Redefining Gurus Aruna Roy
The myth of Indian society divided on caste lines is not always true. In the villages, people have developed new thought patterns and re-defined concepts of change. Though poor and uneducated, in their battles against poverty, there is deep rooted commitment to, and an understanding of, their struggles. Activist ARUNA ROY writes that the villagers she has lived and worked with since she quit the civil services have led her to realise that urban India needs to learn more lessons from the village
A VILLAGE conjures up many images. Twenty-five years ago I came with all the assumptions of a middle class, urban Indian. I was influenced in my expectations by the stereotypes of the good and bad of rural India – romantic eaves, earthern floors, beautiful crafts – and fears of the unknown norms of a conservative society – sexist, male chauvinist, even intolerant.
The greatest apprehension was about the small but vital details of day-to-day living. Inevitably there was the fear of the toilet. Thoughts of bowel movements dominated the day like the hum of a bee. Perhaps, as my friend Dunu Roy said, our major pre- occupation became a development priority. It was not until I was toilet trained and understood my own fallacy that I empathised with the irate Naurti, who said the toilet was the least of her priorities. What she wanted was a minimum wage and employment.
But that is jumping chronology. In my days in the IAS, I had often gone to villages. But that was different. I was then an “officer” on “tour”. Officialdom is of course as faceless to the people as the aggregate of the poor is to the officers. I went to them to sort out their problems as defined by us. In Tamil Nadu, in the villages of erstwhile North Arcot and Trichy districts, I drank Horlicks, the officer’s drink. In Delhi, in villages near Mehrauli and Palam, I saw the predicament of the in-betweens. Despite our attempt to convince ourselves that we were going out to the people, there was always an undercurrent of mutual mistrust. The controls, of course, always lay in our hands and we were trained to maintain our distance. Is it surprising then that people never really come anywhere near the official delegation? Chunni Singh was not wrong when he emphatically stated that from the chaprasi to the block development officer, the office would bark at, and not talk to, the poor.
The oppression of impatience only came home to me when I was on the other side years later. It is not pleasant for even the poorest person to be pushed away with an “alright, now sit down”, when that person is halfway through expressing an issue of life and death. We were constantly in a hurry, and weighed down with the twin burdens of having to run the country, and always be in the know. I could not get rid of the nagging doubts and the sense that something was not right. As officers we met the rural elite. Even a good collector, I later learnt, does not and in fact cannot, permeate the unwritten code of rural India’s ethics on who may, or may not, meet the officers. And of course, the public places where such meetings are held are often designed to keep the poor, the Dalits and women on the outer peripheries.
But the time I came to Tilonia in Rajasthan in 1974-75, I had stripped myself of the veneer of protection accorded by the IAS. I now saw the village through very different eyes. More importantly, the village now presented a different reality.
I made my first visit to the Tilonia village with a new-found tentativeness. But in my manner and by reputation, I had been an officer. So, I carried the assumption that I would and could talk to men and women alike. I also went with a partial patriarchal assumption that men are the decision-makers and so they have to be addressed first and persuaded before the women could be involved. I had a far greater and clearer understanding of caste politics than that of class or gender. It was curious how the men would never look me in the eye. If I asked a question, my male colleague would get an answer. This irritated me. I was accepted and later appreciated by the macho society I had entered for mixed reasons. For the fact that I could drive a jeep, both on the national high way and in the more difficult alleys in the village, for standing upto and fighting the men in the village, for being able to say “no” in categorical terms, and finally and very grudgingly, for being able to understand their power structure and contain and fight it.
In retrospect, life assumes a clarity it never has while the events unfold. My initial years outside the IAS were full of ups and downs. I never regretted my decision to leave the service. But I soon realised that one of the securities the IAS had offered was its working superstructure. I was now on my own.
Village India taught me that the line dividing the private and the public is very thin indeed. One does not have the opaqueness of a town to lead an unquestioned life of contradictions. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice to root his faith with the people that led Gandhiji to his ethical positions. I have felt that his public ethics did not derive solely from his religious beliefs. The lessons he drew from the where and how of his living have probably contributed even more fundamentally to his strategies and philosophical positions. I know now that the where, the how, and the with whom of living have been my greatest educators.
But to come back to rural Rajasthan, where these experiences with people and events have formed the bulk of my political and social education. The years with rural communities led me gradually to look beyond the loud and overwhelming presence of macho men and recognise the complex web of rural power structures to be with and understand women, craftspersons and wage workers, and realise the realpolitik of village development.
Dalits have always been an important focus. In my visits to the village in Rajasthan, the first thing that struck me was the fact that the Dalits, the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and the upper castes are not racially different – in colour, stature, etc. Another aspect that seemed encouraging was the fact that, unlike many other parts of India, the dalits areas were separated from the main village. Their houses often jostled with OBC or upper- caste houses. This is important because some of the more vicious methods of atrocities and revenge perpetrated on them would have a negative impact on other as well.
