During the Seventh Annual Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture delivered at the Constitution Club in New Delhi, NAC member and social activist Aruna Roy spoke on feminism, RTI, MGNREGA.
Ms Roy also spoke about her political growth and development. Women, as universal sufferers have fought prejudices like caste and class politics more successfully in the public domain than their male counterparts, she said.
Praising the MGNREGA scheme, Roy, who heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana, termed it a "success" of political parties and of people in rural areas.
"It is not the money but dignity attached to work. People in rural areas seek work first and then the money," she said.
Roy stressed on the need to strengthen accountability within the system by giving impetus to acts like the RTI which will "bring corrupt netas to the book".
"Transparency must be established when you work with public money," she added.
Here is the full text of the lecture:
The Feminist in Public Action
One of the popular women’s songs sung in South Asia says :
“Tu khud ko badal, tu khud ko badal,tab hi to jamana badlega” .
Sumitra Chisthi was a rare example of how life choices can define a person’s ideology. You do not have to speak feminist theory to be a feminist. In fact, in feminism (perhaps more than any of the other isms) you have to live it. One of the most powerful conceptions of feminism is the understanding that “the personal is political” and that “my life is a revolution”. More than being a renowned economist, it is the choices she made. Specially at a time when a woman who fought gender prejudice and tradition, in the private or public domain, even more than today, became suspect and had to justify every action.
Her assertions as an economist, writer, would have to be seen in this context. Her grace and excellence would have come at some cost. What we do not perceive, but can feel on our skins as women, is the unrecorded simple everyday battles she may have faced to be a public persona. Maybe I do her an injustice and she ignored male prejudices, and they did not bother her. But like all human beings, I tend to extrapolate from personal and common experiences and understand that she could not have had an easy time for the strong personal and professional stands she took.
My political growth and development has been with groups of people; most often large collectives of women, oppressed by gender, class and caste hierarchies, They were further marginalised by being rural women living in strongly traditional societies As women they were always at the bottom of every pile. Though gender politics was my first engagement as a working woman, my initial confrontation with inequality was with caste and class politics.
No matter what the ideology in India, like gender, caste is always an overarching divider. It was an important perspective from which to look at all relevant issues, and a challenge often poorly addressed in the structures of movements and campaigns that often ignored caste and gender. Women, as universal sufferers have fought these prejudices more successfully in the public domain than their male counterparts.
TRADITIONAL AND SOCIAL INEQUALITIES
From the perspective of the working class
My earliest experiences with rural Rajasthani women began with a disconcerting experience in early ‘75. I had gone knocking on the door of a woman agriculturist from the rural middle class. I was full of enthusiasm, reaching out to make new relationships, with naive expectations of meeting people waiting for an opportunity to change. As I stepped into the courtyard I faced belligerence. She came out, all 5’7” of her, and looked down with ill concealed contempt.
“Who are you? What have you come for? I have no time from my chores. Be gone. Lecture your husband and others in towns. I do not want your literacy, your jobs. I have work to do, go..GO !”
And that was the end. I was ignominiously turned out. The IAS or class notwithstanding, she judged me correctly, by what she felt were her priorities. Despite my disquiet, at this reaction, it helped ground my political understanding, and my notion of equality in much greater tentativeness, complexity, and humility. It was the beginning of a long journey into a multitude of issues arising from this interaction. What matters for now, are the important lessons I learnt about the reality which lies under the romance of working with the rural poor.
I learnt first, that understanding cultural differences and mores is a pre-requisite to any intervention for social change. It came the hard way but imprinted the memories of that day in my mind for ever. No matter how good intentions may be, it required humility and patience to truly understand the others’ predicament and perception. Perhaps the most difficult was developing strength to receive contempt and suspicion.
Sitting and talking to women from the rural working class, was my first big political lesson in equality. It whittled at my sense of well being, cracked my arrogance and questioned my assumptions. It educated me about gender, and broke my middle class smugness. Women’s idiom- a mix of the intimate, of wisdom, profound understanding and risqué, smelling of sweat –compelled me to recognise the complexity of the politics I would have to learn.
