South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

This is the key note speech delivered by Ms. Aruna Roy at the Presentation of the Meeto Award for Young South Asians held at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi on the 14th of October 2009.

The Fourteenth of October 09
The Stein Auditorium
Habitat Centre

Dearest Meeto,

I often talk to my loved ones in my mind. It is the pleasure of being able to engage on issues of common concern, allowing us the luxury of shaping a thought, a feeling, toning it down, sharpening it and above all seeing the contradictions and the anomalies! I am going to indulge myself today Meeto, with your permission to go over some of the issues that would have absorbed you today, and which possess me in my moments of privacy and silence, and in my public life.

You must forgive me for making such an important public moment so personal, or a personal moment so public. But as women we have always understood that the personal is most often political.

In the course of my monologue, I will refer to some of the issues we share with everyone in this very special audience. I will miss the passion and seriousness of your voice and the sense of fun, which a dialogue would undoubtedly have brought to this discussion. I keep you in mind also as a representative of your generation. In every generation there are some who garner the thoughts and concerns of their peers, but also link their past- the older generation- with themselves. In so doing they ensure that there is a continuity of principles without necessarily an acceptance of the details of their reasoning or their action. I felt this instant connection with you.  Others must too, how else can we explain the immediate camaraderie and understanding that so many of us cherish in our memories of you ?  And so,  even as I speak, I examine my thoughts and hazard a guess as to whether you would agree, disagree, argue, respond, build, share and provide the elements of an open and healthy dialogue.

Balagopal, one of our finest Human Rights activists passed away a few days ago. He was 52. The tragedy of his untimely death, has raised several questions, all over again. We find ourselves in times when jingoistic statements are guiding security policies of the State. Terrorism, extremism, and even human rights activism are telescoped together, and these bogeys are invoked to attack those who stand up for civil and democratic rights. The role of reason has become more and more critical for the sanity of human existence. Balagopal was an activist whose unwavering compassion and commitment to the truth was an inspiration that guided so many of us. There is no reasonable explanation for our public institutions not being guided by these kinds of icons.  The legislature, the executive and the judiciary, set up to keep a watch in the interest of the common person , has let us down for the small gains of self interest. The fourth estate, the media, by and large, has been bought over so that it is now accepted that they will be a tool of the power structures that they must protect – business interests and mainstream politicians. Human Rights Commissions have dwindled into regulatory bodies working for the governments in power. Many political pundits say that democracy has failed in India.

But despite all this, we continue to praise, and as we must, protect – democracy. The political system now fine tuned to working itself for personal gain, lives in the world of platitudes, but is sometimes forced to acknowledge, and act on issues of dignity for the poor, the minorities, for gender equality, against Dalit atrocities. Democracy, gives us the theoretical space in the midst of the machinations of the ruling classes. We must call the bluff. How can we do so ?

The role of the human rights campaigners and defenders, has become crucial to define and protect the principles of democracy and the rights of the citizen. The role of human rights in a country like ours has to be seen in the context of a legal framework against which we have the small, but crucial spaces available to raise the voice of rationality and reason sometimes protected by our legal and political entitlements, but basically driven by our own inalienable commitment to justice, equality, and human dignity.

Somewhere, we too have failed to realise the huge potential we have to mobilize public opinion. We can even engage with electoral politics and force those in power to acknowledge that we are indeed the mainstream, with the maximum votes. And what passes in the name of the mainstream is the ruling elite abrogating to itself the role of the majority while jealously protecting its sole rights to the 8 ½ percent growth, and so called development.

Thinking of you today, while we honour the defenders of human rights, I am compelled to reflect on some of our dilemmas, so that we act effectively. We need to reach the mass of people to talk about what matters, in a language that people understand. We want to link all the multiple struggles and string them together to form a common platform.

Despite our own commitment and understanding, why do we fail to mobilise public opinion so crucial for any campaign in a democracy?

There is a need to be poised somewhere between cynicism and obsession for effective public action. One of our constant dilemmas is to express concerns frankly and openly, without jeopardising or even providing another opportunity for the irrational which we quarrel and fight against. Maybe that sounds a bit obtuse. Maybe I should say that the process and the modes of protest cannot undermine the principles and the values we seek to establish. Where does  the correctness of individual and collective action lie?

