'I would like to know how I am a traitor'

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By Social activist Aruna Roy, who had spearheaded the movement for the implementation of the Right to Information Act, tells V. Kumara Swamy why she has a problem with the tone and tenor of Anna Hazare's campaign to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed
  • Published 4.09.11
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For the last few days, Aruna Roy has been everywhere — on the television screen, in the newspapers and in every possible conversation on Anna Hazare and his panacea for all ills. Now that she is in front of me — dressed in a lightly starched green cotton sari with a blue border, and looking like an eager elementary school teacher — I find it hard to believe that this is the firebrand activist who has been holding forth on her version of a proposed law against corruption, different from the Jan Lokpal bill that Hazare and his team have been rooting for.

I can see that she is a bit frazzled. She is preparing for a seminar that will take place in an hour’s time in Delhi’s Ramjas College, and has a nagging headache. She asks for a Combiflam, a painkiller. “I can’t do without it,” she tells her long-time associate, Nikhil Dey, sitting on a divan in the office of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information in Hauz Khas in south Delhi.

“I have been talking non-stop for more than a week, and I just want to relax now — but I can’t,” she tells me as she leans back and adjusts a pillow behind her back. Dey proposes that she stays back and carries on with the interview instead of attending the seminar — a suggestion that I find appealing. But Roy protests. “Arre, did I say that I don’t want to go?” So it’s decided that I shall accompany Roy to Delhi University.

Dey is driving, and she is next to him. She asks me to sit behind Dey, so that she can look at me and answer my questions. I ask her what she thinks about being labelled a “traitor” after taking on the might of state and central governments to get the Right to Information Act implemented. The movement that she spearheaded in Rajasthan for the local people’s right to seek information from the government snowballed into a nationwide movement in the Nineties, and ended up as law six years ago.

“If you deliberately use the position of power to interpret every difference as betrayal, it is dangerous. If you call me a traitor, I would like to know how I am a traitor,” she says looking at me over her shoulder.

The point that she has been making all through is that Hazare’s bill is not the only version of the proposed law that seeks to make government representatives — right up to the Prime Minister — accountable. But the teeming crowds at Hazare’s fast in Delhi last week indicated that the masses were neither in favour of the government’s proposal for a Lokpal Bill, nor of the other versions proposed by activists. They wanted Team Anna’s bill — and nobody else’s.

“The discourse has been that this is the only draft that is correct, which is not good in a democracy,” she says. “Just because you are in a majority at a point in time doesn’t mean that you are right,” she adds, and urges me to look up a quote of Voltaire’s: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Perhaps the talk of betrayal emanated from the fact that she has been a member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council? Dey asks if he can answer the question. Their Lokpal draft, he says, wasn’t an NAC draft. “If it were so, we would have said it. We are not that petty,” says Dey. “May I carry on,” Roy interrupts, sounding mildly agitated. “It’s a red herring and it’s a political red herring. It was a deliberate attempt to create suspicion in the minds of the people. They wanted to show that I was with the government, which was not true,” she says.

For someone with strong views, Roy is surprisingly soft in her speech and hesitant — occasionally even waiting for me to find the word that she’s looking for. In fact, before the interview, she had warned me that I would have to complete her sentences for her if she got stuck. But, of course, there is nothing hesitant about her views.

Roy, 65, has spent the better part of her adult years working among villagers in Rajasthan. But while grassroots mobilisation has been her strength, she says she has a problem with the tone and tenor of the Anna Hazare movement. “It borrowed not only the metaphors of religious institutions but it also had the same kind of demand — to surrender to the better wisdom of a leader or a group of people. Any questioning of that sacrosanct definition was a sin,” she says. “That’s why you use the word traitor with so much ease. How could one use it otherwise?”

Roy was not always a jholawala. Born into a liberal Tamil Brahmin family in Chennai, Aruna Jayaram spent much of her formative years in Delhi as her father, who studied in Santiniketan, was employed by the government. Like a good middle-class girl, she learnt Bharatanatyam and classical singing, but nothing distracted her from her studies. She went on to earn a degree in English literature from Indraprastha College.

Social work had never crossed her mind, at least not until she met her future husband Sanjit “Bunker” Roy while doing her postgraduation in Delhi University.

But the two took different routes. While Bunker Roy, a national-level squash champion who also represented India in world meets, decided to plunge into social work, Roy competed for the civil services and became an Indian Administrative Service officer in 1967.

The two married in 1970, promising each other that they would not have children so that they could pursue their passions. “I was never a sports person. Perhaps that is the reason why I married a man with a thousand trophies in his showcase,” she says, breaking into a guffaw. The two have since separated.

As the car drives past the Union Public Service Commission, I ask her about her seven years in the IAS. “There is no situation when one doesn’t learn, but what my IAS years taught me was what I didn’t want to do. I also learned about the notion of power and arrogance that comes with a government job,” she says.

By 1972, her husband, a Doon School alumnus and St Stephen’s College graduate, had created ripples with his decision to establish the Social Work and Research Centre in Tilonia in Rajasthan. She joined her husband a year later and then finally resigned from the IAS. “I have no regrets whatsoever. I knew what I wanted to do and I continue to pursue that. What more could I have asked for,” she says.

Roy started working with village people, and realised soon thereafter that only economic uplift wouldn’t solve their problems — there was need for a new paradigm. “We met people and evolved strategies and listened and argued if necessary. But in all this, one had to have a sense of equality. Only then can a genuine relationship last,” she says.

Then came the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in 1990, a solidarity group of workers and farmers founded by Dey, Roy and a few others. Through MKSS, which has thousands of volunteers spread all over Rajasthan, Roy pressurised local administrations to throw open their development-related records to the public through a combination of hunger strikes, dharnas and people’s assemblies called jan sunvais.

The demand for transparency and people’s audit of government accounts sent a chill down the spine of the state’s bureaucracy, and this is where her IAS background came in handy. “I knew how the government worked and how it stonewalled — so we had an upper hand in many ways,” she says with a smile. It was this work that brought her the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000.

But the crowning glory for Roy was the passage of the Right to Information Act by the Union government in 2005. “That came after a long and sustained struggle. We actively engaged the government and challenged them to prove us wrong wherever they thought that we were unreasonable,” she says.

Although Roy claims that she is a “24/7 activist” she continues to follow her childhood interests such as singing and reading. “My areas of interest have only expanded. I work in Rajasthan which has a rich culture — whether it is handicrafts, music or other art forms. I follow their development very closely as well,” she says.

As we approach the university, Roy checks with Dey on the points that they would be raising at the seminar which is on the impact of Anna Hazare’s movement. They agree to sidestep Hazare and focus on their Lokpal draft.

I ask her if Hazare’s hold over the middle classes will last. “I don’t know. Movements are sustained because of a lot of energy and struggle. It comes naturally for the people at the grassroots. I am not sure about the staying power of this movement, because individuals don’t last for long,” she adds.

The car comes to a halt in front of Ramjas College as her admirers, waiting at the gate, rush to greet her, and usher her into their seminar room. She melts into the crowd, and waves a goodbye to me. Clearly, she is raring to go. The headache, I am sure, has eased.