Aruna Roy: The demand for rights has to be understood as a demand for dignity

E3 - Part 1

50 mins
May 26, 2023


Subscribe to Grassroots Nation: Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Stitcher.

Activist. Feminist. Social leader. Aruna Roy is in a category of her own. She has been at the forefront of several people-led movements such as the Right to Information movement,  the Right to Work campaign which led to the establishment of MGNREGA, and the Right to Food movement.

A Gandhian, Aruna believes that change comes from within, and all her life choices have been motivated by her values and her desire to contribute towards the realisation of the founding ideals of our nation. She brings to her work a deep sense of humility and respect for her fellow citizens. 

In the first of this two-part episode, Aruna speaks of her early years at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, how Roop Kanwar and Bhanwari Devi informed her feminist journey and work, and her own learning curve when it came to participatory decision-making.   

Aruna Roy is the co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000 for empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information.

Aruna Roy is in conversation with her long-time friend and associate, journalist and curator of Ahimsa Conversations, Rajni Bakshi. 

Additional Resources: 
Read more on the Training to Rural Youth for Self Employment (TRYSEM) program in this paper by J.S. Sodhi. 

Anil Bordia is an Indian educationist, social activist and former civil servant. 

Read more on the Women’s Development Program and the Kishangarh anti-rape rally of 1985 in Countering Gender Violence: Initiatives Towards Collective Action in Rajasthan by Kanchan Mathur.

Archival Audio: 
Politics of Change: Mahila, the movie by Annemie Maes CC BY 3.0
पति की चिता पर सती होने को बैठ गई पत्नी, आनन-फानन में पहुंची पुलिस by Etv bharat up video CC BY 3.0

Fire_Burning_03 by Foleyhaven CC BY 3.0


Welcome to Grassroots Nation, a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, a show in which we dive deep into the life, work and guiding philosophies of some of our country’s greatest leaders of social change.

Aruna Roy is an activist, feminist and social leader of Independent India in a category of her own. she has been at the forefront of several people-led movements such as the right to information movement the Right to Work campaign which led to the establishment of MGNREGA, and the Right to Food movement.

A feminist and Gandhian , she believes that change comes from within, and all her life choices have been motivated by her values and her desire to contribute towards the realisation of the founding ideals of our nation. She brings to her work a deep sense of humility and respect for her fellow citizens. 

Aruna Roy was born in 1946, in pre independence india, into a family with a history of public service. In 1967 at the age of 21 she joined the Indian Administrative Service, and was one of only ten women to qualify that year. In 1974, at the age of 28, Aruna Roy left the IAS to move to Tilonia village in Rajasthan to work at the Social Work Research Centre, better known as the Barefoot College. She then co-founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (the MKSS or the Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants in 1990. Aruna was awarded the  Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000 for empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information.

Aruna Roy is in conversation with her long-time friend and associate, journalist and curator of Ahimsa Conversations, Rajni Bakshi. 

This is the first of two episodes featuring Aruna. We recommend you listen to both episodes. 


Hello and welcome, Aruna.


Hi Rajni.

So good to have you here and thank you so much for making time for this. So Aruna, what were the childhood or teenage years influences which shaped your early working life? I know from, because we’ve been friends for so long that your father was a major influence and your mother also, but can you just briefly cover that milieu, because I know it was a whole milieu in which inspired you.


Actually my parents were born in the beginning of the 20th century. My father is 1910, my mother in 1920, but they came from Tamil Nadu- Chennai or Madras as it was then called. They came from very progressive families in the context of their times. My grandparents married inter sub-caste in those days, and my father was born into a family which believed in workers’ rights.

And my father’s uncle actually mobilized one of the first rickshaw-police strikes in Chennai. And he also went to study in London and came back and he was enough influenced by progress, change, socialism, et cetera, but didn’t go the whole hog, but ended with trade unionism. And he began a paper called Swadharma, which he used to edit in those times.

And he was tracked by the British police. And my appa was his editor for that magazine. Appa went to. But appa and my father’s older brother were both sent to Shantiniketan by this uncle Eelaiyyar who had come back from England with these modern views ___. So my father and his, my uncle was sent to Shantiniketan at the time when it was at its heyday with

Robi Babo was there and CF Andrews. So it made a very lasting and very deep impression on my father. So he came culturally revolutionized, which I think is very important to understand in the context of today’s India. And then he had his politics with the trade union movement and he got associated with Gandhi and he was an admirer of MN Roy at that at that time.