The concern with poverty and women
I was deeply upset with inequality and this feeling went back to my childhood. Poverty and destitution, continued to make me miserable. Poverty existed, a stark visual truth. The visible, prevalent poverty did not permit the refuge of disappearing into abstract theories. The desire to work towards changing these conditions was what drove me from as far back as I can remember. This was the concern that pushed me out of government and finally into public action. The impression was that the class battle against poverty is a much clearer issue, than say fighting complex and enmeshed caste or religious prejudices. The lines supposedly (like the controversial BPL) could be drawn more easily.
Poverty could be enumerated, graphs drawn, the authority of economic analysis invoked, and the reality of misery and the indifference and callousness of the system could not be denied. Political demands could be made and addressed, land distribution in Bengal, and hundreds more such action made possible. Politics thrived on slogans relating to it like , “Garibi Hatao”. The poor were and are a strongly visible presence. One would have supposed that the solutions would also be simple. But they have not been so. We are still battling the existence of deprivation and exploitation, endemic hunger and low social indicators.
The interplay of caste and religious divides has fragmented the poor. In the disarray that followed, foreign and Indian exploitative capital and financial institutions have entered. New theories of economic betterment have pulled the poor too into the rat race for accessing cosmetic change. Myopic top down policies have also not helped. Poor women remain at the absolute bottom of the pile.
Frank feminist questioning and outrage, the worker’s implicit refusal to be lured into defining a better life a la the language of consumerism, the dignity and intellectual confidence of these women, made me salute them. I was forced to listen to what they had to say about sophisticated issues of development in their idiom. Women always had an opinion on important issues that affected them. They disproved that spiteful adage that women gossip and men think lofty thoughts! I have in all these years known women to quarrel, yes. Gossip, almost never, and certainly not in groups as men do!
CATEGORIES OF EXCLUSION
Skilled And Unskilled
The arrogance of power and money.
Who decides and who works ?
Language and categories are made by people who traditionally have had access to the skill of literacy. The quill has always been the weapon of governance and the tool of exploitation. Pen on paper produces documents, and they become opaque tools of power, displacement, deprivation and exploitation. As Mohanji said in his song:
Pehel wallah chor tho bandhookaon marta re
Abbe wallah chor to kalmauan mare re
Those who define skills and categorise use the pen. It is therefore obvious that power will be seen more in literacy and less in the ability to wield the tools of agriculture, and the dozens of tasks that require to be done to build the infra structure for existence. Women, even the literate ones understand that the categories are evolved by the powerful, as they themselves are victims of such categorisation.
In 1980, when I was in the SWRC Tilonia, we did a study on wages with the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur. Following the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in the Public Interest Litigation “Sanjit Roy vs The Govt of Rajasthan”, there was a huge payment of arrears in Harmara village in 1983. The mobilisation was led by a good friend – Naurti, now Sarpanch then worker, who mobilised the workers. She and I wondered why this victory had not propelled more protests. The study on wages was an attempt to look at the issue of work and wages along with women workers. During the course of the study, I began to feel that unless I worked as a daily wage earner myself, I was not competent to speak of so many of the important and contentious issues that bothered me. One of them was the definition of skilled and unskilled; and the arrogance of the literate; and the brahminical weightage given to the brain/written word. This led me to work as a casual worker on a work site with a dozen friends who knew their job.