We have to remain perpetually vigilant to keep our receptivity alive and yet not to lose the force of our ideas. This process of relentless watching makes me tired both in my body and in my mind. Politically, there are two sets of actions we need. On the one hand we need to push for more, so that democracy can at least retain the spaces that exist. We need to continue to mould the institutions we can, and reclaim those which should empower every individual, group and category to express itself. In India, with its diversity and its differences, even formulating action is a challenge. We cannot allow what we have to shrink. On the other hand, and equally important is the urgency to protest and fight every step that pulls India back from its present strengths. It is a delicate balance. Are the three steps forward, and the one step backward part of strategy, or cloaked defeat?

And Meeto, sometimes I become a prey of what some of my friends call self flagellation, and others call the ability to reason, question and be honest. It depends where they position themselves. I wonder what advice you would have given your troubled Masi !

The dialectic between the Individual and the collective has perhaps been the most easy to resolve, because I work with the poor and those who accept the public domain as part of their intrinsic world. Living as they do without privacy and using open spaces for innumerable social and personal activities, they have helped address the artificial barriers in my mind, to a large extent. But they do not often see the links between sets of action from which they are either geographically distanced or where the issue arises from a domain which is unfamiliar. They too need to continually learn to cross these differences.

Yet the need for a dialectic has become increasingly important. The middle class pre-occupied as it is with its individual ambitions and growth, chooses not to see the link on the whole, except when its class, religion or caste interests are severely threatened. The exception should be the group that calls itself “activists”, “social workers” or “political activists .” Does it really use the dialectic it is so delicately placed between?

For public action, a country needs to expand its base of political education and involvement. The students, the youth now more than 40 % of India’s population today, need to be directly involved and understand that the short term demands have to be dovetailed into long term ideals. They are well oriented to ‘achieve’ in narrow programmed disciplines. They have skills, but they have lost the larger context which made the lives of my peers and myself richer.

This is not to undermine the wealth of newer political understanding that your generation, Meeto has brought to us. What was so precious in your case was that you spanned the two and the questions that troubled you, gave your mother and her friends sleepless nights too.

I have consistently believed that action and reflection is only a theoretical divide. Yeats says in one of his poems:
“He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow bone”
And I do agree that the two have to co-exist, one gaining supremacy over the other in the context of the present. Action prepares the grounds for reflection. Reflection prepares for rational action. Independently they expand and question each other’s limits.

Therefore for me Meeto, as much for you scholastic learning is important, but it must come together to grow beyond self defined limits.

For Gandhi too this was an artificial divide. But somewhere without Ambedkar’s sharp intellect and clear political understanding there would be no constitutional basis for our struggle for social justice and equality. There is a wide spectrum of grey between the black and the white. As Kuldip Nayyar said in a speech at the National Convention for the RTI in Delhi in 2004; democracy gives us opportunities to work and evolve in the areas of grey. It cannot be more apt than when we speak of reflection and action. The perfectionist search   for an ideal can often reduce us to inaction, and cynicism.

My work has continually drummed into me that we cannot sustain our work unless we have a basic acceptance of our infallibility. There are moments when we are and should be adamant and withstand all opposition, because it is a question of principles and not of modes, or of strategies. But without an understanding of the need to listen and agree even sometimes to disagree, we cannot form the critical mass we need for public action. We in India have a tendency to split on brahmanical  lines of purity. Ultimately the notion of purity is itself questionable. Where and how and on what basis do we come together ? The weakness of compromise for profit – whether money position or authority is to be decried. But is it is less heinous than the belief that one is always right despite arguing for the need for plurality , given the acceptance of shared values and a common paradigm for change ? And where is the scientific temper and the role of changing one’s positions because of the reality that exists ?

That is why we get confused between commitment and dogma. The difference is so slight that we cross the invisible line long before we are aware. It is most obvious in the religious conflicts  that have ravaged our under bellies and left us forever anguished. It is impossible to question the reasons why, because there is no acceptance of the other. The basis for  a rational discussion , to enable us to even acknowledge that we are born as human beings who share far more than we are willing to concede.