For many reasons I clearly understood, I wanted to begin working with Dalit communities. Apart from emotional empathy with the Dalits, and anger against discrimination, I had a personal interest in their occupations, their skills and in their crafts. I wanted to study in detail their land holdings, their relationship with government and with other communities.
The dominant Dalit community in my village, Tilonia, were the Berwas. They had stopped working with leather since 1956 and most of them had taken up masonry as an occupation. The taboos associated with Dalit professional necessities, and the consequent untouchability practised on them was one important reason for this. In working with them I learnt that they migrated in search of work and I began to understand the problems migrant workers, especially women, face. My friendship with Mangi changed the intensity of my relationship with women. First through her, and later through others I began to understand the extraordinary strengths of working class rural women.
Mangi is a fiercely independent woman, who is endowed with the gift of logic and love for mainstream participation. She was well-travelled – from Jammu to Kanpur and to many places in Rajasthan. But she had lost six children and conceived as many times. She despaired of being able to give birth to a healthy child. I met her as an equal. I was concerned about her inability to keep her children. She was curious about a woman who did not want a child.
Mangi’s preoccupations, and mine, led us to talk about and develop many thoughts together and to disagree on as many. Mangi had her children – a girl and two boys; and she and I went from handicrafts and stitching to setting up candidates for the local Panchayat election, canvassing and losing the election; sharing the analysis and our sense of disappointment. We went from women in handicrafts to feminism, a journey in which many others became friends. We grew together. She took part in disputes which ranged from rape to misuse of public property. She addressed professors from Jaipur, and IAS probationers and officers who visited SWRC. Then suddenly she became a recluse and went into performing small tasks. She refused to participate in the mainstream she herself had helped define. Now, after 12 years, she wants to come back into it again.
My friendship with Mangi made me think of many fundamental pre- suppositions of mine which were as false as the toilets, but much more insidious, because they were subtle and very clever. Why, I asked myself often, did I have the sole prerogative to think, and think right? How could so many people survive without intelligence and understanding? Where was I wrong and what did I need to know myself? And indeed how limited were my levels of understanding.
The late 1970s and the early 1980s taught me that the village did not need to plan its growth on the model designed by the urban intelligentsia alone. In fact, urban India needed to learn from villages as much or more than it needed to give. There should be a genuine dialogue between two equals. Gandhiji’s rural bias became clearer. The idea or principle underlying it was fully acceptable, even if the details were not.
The thought was unsettling and stimulating. Were there other methods of thinking? Why could other idioms not be accepted as equal? Were hypotheses to be drawn up only by those of us who have had access to Western liberal education and know Aristotelian methods, even if we don’t know much about Aristotle himself? If Mangi could question certain assumptions and arrive at absolutely legitimate answers based on reasoned arguments, could others not do so? This line of reasoning and questioning led to a growing collective sharing of ideas and methods of arriving at conclusions. The seeds of what began as an attempt to understand Mangi grew into a certainty. We were now sure that given space and time and a position of equality, large numbers of people would be able to collectively posit and think of their own life situation in a manner more practical and competent than any of us could.
Collective thinking and sharing comes quite naturally to the rural intelligentsia. Exploratory thinking is shared in small public fora. If there is stimulation from outside in terms of suggestions and different ideas, groups do get together and talk about it. The syllogism is not the only logical way of arriving at conclusions. With this background, there developed a genuine effort at people’s research. Modalities and methods were re- defined with excellent results. Such experiments I later found had been conducted all over the world by rural groups with little or no access to formal schooling. Many people had undertaken journeys similar to mine where they had not only opened themselves to new lifestyles, but also exposed themselves to different modes of thought. The conclusions they all arrived at were not too varied.
In one of the research studies I was part of in Tilonia, we questioned the assumption that drudgery was associated with cooking, and that there was a consequent need to conduct a study to see how smokeless chulhas and solar cookers could be used in rural areas. Women with whom this study was conducted helped defined drudgery. So far as they were concerned, poverty and hunger was drudgery, cooking was bliss. It meant food. My middle class assumptions were thrown back at me with contempt. This was in 1981. I met Mangi in 1975. To some extent by now both Mangi and I were peripheral to the study. When women looked at work, tasks like weeding and fetching fuelwood were those which broke their back. As helpers to masons, they were plagued when going up ladders with loads. Apart from the load-bearing itself, it was being forced by the nature of the work required into indecent postures in the presence of leering men that constituted the drudgery of their work. In 1999 we are still waiting in rural Rajasthan for the technology revolution that will lessen our load. We still bear our physical burden much as our great- grandmothers did.