Using the tools of the ‘unskilled’:
This was in 1981. I always looked at my fragile physical description and wondered how I would have lasted out as a woman worker, had I been born in a poor Dalit family. I knew that I had to feel the pain of hard physical work, so that my description and mind would never forget the reality of millions of Indian women and men, performing this chore every day. I had already worked for a few hours here and there. And although it could not really be considered “work” it did provide an important lesson. The opportunity to work steadily for a few days came my way in 1981. Subba Rao the Gandhian Sarvodaya leader came to Tilonia to train youth. In the course of that training we cleaned public spaces of defecation, and also worked as labour on work sites. I opted to work with a team of fellow women workers, filling ‘tagaries’ (circular recepticles) and carrying the mud and stone a distance away to be dumped , improving the grazing commons of the Panchayat. I confidently picked up the phawda ( showel) and moved towards the women. They were scooping earth onto a tagari. It looked very easy. The phawda was heavier than I thought it would be. I went along with already aching arms to join them. It was difficult to wield and more difficult to use deftly. Lagging behind, and the butt of all their crude but true jokes, I decided to lift the tagari up to my head. It was impossible and I did everything wrong. I was not given the genti, the pick axe. They feared I would break my head or theirs on the sharp pointed blades on either side. Their work got slower because of me, finally irritated they asked me to “shove off!”
What I learnt could be the subject matter for a thesis! I learnt about the hypocrisy of and sense of superiority of my class when it went on about literacy and its contempt for manual labour as a so called mindless activity. I will never ever be able to wield any tool of ‘work’ and production (creation) without feeling in all humility, that the embedded conception of the hierarchy of skills reflects power, class, and caste biases. For the MKSS therefore Gandhi and Marx made sense together. The former for insisting on including labour based activities in our daily life and appreciating it, and the latter for a political philosophy based on the equality of all skills.
Students At work in 2009
The MKSS attracts some young students from the highly literate elite group to spend some weeks as interns. There were 30 odd interns in the month of May. Amongst them were interns from IIT Kanpur, NLS Kolkatta, St. Stephens, Lady Shri Ram, Ramjas , and other Delhi colleges, Spicmacay shishyas, and “Gap” year students from India: a motley group of 30. One of the tasks assigned to them was to work on a work site much like those allocated to MGNREGA workers. The concession was that they worked only -4 hours half the task & time of an NREGA worker they had looked at the work in different ways. Some with great curiosity and some anxiety and others with confidence- but most shrugged and said child’s play!
The story was dramatically different when they returned, red faced, sweaty and grimy, hands peeled with blisters, limbs aching and paining, and with a realisation that even the gym toned up young men and women, had failed to complete their allotted task . The de-briefing session was illuminating, to say the very least. Comments ranged from “we will never say that the poor do not work”, “it is skilled labour”, “ please learn the computer it is much easier”-to , “how can they say that the minimum wage is the maximum”, “ considering their nutritional levels the task is too much”, “we must ask all the netas and babus to do a day’s work”.
The seeds of the appreciation of the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act and its extraordinary significance were sown in our minds over two decades. In discussions with women and men from a large number of villages the first demand was for work. This happened repeatedly in the many hundreds of meetings, and interactions. The need for employment was a continuous refrain heard since 1975. The immense dignity of the poor who in the most trying times asked for work and not doles, has ruled my understanding of economics, politics, and the human condition.
The architects of the legislation for work, the MGNREGA that Parliament enacted in 2005, were the lakhs of women and men across India. They understood that without entitlements their demands would for ever be turned down. The political connection between demanding work from the village Panchayat and laws made in New Delhi were recognised. Once they made the connection, their common sense and logic stimulated their struggle for work.
Decisions about development and how it should be shaped cannot be left to the regressive part of the political, technological and the bureaucratic structures. Supported by capitalist economics, there are a hundred theories to suppress the interests of people who are the real builders of India. Far from being a drain on the economy these are the women and men who trade their bodies for survival and create the comforts of the rising and shining India of the 81/2 percent! They are the people who die in any cross fire, in the red corridor, in communal battles, in police and other misuse of State power.
The MGNREGA must be seen in the context of survival with creation of the material well being of the poor and marginalized. The systematic incipient war against any attempt to get access of the poor to a share of the governments resources has had a range of enemies both within and outside the system. The insiders have two fears or issues. One is that this right to demand work also confers on workers the right to know; and therefore the right to demand accountability.
Accountability could also be interpreted , as an attempt to demand efficiency and output. This is of course anathema to the normal run of the mill civil servant- who has enjoyed powers of blending sycophancy with oppression, to make their positions comfortable The demand driven nature of the work, is therefore a huge threat.