So he grew up with a variety of ideological positions and he was a part in that sense of that generation, which did not dismiss any ideology and did not get reactive to any ideological position, but tried to understand the best of many worlds, which is what India has lost today. And therefore it bears repetition and emphasis to say because of that kind of richness in his life.

And my mother came from a family which had socially actually rejected caste. Her parents inter married between two sub castes. Their marriage notice was not published in the Hindu. My grandmother had done a senior Cambridge. My great-grandmother was literate. Her mother was literate. So it came through a huge female literacy, that side.

My grandmother did many things. She worked with leprosy patients in Chennai, then she worked with women’s groups. Then she was an honorary magistrate. So my ma grandmother was a feminist ideal in one sense of, oh, what a woman could do, being married, but still and bearing children. But yet worked outside the house. My mother did mathematics and physics.

She was also a sportswoman, she was a tennis player. So when my parents got married, they were economically not elite. They were very ordinary. But the culture that they brought into the family was of the best, in my opinion. And we grew up understanding, uh, music of course, because I’ve heard Faiyaz Khan Sahib, I’ve heard Karim Khan sahib, I’ve heard all those great musicians, but I’ve also heard I’ve heard Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar you know, all the great bhagvadars and singers of the south, I’ve seen Bala Saraswati dance.

So all these were essential part of my growing up. At the same time, politically, we were made to understand that there should be no caste system. And my father was aggressively anti untouchability. So he had grown up with the history of practicing untouchability at home. So no question of be practicing any kind of untouchability, particularly with caste, but with every other kind of untouchability and discrimination. 

So with his extraordinarily rich, informal or non-formal background, I would’ve been ashamed if I had done nothing. I mean, it was a very, it was in my opinion, a very privileged upbringing that I had.


So was this a factor in you and Bunker finding each other? Because though Bunker came from a very, very different background, by the time he met you he was always doing work in the rural areas about wells, etc. So very briefly, if we could just cover your meeting and, you know, your decision to get married.


Actually, Bunker was not doing it when I met him.



So you met him, what, by 65?


We were both students at university together.

And when I met Bunker, he was a great sportsman. He was the university tennis captain. He was India’s number one in squash, swam for college and played cricket. That was his great popularity zone. And everybody knew him because of his sports, but he went to Palamu during the famine.

And we were all very impressed because of all of us. He was the most politically aware of poverty, of, of the earth, of all of those things. And he went and came back. And yes, it was a very important factor that really separated him from the rest of the class and made him look, uh, and appear..and he really was concerned with issues that were on the fringes of our conscience.

It’s true that that was the reason that one of the criteria for which I think Bunker was very critically important to me. But there’s another one that comes as a background to Bunker – is that he is a Bramho Samaji which meant that in his family they are Muslims, there are Hindus, there  are Parsis, there are Jews. There are Christians.There’s every shade of every religion in his family, which to me was very attractive as a person who believed in multicultural existence of life and living and yeah, and it’s many manifestations.  So for me it was also a very important thing.


So Aruna I know from my own family background, that in the sixties our elders, quite validly believed that they were going to do nation building through the formal structures of the state.

And so I’ve always seen your decision to join the IAS as you know, in that continuum, that it was very, very rational, very reasonable at that stage to believe that you could serve the nation by being an IAS officer. Is that a fair description? And what was the process of disenchantment? What were some of the markers that disturbed you?


Actually, I don’t think it’s a correct description of my reason to join the IAS. I did not want to join the IAS, let me put it quite clearly that there was a great disrespect and disregard for status and position in my family. My father who knew KR Narayanan very well, who is president of India, they had met because of their mutual concern over dalit politics and so on, didn’t regard status or position as the final definition of a human being or wealth. So in a sense, we were non-conformist, almost bohemian in the way we thought. So for us, the status of a IAS officer, a civil servant, was always followed by many question marks, you know, as to how much do they really do?

And you lived in Delhi, which was a bureaucratic city, and you saw the worst of bureaucracy and some of the best, but the worst, actually the best of bureaucracy you find in the states. In the districts, you don’t really find the best in Delhi. So it wasn’t as if were particularly enamoured of the bureaucracy.

Actually the decision to join the IAS was because I was a woman who did not want to teach and who did not want to become a journalist. And what were the choices in those days, or join the private sector. So eliminating, this was a process of elimination rather than a question of choice that I joined the IAS, with the hope that being posted in remote districts and being able to see poverty at a much closer level,I would be actually in a position to do something for the people. Which of course, steadily the hope declined and the possibilities shrunk. And possibly that’s the reason why I really left the IAS, because there are only two jobs in which you, three positions in which you can really do something. One is when you’re an SDM, second is when you’re a collector, when you’re in charge of everything. The third is when you end up at the end of your career as a secretary or head of the department when you can really do something. Otherwise, you’re just pushing files and making notes, which others overrule.