Though we are divided by national and other political boundaries, there are often ways in which dialogue can begin. In my limited interaction in South Asia and in my relationship with so many cultures and subaltern cultures in India, I have found that this link powerfully  binds and divides us, from food, styles of dress, music, and every fine aspect of cultural expression. The tradition of Kabir for instance. In Shabnam Virmani’s set of films, she has subtly interwoven Kabir and his mysticism, with the politics of power, the classical tradition of Hindustani music, the nascent re- defining of Dalit politics, the negative impact of sanskritization. She even ventures into the maoist politics of central India and an analysis in the film. Cultural action will be a strong harbinger of an understanding of a shared world.

Meeto, you tried to grapple with the issues you grew up with, and your resolve to find answers to all these conflicts drew you to spend your time as a scholar in Baliol and elsewhere. But there too there were constant reminders of the divides.

If I may digress I will share an understanding that has become a part of my instinctive behaviour and of my campaigns for more participation for the poor in a democracy. Like you I have always wanted to do many things- music , dance, art, activism, friends, politics…Shankar and his performances, his energy and his vision have been critical to communicate the ideas behind protests, in the idiom of people. I cannot afford to be far away from exploring different forms of expression to communicate to people.

You learnt dancing from Leela Samson, a person who has taught me how every form can be topical and political, and within common understanding, When she came to Rajasthan, as part of Spicmacay to dance for a rural audience, my stomach was tied up in knots, apprehensive about how they would receive a woman dancer, in a milieu where only “bad women” danced. Leela by just being a sensitive person with a sense of equality, talked to rural women and danced a Mira bhajan, where the gender roles are inverted. But not before she had talked about how dance was a language and the role of mime. Her winning over the macho Rajasthani moustache twisting male, was as daunting as taking on the protestors against the women who went to pubs in Mangalore.

The greatest tragedies in my life have been when my “reason was wounded” – by the senseless killings we have suffered- the killings during partition, the killing of Gandhi; the numbers killed in civil war in Bangladesh, the sikh killings in India in 1984, genocide in Gujarat, the senseless caste killings, the killings in the name of religion, it is an endless list. How do we deal with the fall out of these events ? How do we pick up the jagged edges of our conscience and our reason , put them together, fight cynicism and  gather hope to struggle on ?

The path of justice seems strewn with difficulties. Corruption and nepotism mingle to strangle any vestiges of optimism that we carefully foster. It was this knot that was partially unravelled by the democratic battles for the People’s Right to Information, as we fight to find the chinks in the structure of arbitrary governance.

We are patching up the quilt of hope, born out of the search for truth, where it becomes clearer every day that the politics of hatred is built on many lies. The pieces we uncover are faded, worn, some beautiful and rich with embroidery, a few with sequins and newer bits of a motley kind. But the quilt has begun to be patched, with the threads of compassion and understanding. The steady pursuit of truth, cannot be denied for ever. The poor struggle to get more equality through the NREGA and battle with new forms of fighting for the right to survive, auditing government works, asking questions, and  demanding answers. There is  a ray of hope. The enthusiasm and energy of a few weeks of clarity  have to sustain the confusion of day to day struggle for months.

That’s where Meeto , your Masi stands today, with your mother and many friends, searching for evidence to add to the pile of hope. We are determined as ever to carry on. We hope you understand our determination to carry on, to find the areas of grey and whittle or gnaw away at the mountains of un accountable governance. The flank attacks and calling the bluff of political promises. With poetry and song on our lips, the junoon carries on….

Ab haq ke bina bhi kya jeena
Yeh Jeene ke saman nahin

Aruna Roy is a social activist; she served in the Indian Administrative Service but resigned to and opted to work within the villagers of Rajasthan. She heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and is one of the prominent leaders in Right to Information Movement in India. She is also a recipient of the Ramon Magsayay Award in 2000 in Community Leadership. Ms. Aruna Roy is also a former Bureau Member of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR).

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