Tilonia and Dev Dungri are the Sabarmati and Sevagram of our times, says Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Aruna and Bunker Roy are a couple out of the ordinary. That phrase — “a couple out of the ordinary” — was used, in a rare example of self-endorsement, by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi about himself and Kasturba. Or, I should say, about Kasturba and himself.

Rajasthan’s Ajmer and Rajsamand districts have been the sites of their work for enabling the self-respecting to become self-reliant as well, the self-abnegating to become self-assured too, and the self-denying to become inspirationally self-affirming. Visiting Tilonia where Bunker and Aruna have worked for years and Dev Dungri where Aruna has lived and worked out of a mud hut for well over a decade, was for my wife and me an experience that can be best described by the same phrase, out of the ordinary.

I could have never imagined, much less seen, a group of women, mothers and grand-mothers mostly, from El Salvador, Mali, Vanuatu, South Africa seated with counterparts from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Rajasthan, making equipment for solar inverters had I not come to the Barefoot College set up by Bunker in Tilonia. This was the ninth such “batch” of women from villages across the globe coming there and learning in six months the essentials of fabricating solar gadgets which they could, on returning home, establish there. They used colour-coded signs to overcome language hurdles, ate local fare, and seemed perfectly at home in that remote Rajasthani setting. “Do they not feel homesick?” I asked Bhagwatnandanji who was showing me round. “Oh yes,” he said, “they do, but we have given them mobile phones fitted with Indian sim-cards and they stay in touch with their kin back home.”

Another group was learning to make and making the most amazing learning toys and motivational glove-puppets, one of which was of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The sage who had visited Tilonia two years ago was so amused by this faithful caricature of him that he took away a sample of it to Dharamsala. The puppets included a pair that represented Aruna and Bunker. They were a delightfully accurate lampooning of the founders of Tilonia. These were the only likenesses of the couple in Tilonia. Their names or pictures figured nowhere else on the premises, in stark contrast to other headquarters where the founders smile down on visitors from walls and pedestals.

“The Barefoot College idea started with you, didn’t it?” I asked Bunker. He nodded, almost absent-mindedly, as if to casually confirm a detail that was of no importance. Aruna, likewise, made light of the stunning rusticity of her mud-home in Dev Dungri, while serving us coarse bajra, makai and jowar rotis even as I discerned her displeasure at her associates’ making a second and therefore superfluous sabzi for us.

Aruna’s hut, of size no bigger than the large vehicle that had brought us to the village, is where the RTI and NREGA movements acquired shape and definition. That those movements which have galvanised the nation and, despite serious deficiencies, have inaugurated a new era of empowerment, grew out of this hut, seemed absolutely incredible. That an organisation as impactful as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan could have started in a mere hut, seemed beyond belief. And yet that is the simple truth. In our times where small, jejune schemes trumpet their arrival from the terraces of giant structures in the national capital and state headquarters, it seemed impossible to believe that these two seminal achievements should have come about, in our times not Gandhi’s, from a mud hut in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Tilonia and Dev Dungri are the Sabarmati and Sevagram of our times, no less.

The Right to Information is now a fact among our Republic’s many facts but one that holds out hope, not despair. Every city, town and village panchayat knows those three letters — RTI. And, what is more, knows how to use it. Aruna had taken us, in Tilonia, to meet the village sarpanch. A feisty Dalit woman, she said to me, “I am illiterate and so please overlook shortcomings in what I say and explain…” She then pointed to the compound wall painted yellow with red columns and closely-painted inscriptions in Devnagari. “These are our NREGA accounts,” she said in flawless Hindi “…painted on the walls where everyone can see them…not tucked away in files like some secret…or held in distrust…” Every now and then the sarpanch would frown. Her cell phone did not stop ringing. Retrieving the thingummy from the recesses of her sweater and sari-folds, she issued crisp instructions to her caller. A sight for the gods.

At a gathering of NREGA “beneficiaries”, I gathered a lesson in what may be called balance and objectivity in reportage. Work for a full span of a hundred days in the year does not quite happen, they said, nor timely and full payment of wages. And worksite materials, they bemoaned, ever so often get siphoned off. Worst of all, they rued, officialdom remains unmotivated by NREGA. And yet, they said, and yet… If there has been any single step taken by Government to reach out to people with work and wages, it is through the NREGA.

Ajmer was not far from these sites of rural awakening. A visit to the famed dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was de rigueur. Hindu women, children and men flocked to the sanctum as eagerly as Muslims. “Ajmer vohi aataa hai, jisko Khwaja bulaataa hai…” (Only those who are beckoned by Khwaja come to Ajmer.) My wife and I were part of that human alluvium. But as we emerged, our vehicle had to slow down. An RSS procession was on its way. Wielding naked swords and lathis, men with figures that did no credit to their life-styles and fitted with great difficulty into their tent-like khaki shorts, were marching. Towards what destination, what goal? I wish I knew they knew. Unconnected to poverty, un-attuned to the beauty of spiritual concordance, unmindful of the physical and psychological disruption they were causing, these mascots of intolerance were grim reminders of the violence that had just the other day rocked Bhilwara in Rajasthan, and Dhule in Maharashtra.

At the School for Democracy which Aruna has set up in a village in Bhikwara, a group of village folk talked about corruption, governance, accountability and globalisation. Aruna spoke of plans to discuss the life-work and thoughts of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marx.

Discussing in a village in Bhilwara both practicality and India’s larger ideals, together, I recalled another experience that I had been privileged to receive only a couple of days earlier. The Hindu’s new Centre for Politics and Public Policy had been inaugurated on January 31 by our President at a stellar ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Telling speeches by Professor Sunil Khilnani and N. Ram defined the Centre’s projected work even as Vidwan T.M. Krishna’s invocatory rendering of Vande Mataram at the event connected it to the lyrical magnetism of India’s larger ideals.

The cameos of the empowered women of Tilonia and Dev Dungri and of the prayerful women of both faiths at the Dargah fluxed in my mind with Bankim’s words as sung by the Vidwan — “Sukhadaam, Varadaam, Maataram…”. Recalling that magical line, I sent up a prayer in thanks for the example in self-respect set by the men and women, but principally by the women of Rajasthan’s villages, and the example in the togetherness of our faiths exemplified by them at the Khwaja’s magical Dargah.

By the time my wife and I boarded the Shatabdi for Delhi, both Bunker and Aruna, and Aruna’s indefatigable colleague Nikhil Dey, had bidden us farewell and were wholly absorbed in yet another battle, yet another struggle for people’s rights, wasting not one moment nor letting a single distraction affect their absorption with the human condition in our agonised land.

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