AT THE age of 28, Aruna Roy left the IAS to move to Tilonia, where Bunker Roy was working at the Social Work Research Centre, or SWRC. It was the beginning of her life in rural India. 


So in a sense, your family’s, how shall we say, disregard for or not giving importance to status that made it easier for you to leave? Because in many cases there would’ve been parental pressure not to leave the IAS.


It was a value that we all shared, that as children we were brought up with, that you value a human being not because of the status. Very simple things at home. Like when my father’s additional secretary visited home and his peon also came home, they all sat together.

There was no question in my home of the peon being sent somewhere else to sit. He may not have taken part in the conversation because he was not adequately prepared, but he occupied the same space and he drank from the same cup, I mean similar cups of tea. So it was a living condition that I understood very clearly.

So for my family, there was. My father was a little worried. He thought that I might end up losing my freedom because I would work with a husband, but that was a more feminist worry than a structural worry about status. Ultimately, I also have total disregard for status. I know what status today there and gone tomorrow. Kursi ka sawaal hai. Aaj kursi hai, kal kursi nahi hai. And kursi ke sath sab chala jaata hai.

I promise you. When you sit on the kursi it’s everything. Kursi gaya aur kuch nahi. And also in a sense, you know, there are some deep spiritual learnings also in all this, which I never stated. But there is this, I think a fundamental understanding, which came from my mother and father that father was to call himself an atheist.

But that the spiritual understanding that human life is equal and matters no matter where it is. Not in a communist or a socialist perception, but from a human perception. And that was extremely important, I think, in the way we the children of my parents saw the world.


Yeah. Yeah. So what was it like then when you first moved to Tilonia, what were some of the surprises? Because I know you quit the IAS and directly went and became part of the SWRC community. What were some of the surprises for you at that stage? And because I think if we understand what that experience was like then, we can talk about the very, very specific and unique contributions that you made in the SWRC equation in the coming years 


It was very difficult. It was a different world, different politics. And by politics, I don’t mean party politics. It was different – relationships between human beings were defined differently. The idiom was absolutely different. The worldviews were different. 

Even to begin a conversation was so difficult. And activism, which is a bad word today, or social work, which is perhaps a somewhat more acceptable term today. Or even being a worker, a community worker. The first thing you have to do is to strike up a conversation. Gandhiji said the first thing you have to do is to listen.

But to listen, that person has to have enough respect for you to consider you worth the listening. That position of being in a place where they considered you worthy of even telling you what was wrong or right with them was difficult to reach. So it was –  story. I went to a village, went to the village. I walked into a woman’s house and I said to her “main aapse baat karne ke aayi hoon”, I’ve come to talk to you. I’m small, physically, I’m only five feet, two inches tall. She was about five feet, nine inches tall. So she towered over me. She looked me down, up and down, and she said to me, “I have no time for you, who asked you to come?” And I was absolutely without words.

I didn’t know what to say to her. So I said, oh, no. I just thought I’d come and I would… She said, “listen, I don’t want to become a government officer. I don’t want to be literate. I don’t want to talk about the, the restrictions on women in traditional society. She said it all in Rajasthani. She said, buzz off.


This was Tilonia proper or some other village?


Tilonia village




She said, please go. That’s the door. Scoot off. I came home. I thought, God in heaven. I came back to work. But this was, we lived in a campus of work and space of work and all of that was… so I said to myself, what the hell will I do? Then I realized, you know, if someone from the United States of America would be big professor of something, or academician or politician had come to my house in New Delhi and just rung the bell and said to me, I want to talk to you, when I was busy, would I have talked to that person? I  would’ve politely said, look, sorry, I don’t have the time. Why would she? And her world was as different to mine as mine was to the foreigner. And why would I have given her time? Why would she give me time? Where was the reason for her to give time?

When she had to look to the animals, cook the food, go to the fields, cut the, you know, cut the grass, bring fodder back for the animals, milk, the buffalo, the cow, whatever she had, cook the food. No, no question. So I went back and then I realized the timing was wrong. I should have gone in the evening to see her, when she had time. The conversation was all screwed up and just landing up like that needed a companion who was from the community who would kind of act as a liaison and explain to her what I was in her language. In idiom. Yeah. So that she would feel a little more comfortable with me. So this is just one extremely simple example, but there were many complications.