The trigger that they fear is that the demand for work. A worker on application gets work within fifteen days of the dated receipt of the demand, and if not, there is a compensation of an unemployment allowance. The best way of stalling it is to keep this basic information dormant and for government to control and run public works programmes, when it wants to. The worker is denied two rights in one stroke. The application not being filed relieves the local government from the obligation to pay the allowance. It also prevents the growth of a genuine system of people’s interaction with the system. The reduction in spending on MGNREGA in the last year reflects the playing down of this entitlement.
The more obviously dreaded and therefore influential factor is that of public accountability about expenditure. Corruption is only one of its symptoms. Transparency will lead to unravelling the fine network of pay offs bottom up, defying the laws of gravity. It would disclose undisputed facts about misappropriation and arbitrary governance.
Finally the trail will lead to structures of governance, where the role of ruling elite, will be exposed. Practically everyone knows the pattern, but the proof is missing. The right to information within the MGNREGA is providing us crucial lessons in how to uncover and dismantle the controls of the dens of vice in governance. It is a crucial tool to empower people (and well intentioned and committed bureaucrats) to properly implement, and manage the hostility within the system.
The Andhra Pradesh Social Audit Directorate and its phenomenal success is
the strongest argument in its favour. Over 30 crores has been recovered.
The criticism of the MGNREGA from the Industrial and big agricultural lobby is obviously based on prejudice and fear. From time immemorial, but certainly since the French revolution and Marx, the working class is looked at with apprehension and fear. The stated reason for concern is the inability to get labour. The truth lies elsewhere. The fact is that entitlement for working people cuts at the feudal and exploitative system, hoisted by capitalist notions of profit.
It is the wage entitlement through the minimum wage. The malpractices notwithstanding, because of the MGNREGA, minimum wages have come to be acknowledged as a possibility. It is increasingly becoming difficult to pay exploitative wages. Bonded labour – exists in a new avatar- and has a thin rope to climb salvation. The rural power structure is threatened, not with a gun but with constitutional demands and information that unmasks the illegitimate use of power.
Finally it is the only way that this country’s poor can survive with equity, equality and shape genuine development. Otherwise these edifices of achievement are most often hollow, and the termite ridden structures cannot be embellished with tinsel and glitter.
The genesis of RTI – questioning
Despite my talking of “knocking” on the woman’s door in 1974, in fact, knocking on the door was not possible in rural Rajasthan in 1974-5. There are no clearly marked entries into homes and doors are kept open. Closed doors are an ill omen, and spell stealth and secrecy.
Perhaps it was both metaphorically actually more true to say I went knocking out all the delusions in my mind !
The suspicion of the ordinary villager about money, budgets and development expenditure came as a surprise. I carried a foolish urban assumption or delusion about the natural and obvious welcome of good will and “generosity” of urban interveners in matters of rural inequality.
The early discussions with villagers about their predicament had clearly not knocked sense into my head. The first demand for transparency of budgets was made by a rural unemployed youth to me in 1975. He challenged me by saying, that if our work was honest, what was my problem with pasting the budget in the village choupal ? He may not even remember. But I have never forgotten that incident. It was my first important lesson about the importance of transparency. He did not ask the same question of the Panchayat and the local power elite, for obvious reasons.
But the validity of the question and the implicit politics of transparency became apparent. It remained from that time onward crucial to creating awareness about the need for public accountability. Yet in large part the people did not perceive the link between public spending and personal betterment:
Yeh hamara paisa nahin hai. Jalne do.
There was a curious mismatch, between the accusation we all made about the mindless apathy and “unquestioning” acceptance of rural Bharat and the unpleasant and sharp reaction to any important question they asked. The outsider was concerned with indicators of progress or development that came from a so called “modernised and development ” oriented mind set.
There are certainly points of view where rural India may seem very backward. But where even by “modern” standards they have much to contribute we do not listen. Crucial statements are brushed aside. At best we have no patience to listen and at worst we dismiss them as irrelevant. The women made me listen. My own sense of inadequacy and guilt made me attend to what they were saying. They spoke common sense politics and with great attention to detail. Their memory and recall was remarkable.