Another great friendship and a relationship of learning was forged with Naurati, another Dalit woman whose main pre- occupation was with oppression and injustice. She was fearless and clear in her positions. I really met and got to know her only when she organised a strike for minimum wages in her village, Harmara, in 1981. I had often visited her mohalla when I worked with the craftspersons who worked with leather. Gifted with the ability to speak with power and determination from within her ghunghat, she became first my initiator, and later a comrade struggling against injustice. I learnt the rudiments of mobilisation from her. I also understood what courage meant when she first struck work with 500 fellow workers and then faced the wrath of the village. The winning of a Supreme Court case made some amends, but not quite in the immediate environment. With Mangi she acquired basic literacy. But her major preoccupation was and still remains the intense identification with the distress of others.
Naurti was always there to express solidarity, to expouse a cause, to communicate with and mobilise women. She saw with remarkable clarity that every cause was both personal and collective. In every battle she joined, from the Deorala sati to her recent involvement with ensuring transparency in spending of Panchayat funds, her perception of the causes and effects are absolutely clear. Over the years I have met many Naurtis, in Galkuma, Rajan, Sau bua, Rukma Bai … an endless list of courageous women who commit themselves to issues and action. They would be shocked if they were to know that people get awards, money, fame and recognition for this kind of work. They are wise women who are born to lead their peers by being at the end of the line.
Naurti has taken me on a journey where we have had to explore social realities in a manner in which I was forced to learn newer methods of talking, listening and responding to poor people’s needs. But more basic was learning to face my own fears of public inquiry, of public criticism, of ridicule, of my timidity about street politics and the dynamics of caste and mohalla politics.
We also travelled the feminist path together. Where my middle class shyness of my body was matched by Naurti’s own. We were both confronted by Billan, who with her beauty and brashness, talked about anything that come into her head and questioned us relentlessly till we at least answered her questions in our heads! These were women with whom I enjoyed learning, and they came from mine. I realised that for me these friends would always embody my ideals. And they would define the path I would have to traverse. Working class women’s politics were taught to me by these “professors” who knew and articulated the thought in idiom much more compelling and communicative than mine could have been. They also brought me down to earth so that I would not fly away into asking for the impossible and subsequently dip into cynicism. They stated their own limitations and made me see and accept some of mine.
The combination of understanding women’s politics and its contribution to mainstream political thought came during my association with Naurti. But my limitations were different from hers. She was integrated into a village community and a caste from which she did not want to break away. She wanted change but was rooted. I, on the other hand, had been uprooted from Brahmanical Tamil Nadu by progressive grandparents and parents, had grown up in post-Partition Delhi, had married a Bengali Brahmo, and had come to live and work in a village in Rajasthan. I also changed from a lecturer in English, to an IAS officer to a “social worker”. Now the change from social work to being an “activist”, seemed inevitable. It also meant a redefinition of politics and a consciousness of my own political actions. When I left development work and SWARC, Tilonia, I did so with an acknowledgement one has to one’s alma mater and its alumni.
With Shankar, friend, fellow-traveller, genius at communication, I learnt things both explicit and intangible. We met in 1981, but when he wanted to stop being a stage person only and to go into social struggle and to live his life differently, our attitudes converged. Our instincts led us to find a workspace in which his family, I and Nikhil, a young post-graduate, could get together to define ourselves and our work. In 1987 we shifted to Devdungri, a village in Rajasamand district, where we lived in a hut, kept a goat and decided to live out our joint conviction that most of the answers to the questions we had lay with the people themselves. In this exercise of great energy and creativity rural India has played a moral fundamental role. Issues have been defined and articulated collectively. It is perhaps because of this that the idioms used have been the people’s own, and substantive issues have been understood easily by everybody.
The process in Devdungri has been deliberately collective from the very beginning. What began as a loose group of committed individuals coming together to debate, discuss, mix, match and act, has grown into the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The Sangathan also has its share of powerful personalities. We have grown together as a group forced by collective discussion and decision-making to learn from many at the same time. There are the contrasting personalities of Lal Singh and Chunni Singh. The remarkable clear-sightedness of young Narayan. The unquestioned determination and commitment of Mohanji whose songs have the power unleashed after having lived a life of deprivation. There is Dow Singhji’s absolute purity and goodness of heart and his concern for all life. Those who have gone, like Kakiji and Tej Singhji, those who had lived lonely lives of struggle. There is Bhuri Ya who comes on and off but speaks only of fundamental truths. Sushila, and Hans Swaroop who have questioned norms of caste even in marriage… the list goes on. We have all inspired, taught, advised, angered, frustrated, cajoled, pushed, comforted, supported each other. Each one has been a guru. But the functioning of extraordinary individuals in a collective group is the learning that we set out to do in Devdungri. Over 10 years down the line we can begin to talk in detail about some of our fellow travellers on this remarkable journey.