But I was determined to speak Rajasthani, which I now speak, and I was determined to reach out to people at it in the matters of their own interest and not impose on them. And that was fundamental learning because it’s really taken me a long political route.


You know Aruna, but at the same time, you also over the years forged some very intense bonds with similar people and they have been really lifelong relations. And today you are grandmother to many of these people’s children, and I think now even great-grandchildren, can you just maybe say something about how some of those relationships emerged and those bonds, what was, what were the values which forged these very special bonds that you built both in Tilonia and later in the Devdungri?


So it’s through understanding the condition of those people. So many myths — teach them a skill. What skill do you teach them? They have the most marvelous skill of living in the most dire circumstances with happiness, with dance, with music, with love and affection, with festivities. What have I got to learn? So the first thing is you’ve got to understand that there’s a lot more to learn than to give. With that humility, if one approaches those people, then there’s great deal of happiness, love, affection, camaraderie, and lifelong friendships, which I have with many of them.

So in that process, you bring in politics, you bring in the wages, you bring in so many things, why the hell should she learn sewing? There’s this great idea, there were two, three myths when I went to work. One was this myth that they needed to be taught a skill. For heaven’s sake, have you ever looked at a woman digging and building as construction labour?And I’m going to jum many years, 20 years later, when I was fully formulated in my ideas about rural work and I was working with them for their rights, I decided to work as a wage worker. They told me, just buzz off. I couldn’t neither dig, nor could I shovel, nor could I lift the weight onto my – 20 kilos, in a tagari. I couldn’t do that.

And I was always delaying them, you know, because bringing down the rate of work. So they said to me, just go away, Devi, chali jao yahaan se, We don’t want you here. So I understood. So the argument was formed and I still argue that it’s not unskilled labour, it’s skilled labou. This is only a question of supply and demand.

Yeah. Tomorrow, if we do not have enough construction workers, they’re going to earn far more than anyone sitting in an office. It’s only thing is that there are more of them and less of demand. But it’s just a skill and we’ve done it, to jump again to MKSS, when we get interns now they all go and work half a day on NREGA work sites and they come back and when we unpack that experience, almost all of them say it’s a skill.

And they say, how can we call it unskilled and will never again say that poor people don’t work. So that trajectory began with the drudgery study we did it for, for government in Delhi and Devaki Jain happened to be the advisor and when they said drudgery was cooking, just look at this. One was the sewing machine, the other thing was cooking is drudgery so we have to give them smokeless choolahs and we have to give them solar cookers. 

And I thought, this is my need as a middle class woman, what is her need? We simply don’t even know. And in that with Devaki, we, I had an argument that, you know, you cannot get to know intimate real information through a survey sheet. It holds even today, you go through a survey sheet and they’ll tell you what you want to know, what really is the case. If I can further divulge and divulge into another story, when once we asked for … group of people had come from Jaipur- professors, NSS, they had come in to meet women and they had met these dayis, and they said, oh, you should have toilets. Why don’t you have?

That’s the third concern, okay? Toilets, toilets, toilets. So all these dayis said, yes, yes, of course we must have toilets. Very important when we get old, we don’t, can’t go to the loo and when our daughters in law get pregnant and blah, blah, blah, blah. And all of them said, you know in unison, this is in the eighties. So my friend Renuka Pamecha was absolutely impressed. She said, wow, it’s a huge change. I said, don’t you take it at face value. So after they left, I went back and I said, oh, it’s been decided that you will get toilets, that you will get free stones and free building material. You just have to contribute your labour and your toilets will be made. Dead silence. Then one woman said, I don’t think I want it. It’d be difficult. Nahi nahi,not for me. What about the other one? She has a daughter-in-law who is pregnant. That one said, no, no, no, I don’t want it. None of them wanted the toilet. So I said, two hours ago you said you wanted the toilet.

Then they said it to me in Hindi. They said in Rajasthani, they said, usko toh bataya, woh sunne wali baat thi, sunane waali baat thi. Aapko jo hum batayenge woh mann ki baat hai. Humare mann mein toilet ki koyi zaroorat hi nahi hai. Aur woh wahi sunna chahate hai toh unko vahi suna diya.

So I said, these survey sheets are like that. So we persuaded the Department of Science and Technology for whom we did this DST. We said, we’ll have to define drudgery. We don’t accept your definition of drudgery, and they would’ve thrown this whole proposal out if it hadn’t been for Devaki Jain. She said, Aruna is right.