They also puzzled me and shook up my belief that reasoning had only one linear trajectory a la Aristotle and any other method of arriving at conclusions was not logical. The patience to listen to their implicit questions and the many ways in which they chose to share their views, made me realise how creatively they questioned the status quo.
One of the major pre-occupations of workers being ‘work’, the most important set of their questions were about the delivery of employment opportunities by the government. They talked about “famine”, an English word that sat comfortably sandwiched between words in Rajasthani. I wondered initially, then realised, “famine” meant work allocated by Government under the Famine Relief Code to address almost permanent drought in Rajasthan.
The enormous number of questions about work then became the basis for shaping the political structure of the demand for both the Right to Information (RTI) and Employment Guarantee (NREGA). The formulation in the English language may have been urban, but the conceptualisation and articulation was most definitely rural. People engaged with and formulated policies from their strength, making informed choices.
From questions to Answers
The Right to Transparent Governance
Participation is not consultation, not just helping implement a preconceived plan. It is an involvement with planning, decision making and implementation. The nature of participation has to be demonstrated and understood in all action. Internal systems of functioning have to carry the same nature of participation that we demand from political systems. It is based on an understanding of equality. Democracy gives value to each voice. But that voice has to be heard and have a platform to express itself. The endless use of the word – plurality – has significance in a multi class, caste, religious; gender divided feudal and traditional society. There is further significance because we all think, want a democracy. In that context these plurality of opinions, including dissent, have to be given space. The acceptance of a common set of principles with respect for them, would ensure that any consensus when reached would protect the interests of the weaker and marginalised sections of society, and prevent compromising on them.
The demand to be informed about how governments function, and to monitor them, is a part of democratic practice. This is now recognised as a paradigm shift, necessary for accountability. No matter who comes to power politically, the bureaucratic system remains.
The paradox lies in the fact that the power to change is vested in the political group that falls a victim to bureaucratic exigencies, partly by choice and partly by default. Bureaucratic failures reflect on political performance, but very often collusion of interests especially with co-operation needed in graft and corruption, has made them uneasy or even comfortable bed fellows. The system which was to act as watch dog on each other has largely failed. Some part of it is due to the failure of the new political class in its inability to understand the mechanisms of governance. The other part is where understanding is coupled with collusion.
Participatory democracy is potentially, one of the most important checks on the breakdown of these systems of monitoring and performance. The gigantic structure is broken into its minute components and each one is monitored by local groups, geographically located in that area. The most tedious aspect and challenge for those who promote democracy, is the fact that it is hard work. Powers and rights bring in obligations. Demands also bring in the need for persistence and consistency as attendant values.
In demanding participatory democracy, we must understand that we accept responsibility and the obligation to be transparent and accountable in all our actions. The means and ends debate applies on us too. While we may criticize, we must apply those criteria on ourselves too. All categories and sectors- Parliamentarians, Judiciary or NGOs, or Civil Society, Movements, citizens or professional groups must follow these norms.
Many women’s groups, where multiple interests come face to face, have to understand how to resolve them. The notion of participation is given practical shape. Scheduled caste, OBC, employer and employed, all religions sit together, on an informal platform. The prejudices of witchcraft and traditional reactions to any lower caste woman speaking out are continual issues.
Breaking untouchability norms, small but significant for change, occur and have to be faced. They have to be resolved; even in the larger interest of work, wages and a collective future. Any action that goes against stated equality, of gender, caste, class, then becomes a matter of dispute and demands resolution. This understanding becomes the basis for the long arduous struggle against injustice and the arbitrary use of power.
COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP & DECISION MAKING
The women’s movement looked at leadership closely and continually. The theory and practice of leaders in patriarchy was a constant issue for discussion and debate. There was uncontested support for the collective. It was seen that leadership vested in one person, would always betray values and principles. It came quite naturally on the heels of the collective process of decision making that leadership should reflect the strength of a group. Above all that whoever, and however temporarily, sat in the seat of power for the sake of expediency, could not but be accountable to the larger collective. The left principles of equality were translated into debates even of structures that would not require having a single person at the helm.