Lal Singh and Chunni Singh have always been jocularly referred to as the leaders of a Sangathan which refuses to have a leader. They have been part of it from before the birth of the MKSS. They have both been instrumental in initially defining the role of the Sangathan. Lal Singh, mild of disposition, is completely self- contained and cannot be lured by any consumer society. He values his freedom from slavery to such an extent that he would rather starve than be obliged to anyone. He was in the police, a constable. A very coveted job for the rural middle class and for his family. He had hardly joined when he saw fellow constables on strike. He wanted to know what the strike was all about. He was informed that the constables were amongst other things publicly asserting that they were employed by the State to police and not to look after babies and cook and clean for the officers. Lal Singhji felt it was a just protest and joined the strike. The entire lot were dismissed. The others filed a writ and many of them are back in the police. But Lal Singhji’s logic would not allow him to go back to the service. Even now, over 20 years after his dismissal from service, people come to his house and commiserate with him and his family about his unfortunate dismissal from service, his foolishness, and how well off he would have been had he still been in the police. I could not help but hear the echo of the underlying assumptions in people’s questions about why I left the IAS.
And in his answers I found a friend.
Lal Singh never stops wondering about what they see as his great misfortune. He has done manual labour, tried to get more out of his meagre land holdings, and in times of drought sold milk, pedalling slowly the 32 km back and forth from Sohangad to Bhim. As he says himself, he has not starved, and has not lost his self-respect. In fact, the Sangathan has given both Lal Singh and myself a chance to articulate the discomfort we felt while we were in different wings of a colonial service.
Lal Singh has been a vital component of the inner core of the Sangathan. For many in the Sangathan, he will always be an important touchstone to assess our own positions at times of confusion. He can be trusted to be unbiased and without self- interest. His singular contribution has been his refusal to ever get into a situation which he genuinely feels is untenable. He is respected even by his enemies. Greatly influenced by Kabir’s lyrics, Lal Singh was invaluable to the entire area soon after the Ayodhya incident. Coming from a small village, with only a secondary certificate, he has the catholic vision of a well-read man of the world.
If Lal Singh absorbs group tension, Chunni Singh has learnt in the course of his colourful life to ride it. A powerful personality, Chunni Singh spent his childhood washing cups and plates in dhabas. He grew up to be a modern-day Robin Hood in Baroda, willing to literally fight for anyone who was poor and helpless. He had earned the nickname “Suresh” in Baroda, having decorated his face with numerous marks during the course of his battles. Chunni Singh returned to his village Palona 30 years after his father’s death, determined to reclaim the land which had been mortgaged, and settle down to find his roots. The polar opposite of Lal Singh in the Sangathan, he has an innate sense of absolute equality, a refusal to accept injustice of any sort, and a belief that despite the fact that he had never been to school he knew just as much about most things as anyone else. This extraordinary man has also repeatedly shown me how deep and basic the human commitment to justice and equality is. From Chunni Singh I have learnt the importance of attention to detail in the heat of struggle. We all remember the day when, with a single stroke of slogan-shouting at the right time, he managed to control a crowd which was sharply reacting to unjustified use of force by the police.
He has a genuine sense of quality with all. He will not accept the superiority of an officer, an intellectual, a rich man. The complete antithesis to the feudal serf, he is full of oratory and rhetoric. He can keep people spellbound. He can shock a Collector or an urban bigwig, as much to prove a point as to make a political statement.
In having grown with the Sangathan as it has grown, Chunni Singh has had to curtail his free spirit of doing things alone. I have watched his distress and inner struggle as he has had to control parts of himself in order to meet his own objectives, and I have seen through this process humility thrust upon him. At those moments many of us have also felt the very positive role that a collective of equals can play in curbing our eccentricities and angularities.
Born of a collective process, the MKSS arrived at its name after many debates. The word Morcha was disallowed as being too difficult and not natural on local tongues. The dialogue with people was much faster and more effective in Dedungri and the MKSS because it was through struggle. There is a notion that people’s attitudes could be changed through training and development more fundamentally than through struggle. In the MKSS, I found that struggle is a greater and quicker equaliser. There is a desire to change which arises out of ground realities. The people also are far more practical in defining the limits of struggle and drawing lines.
The myth of a caste Hindu society necessarily dividing on those lines is not necessarily and always true. The last ten years have established without a doubt the fact that a group of people can and have developed thought patterns and re-defined concepts of changes. These are people who have little formal education and are economically poor. What is clear however, is that the poverty is not of their minds or of their hopes at all. So, in their battles against their conditions of poverty, one has had an opportunity to recognise the richness and texture of their commitment to, and understanding of, their own struggles. They are fully capable of dealing with their lives, if they could find some space. The MKSS continues to search for such spaces.