SWRC is right. We should define drudgery. Then we did series of elev big workshops where all the women sat and they called us gaalis also. They come and they give us all these fundas, we don’t want this. This is not drudgery, and they defined in the end, we know. What was the most, I dunno, Rajni, if you’d like to guess, what was the defined as the greatest drudgery.


Bringing water?

No, the greatest drudgery was collecting firewood because they had to steal it. And elderly women were sent to collect firewood and they got to go alone and they could not lift it to their heads. So many of them had prolapses because of this, prolapsed uteruses because of this. But in normal work, the biggest drudgery according to them was being a beldaar that is working with mason. When you go up those ladders with tagari on your head


Full of bricks?


And not only that, bricks, stone, cement, whatever it was, and you’re always worried that somebody’s peeping through your skirts. So you have to keep your skirts tightly wound round your legs so that they’re not doing that. 

So they said that is the worst. And the second they said was weeding when you have to bend and weed. And you know, till today there is no technology which has come, which can be a hand operated weeding machine. Technology has only looked at men’s issues, it has not looked at women’s issues. Whatever was a man’s job, technology has jumped in.

Whatever was a woman’s job is still on the fringes of concern. Just by the way. So that is the kind of thing that really made me understand. And in this process I made great many friends and many of them Mangi, who since passed away, who was the intellectual who has questioned me. Yeah. And I wanted to know more then Northie, who was my, who has been and is still continues to be one of my strongest relationships.

One who contested on minimum wages went up to the Supreme Court …who questioned and part of the demand for MGNREGA, part of the RTI, who became sarpanch. And actually marvelous five years cuz she brought in more than a crore of rupees every year into the panchayat. She learned the computers with SWRC. So she worked the computer… she worked the computer and she taught her computer operator how to work the computer.

She downloaded the MGNREGA information and the rules and regulations of the government. And she looks exactly like old worker from a village. She hasn’t changed her appearance. Amazing women. And amazing men. Yeah. And they have taught me…. I don’t know how to describe it, the value of life.


Also what is life?


Which is above politics. Yeah. You know, in one sense. But it is politics as well. Yeah. The value of life in living and how important it is to combine dignity with demand.


With demand?


Yes. For rights. 



The demand for rights, yeah. Has to be understood as a demand for dignity. 


Yeah. And Aruna, before we move on to your decision to go to Devdungri, there’s a very important episode that in many ways I think challenged some of these relationships because, uh, I know that there was not always, what shall we say, a like-mindedness on fundamental aspects of caste. But the episode I’m thinking of just now is the Devrala sati episode. 


Aruna’s years of activism spent in Rajasthan meant many hard confrontations with its feudal, caste-based traditions, particularly in the way they have affected women. 

In 1987 a young Rajputi woman called Roop Kanwar was forced onto her husband’s funeral pyre by her brother-in-law in the village of Deorala. She was 18. Thousands were reported to have witnessed the 18-year old’s death which was glorified as a sacrifice hailing her as “sati mata”. 

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, worked as a Sathen as part of the government’s Women’s Development Program. Sathens were social workers who would visit homes and offer women advice on family planning, hygiene and other issues. Bhanwari Devi was brutally gang-raped while intervening to stop the child-marriage of a 9-month old baby. 

Both of these incidents were hugely pivotal moments in Aruna’s feminist journey and both continued to inform her work years later. 


And I remember you have spoken about this in other locations, in other situations of how you had that meeting where people were preparing for a march that was going to happen in Jaipur by all of us feminists and human rights activists. And the women said to you, but, we believe in sati. Can you just narrate that whole story and how it ended?


Roop Kanwar Sati was for me one of the worst pre-Ayodhya in all this, one of the worst things that ever happened. Cause I felt my skin burning for several days. You know, just how do you ever put a live woman on a funeral pyre? So Roop Kanwar became a symbol for women of the middle class, uh, as one of the most horrendous violations of life, attacks on life that could happen.

But when you carry rural women with you, you just have to have them feel the same thing or understand it. And I wanted to, so we had this meeting of about 200 women who are supposed to go on the march the next day. And I understood always that before you go on a march politically, you must have a discussion because very many people come with very strange ideas.

And I’m also very concerned with probity and honesty. So unless you really believe in it just to increase numbers, there’s no point having hoards of people. So you must actually sympathize or understand the issue. Otherwise, why go there at all? So I used to pre-precede every single agitation with a longish discussion on what was going to happen. So we sat and we discussed and quite rightly.

