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60 Minutes: With Aruna Roy Society

‘Karnataka election was the height of political vulgarity’: an interview with Aruna Roy

‘The RSS has a political mandate that has permeated everything the present government is doing.’

‘The RSS has a political mandate that has permeated everything the present government is doing.’   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

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The social activist whose new book on the RTI is just out, worries about the doublespeak in politics today, where rhetoric and substance never match

The past couple of months have been hectic for Aruna Roy. The social activist and Magsaysay Award winner has been travelling across the country to promote her book, The RTI Story: Power to the People, which came out in April. After waiting more than a month, I finally manage to steal 60 minutes from her a few hours before her departure for the U.S., where she has a packed speaking schedule. We meet at her Hauz Khas flat, which doubles up as office for the various organisations she works with, such as Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), School for Democracy, and Pension Parishad. Roy is an expansive speaker, and the conversation covers a lot of ground, from her days as a schoolgirl in Kalakshetra to her stint in the IAS and her time in the National Advisory Council (NAC). Excerpts:

Tell us something about your childhood.

I was born in Chennai in 1946, in my grandfather’s house in T. Nagar. We moved to Delhi when I was a few months old, and I grew up there. My father E.D. Jayaram was a lawyer by training, and served in the law ministry. My mother was, you could say, a suppressed feminist. She had a degree in mathematics, and she brought me up with all these ideas of not succumbing to the institution of marriage, and to ignore those who think women don’t have a role in public life.

What about schooling and college?

I went to the Convent of Jesus & Mary in New Delhi, to Mother’s International, and also Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. But of all the schools I’ve been to, the two years I spent in Kalakshetra’s Besant School had the most profound impact on me. It was not just an arts institution but also a political one.

As a nine-year-old, I saw women dancing on stage with men, breaking gender and caste barriers. We had on campus some of the best musicians in the country, such as M.D. Ramanathan, Gauriamma, and Vasudevacharya. Visitors included people like the Dalai Lama, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, and they explained to us who they were, where they were from, so it was a political experience too.

So did you learn Bharatanatyam?

I trained in Bharatanatyam for the two years I was there. We had five days of music, one day of theory, so even though I wasn’t a Sanskrit student, I had to study the Natyashastra. But I quit after I came to Delhi — I didn’t want to be taught by a Delhi teacher.

How did IAS happen?

I actually wanted to pursue art. But a famous artist called Badri Narayan told my father that there was no money in painting, don’t send her to art school. So I ended up doing a B.A. and an M.A. in Indraprastha College. I was in no hurry to get married, I was clear about that. So what choices did one have back then? You either taught, or became a journalist or lawyer, or joined a private company or government job. I wanted to be in a profession. To me, the most dignified option seemed to be one where you sat for an exam and if you passed, you got in, otherwise you didn’t. You didn’t have to go begging for a job. So I appeared for the IAS, and got through.

Why did you quit the IAS?

Too many things were crowding me at the time — there was the latent Emergency, and a lot of things going on that I found unacceptable. When officers got together, the discussions were never about the people; it was all about postings, transfers, loans, building a house. Everyone calls it an elite service, so I always felt the discourse should be a bit better than that. I even found people boasting about their ‘achievements’ in corruption. I realised that if I remained in the system, I would have to oppose it. I preferred to leave.

If everyone thought like you, then all the good people would leave the IAS. Why not fight the system from within?

It’s not as if there were no good people back then. Even today, there are. If you are at a level where you can push things through, maybe you can fight it. Someone like S.R. Sankaran, for instance, was able to make the system work. But what I mostly saw were bureaucrats surrendering their intelligence to political diktats. For me, that was the last straw. I won’t blame the politicians, I blame the civil servants. Nothing can be done to you — it’s very difficult to remove an IAS officer. Yet, that’s not how most officers see things.

Did you have a plan in mind when you quit the IAS?

I was married to Bunker Roy by then. He was in Rajasthan working with the rural poor. So I decided I would start work there, and see where it took me.

You have worked closely with power, both from within the system, and from outside. Many find it difficult to do this without getting co-opted by power.

