily than anyone else in the struggle for rights, justice and for constant deepening of democracy.
This theme emerged from a well-focused and hard-hitting 2-hour talk and Q&A she delivered Sunday Oct 23 at the South Asia Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC) in Montreal.
The youthful and energetic 70ish former teacher and civil servant turned civil society activist, as co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS - Workers and Peasants Strength Union) in 1987, believes in furthering what she calls the “civil society political process”.
Building Grassroots Counter-Power Centres
Mobilization at the grassroots, she says, is a counterweight to institutional party politics, and acts as a counter-power that demands accountability from the powers-that-be.
“Denouncing power in general is an abstract exercise. So we focus instead on the exercise of power at the local, village, town, and State levels, where the reality is more concrete. Struggling people can relate to that more easily, and local officials can be pressured and kept on their toes”, she says.
“Women are the backbone of all the great struggles going on in India today, she says, whether in trade unions, against sexual abuse and discriminations of all kinds, or for the social and economic rights of their families”.
Her biggest single victory to date has been the Right to Information Act (RTI), passed in 2005 after a multi-year campaign centred in Rajasthan. “To hold our governments accountable, we needed access to official information and data, all of which was kept hidden from us”, she says.
Unity Vs Divide & Rule In The “Multiple Indias”
The “multiple Indias” she talks about refers to caste, class and religious barriers – a reality that political parties use, exploit and manipulate to the hilt following “Divide & Rule” strategies of their own.
“Our counter-strategy is to unite, and women are much better at this than men, around rice and dal, work and welfare, health and education, dignity and freedom issues.
«Neo-liberals like to talk of Middle Class India as if it were one unified entity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The so-called Indian Middle Class is ridden by the same divisions as the rest of society. And above all, it lives in a bubble induced by media and advertising jingles. And that bubble cannot last”.
Balance Of Power Shifts: From Local To Global
On a par with the Right to Information, Aruna Roy places the Right to Freedom of expression – which means using the full space of democracy for political organization, mobilization and action. She also fights for the Right to Work, the Right to Food and the Right to socialized Pensions.
She stresses that her “civil society political process” is driven by NGOs that take no institutional funding whatsoever, either from inside India or from abroad. “Our campaigns, our projects are all crowd-funded on a case by case basis”, she says.
Chatting with her after the presentation, I said that I was focused on the shifting Global Balance of Power. I added that after listening to her, I realized more than ever that change in the local and national Balance of Power was an absolute prerequisite for the Global Balance of Power to change, faster and more durably.
Aruna Roy is a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. She also received the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management. In 2011, Time Magazine listed her among the 100 most influential people in the world.