The MKSS drew its core principles about leadership from an acceptance of collective responsibility and accountability that came from the women’s movement. Since the structure of decision making is based on this understanding, any permanent position of authority would in fact vitiate the principle. It is not surprising therefore, that the MKSS has never had a President, a Secretary, or any office bearers with single authority. Since leadership had to be shared the collective had to set itself the task of evolving a continual system of accountability. The issue of scale and feasibility is a concern and continuing debate.
In 1996-7 the MKSS was on the streets, from one part of Rajasthan to another. Sitting on dharna or addressing meetings. In Bikaner, an irate and somewhat arrogant bystander accosted one of us, Lakshman from Nilwa, a small, unkempt young man and said: “hey, who is the leader of this movement?”
He replied, “I am!” The man was outraged. He retaliated with, “Get lost ! Big national leaders have failed to make an impact. What hope for a bunch of ragamuffin (Tatpunja) leaders like you!” and walked off.
When the MKSS won the first round of battles in Rajasthan in 1997, the meeting in Badi Choupad in Jaipur, in August 1997, resounded with slogans “ Tatpunjoon ki jeet ho gayi hai “
While this has been easy within the MKSS, the Outside world we interact with thinks very differently. Perceptions, especially of media gets hung on celebrities and icons. In a genuine democracy the collective must be emphasised in every which way.
The feminist debate has shaped my comprehension of decision making in general and of political systems in particular. The role of collectives, and collective decision making, and the feminist principles underlying perspectives on war and peace should influence public action. They will, and do influence people who accept that feminist philosophy went beyond the populist discourse attributed pejoratively to a desire for equality reduced to a desire for masculinity & so on depicted in media. Consciously or unconsciously, the feminist understanding contoured and nuanced what I did in my political life.
MEANS AND ENDS
Process and achievement
Sayings and political theories about means and ends abound. Gandhiji, is often and rightly quoted. Moralists talk of the way to hell being paved with good intentions. But women and men who live close to the earth know that means are important to ends. From cooking to agriculture, every step matters. Instant results, from quick foods to politics, spells a deterioration in quality.
Time and Processes of Change
To quote Ivaylo Ditchev – We are progressing towards an “age of impatience”, perhaps “towards a democracy of instant gratification………………Waiting, postponing gratification are difficult to legitimatise. A new wave of impatience is linked to the ascent of digital technologies, where by definition everything should be available at once at the speed of electromagnetic impulses and if it is not, this is a temporary bug of some sort of that should be removed.”
Democratic decision making takes time. But this process is qualitatively the best we have as a political system, for recognising and assimilating pluralities and differences. It ensures participation and good sense. Varied and numbers of discussions, even if they are time consuming, is inclusive and allows for space for dissent and differences, and the possibility of looking for a consensus. We believe that that above all it allows for equality. It is true that there must be some time frame, and nothing can happen with endless debate and no action. There is also a practical side and there are emergencies. Notwithstanding all this, time has to be allotted for processes.
The MKSS has drawn lessons from the poor and the rural culture of deliberation to strengthen the political culture of democracy. These lessons have been basic to the process of struggle, advocacy and movement building. Often in the formative years, decisions were made where the urban middle class desperation for quick results was tempered by the practical wisdom of equally revolutionary rural activists. These are the experiences from which grannies stories and fables are fashioned, which carry the wisdom of ages. We all know about the hare and the tortoise.
The MGNREGA, and the RTI legislations were born out of debate. The campaigns were based on strong determination to listen. The discourse was strengthened and bore the assaults of negative opinion well, because each position was well discussed and differences and dissent considered and assimilated or rejected with adequate reasoning .
THE INTIMATE ENEMY
As women, we have always faced the difficult and very uncomfortable challenge of struggling for equality with those whom we love – husbands, fathers, brothers, sons-and for being trapped unequally within the structures and systems that we depend on for support- family, society and oppressive traditional norms. We struggle to expose the contradictions between the stated intent, and the reality of institutions and individuals.