At the MKSS Collective, we always say that we can never be co-opted because we see the government as pure instrumentality, an organisation created for our benefit. So long as it works for our benefit, we are with it. When it does not, we come at it from the outside. Also, there are two kinds of power: the power of the people and the power of the system. Both have to acknowledge and recognise each other. I have never at any point felt that someone is too powerful and that I am begging for favours. I go as an equal, because the Constitution gives me equality. I believe that equality is fundamental to existence, and this sense of equality is there in so many ordinary Indians. That’s what the RTI is all about.

You have spent decades in anti-corruption work at the grassroots level. When do you think we will get a corruption-mukt Bharat?

The crux of corruption is political party corruption. Electoral bonds are going to make it worse. Unless political party funding is transparent, corruption can never be rooted out of India. What we saw in the Karnataka election was the height of political vulgarity. If this is what democracy has come down to, we have a very serious problem.

As a former member of the NAC, how do you respond to those who draw a parallel between NAC’s role during the UPA years and the RSS’s role today, critiquing both as equally unwelcome extra-constitutional influences on the government?

This is a totally incorrect comparison. First, the RSS has a political mandate that has permeated everything the present government is doing. And we don’t officially know what that mandate is. But the NAC was created on the basis of a document published by UPA-I, called the National Common Minimum Program (NCMP). The RSS can influence any policy, from demonetisation to foreign policy to an alliance with China. The NAC could only negotiate on the NCMP, which was a set of promises made to the people on social sector programmes that affected the poor. It could not go beyond that. Second, unlike the RSS, the NAC was not an ideologically coherent group. It had people of very different ideological persuasions.

But wasn’t it still too powerful?

It was not. It was said to be powerful only because Sonia Gandhi was the chair. And when she was the chairperson, she wasn’t holding any executive post. In my opinion, NAC was an ideal space for engagement between two or three different power bases. The power of people’s action, the legal elite, which helped draft new laws, and the political elite. Politicians had their own calculations, but from our point of view, they took the right decision with laws such as the RTI, MGNREGA, and the Forest Rights Act.

And who were the lobbyists for these laws? People like K.R. Narayanan, V.P. Singh, I.K. Gujral, Amartya Sen, Upendra Baxi, Kuldip Nayar, Prabhash Joshi, Nikhil Chakravarty. NAC was only a tethering point, public action was always necessary for it to be effective. In fact, much of what came out of NAC was a critique of the government. I ask you — with the present regime, who forms this group? Only the RSS?

During the Emergency, we saw a strong group of intellectuals taking a stand. Today, when even politicians have started speaking of ‘an undeclared Emergency’, we don’t see the same scale of resistance among intellectuals. Why is that?

The Emergency was an explicit statement of a political act. You had the parameters for opposition clearly laid out — you could argue easily that this was a misuse of power. But today, the ‘emergency’ is with doublespeak: the rhetoric talks about what you like to hear but the substance goes against everything you value. In this kind of nebulousness, it is always more difficult to get people together because many hear only the rhetoric. Also, in 1975, there were many who had grown up hearing the debates around Independence. Today, 45% of the population is under 25, and a large number without a proper sense of history. You can tell them anything and get away with it. Glitter, gimmickry and catchy two-liners seem to work well with them.

How do you see the future of the RTI?

A lot depends on the outcome of the 2019 elections. If the Constitution ceases to exist in its present form, then, of course, much more than the RTI is in peril.

Do you think civil society can serve as the fifth pillar of democracy, so to speak, and make a bold stand for constitutional values?

The term ‘civil society’ came from Eastern Europe, where with a totalitarian government, civil society was all the rest. In a country like ours, what is civil society? I find it very difficult to define. It’s a very amorphous group. Maybe they will come together if there’s a protest like the Arab Spring, because it would only mean giving up some five days. But the real battles today need time and energy, much like the Independence movement.

Did you just compare the current political juncture to that of the freedom movement?

Well, you need that kind of long-term commitment and complete surrender to the values you hold dear if India is to be retrieved from the present mess.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2018 7:22:31 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/society/karnataka-election-was-the-height-of-political-vulgarity-an-interview-with-aruna-roy/article24065288.ece