We don’t want annihilation – how can we? But we certainly want change. We want to change the institution, the person, and out of the complexities of that perpetual revolt, the feminist in us is born. Unlike any other relationship of contradiction we face the dilemma of having to, wanting to nurture the source of inequalities, double standards, and oppression faced by our gender. We understand that there have to be finer and nuanced positions in many struggles. This has been a challenge to creativity and ingenuity. The only way to live, is to attempt to resist, reshape, and create a better world. And perhaps the most difficult burden is to live this daily struggle with a sense of well being and celebration. It is that version of radical politics that we carry into the political world.
When women, who have lived this life naturally, go out into the world of caste, class, and identity relationships, they empathise with the marginalised, the weak, the more oppressed.
THE PERSONAL IS INDEED POLITICAL
For women, personal issues and political struggles are divided by a thin porous divide. From marriage and dowry, child bearing and its consequences ( gender biases in contraception) a host of issues fall within smudged boundaries. Feminist values extrapolated to political structures in democracy, remind us in clichéd terms that the baby cannot be thrown out with the bath water. Resistance is important, but eventually, things have to be creatively changed. Injustice has to be faced and exposed. Structures have to be made transparent. Perhaps transparency is a feminist demand. Accountability to the less powerful certainly has feminist origins.
When difficult issues have to be raised, where they fall in the border line of the personal and public domain, in almost every public situation in rural India, women have had the courage to do so. It also goes back to sharing, a strong cultural tradition. In grief, happiness, in times of trouble and doubt women share. Men often get annoyed. But there is strength in doing so, and women know it.
In the prolonged battles for the RTI, a series of women spoke and acted with relentless energy, without fear of family and caste. My greatest sense of strength and well being has come from the presence and solidarity of these remarkable women. Naurti for teaching me dalit trade union politics, Mangi for opening my mind to the patterns of logic that eschew Aristotle, Bhuri Ya and Kaki for exemplary courage, love and compassion at the worst of times, Sushila for her strong and fearless intellect, Chunni Bai for her trust and love, Galkuma for her caring and her remarkable fables at the mike, holding the policemen spell bound – the list is endless.
As women we need to seek answers, and often collectively. If the institution of democracy has to be restructured to make it run better, then these continuing efforts at change and reordering must take place. The feminist slogan, “my life is a revolution” is a statement that precept and practice cannot be separated. It is an understanding, that the most long lasting and basic change is a dialectic of the cultural and the political, the internal journey with public action, and creative construction with the sharpest critique for change. It is a revolution without bloodshed. If my life ceases to be a revolution, than the external one may not actualise.
THE IDEOLOGY OVERLAY
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
At times like this, the divisions and divisive nature of practically everything, the diminishing role of real ethics and politics and the rise of the amoral and exploitative god of technology, are leading to ideological confusions. People are bewildered. This fear pushes them into a blind search for clarity, and grasping for straws.
It would be naive to think that ideologies, class and caste are set aside by gender. If it were so, women would be the most powerful of political formations. The divide of political ideology, caste and religion play a very important role in identifying how women function. That has been evident in so many ways. There were women’s fronts of political organisations that encouraged the assault on the minorities in Gujarat. The fact is that women of particular castes are tortured- not just by men, that poor women are exploited – not just by men, and that women in positions of power also succumb to the adage that ‘power corrupts’.
This only confirms that to be feminist is not an attribute of women alone. It is an ideology of the oppressed that can never forget what oppression means. It also means that feminism must infiltrate and colour every movement for change and justice, with its creative propensities. The feminist conception of relentless struggle to change and create in the private and public spheres is my straw! Eventually, the feminist in public action will be identified by principles, mindset, action and behaviour, and not by gender. Above all by the genuine compassion and tolerance so lacking in the black and white bipolar universe we are rushing to create. To begin with, we need to accept the feminine in all of us.
As W.B.Yeats said years ago:
……..guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;