So I said, do you believe in Sath? They said, yeah, we all believe in Sath. Satya becomes sath.

 So Sath is faith in truth, and therefore they feel that if you are truthful and you are pure, then the, funeral pyre will light on its own. That’s what they believe. The strength of your belief and faith will light the funeral fire. You don’t have to put a matchstick to it. They also believed that if you were put into a locked room and someone bolted and locked you in, the lock would open and the bolts would open and you would walk out free to go and be on the funeral pyre.


So they said, we believe in sath. But this was not sath. Rupkavar was burnt because the funeral pyre was lit by her brother-in-law.

But the most interesting story is what an all when we were heatedly arguing, sath nahi hai sath hai and there were handful of us saying there’s no sath and majority of saying that there is sath, it seemed as if we would go on. It was midnight and this old woman got up and I was young then. So she said to me, Beti, you believe that man has been on the moon?

I said, yes. She said, where did you see him? I said, on a screen. So she said, we have seen Sath in photographs, we have seen Sath in pictorial representation. So you believe in one kind of picture, and I believe in another kind of picture, let’s not contest it. Tomorrow we will go because Devrala, the brother-in-law set fire to the the wood.

So we will go there and let’s set this aside and let’s talk about tomorrow. Brilliant old woman, what a, what a mind she had. 

So I have these vignettes in my mind of the debt I owe to so many of them for wisdom. 

in Tilonia I learned also how to work feminism through an institution. And feminism has many values. It’s not just sexuality. This is a come to now in public debate, but it’s much more than sexuality.

It’s a set of values. And if I had to describe myself in any way whatsoever, I would say I’m a feminist because it believes in equality, but equality with compassion. It also believes in the fact that there must be participation in decision making. It believes in participatory methods of doing it. 

I worked it out in Tilonia.

For me you see, you can have an idea, but you have to work it out and to see its feasibility. So that happened and therefore the organization’s entire participatory development methodology, its system of decision-making, which is still there today. Evolved through what I would essentially call a feminist principle. And that was, in my opinion, to me, a very fundamental theoretical contribution to my understanding of politics.


So at that same point in the mid-eighties, Aruna you were one of the key figures in the shaping of the women’s development program? If I recall correct correctly, was sort of the flagship program happened in Rajasthan, then it spread to other parts of India. And what were some of the challenges that your faith in these values, you know, met with in that process?


I met Northie, this friend of mine. I met Bila. I met Hasina and I met Mangi. The four natural leaders women leaders. So they used to talk about leadership programs for women. I used to say, forget it, you can’t teach leadership. You can equip a person with leadership qualities, with skills, with aptitudes, with methods.

You can’t, can’t teach leadership, you know, it’s really out and I still believe it. So these four women, as an experiment, I talk to an Anil Bordia who was then development commissioner and said, let us deal with their development of their skills. Let’s say you spend tons of money training women on how to sew. It was, there was a program called TRYSEM government Program.

And then you teach women how to sew. Why can’t you teach them skills of literacy? You can teach them skills of what we call logical art-, political articulation, which we, why can’t we teach them that? So he agreed.

So we had this amazing six months where we divided the day into two. The first part of the day, they learnt.

The second part of the day we learnt. I said, there has to be equality in knowledge. They’re very well informed people with a great deal of knowledge, which you and I don’t have. So there can be no just giving, without taking with equal humility. So in the morning they learned literacy, and in the evening they taught us caste politics, women’s politics, social relationships, how it operates.

What are the dos and don’ts in relationships in the village? What they would like to change, what they wouldn’t like to change? What is migration? How do they migrate? And what are the privations they undergo where they migrate?

What are the problems of a woman getting married to her sister’s widower? And this tradition is there. And what happens with the relationship patterns? So there’s a whole issue and for Muslim woman who marries, has a civil marriage with a man from a different part of India, what happens to her? So there were variations of the theme and we heard all that.

And Anil Bordia then decided it had to be escalated and made into a program. And that was a women’s development program of his. And he shaped it and there to substitute the informal education that these women got, he created IDARA and he had one wing with the government, which was the WDP, with the director with a complete hierarchy of officials.

And on this side he had what was a learning input. With the course of that so many women were trained, Sushmita trained the Sathens, and I trained so many of these organizing women, these project direct, the women were called  Prachetas who worked with them. And those trainings were amazing trainings because I owe so much of my learning to those trainings about sexual harassment within the family, about the kind of privations women have to go.

The frustrations in the lower middle class, in the women of the lower middle class, what their dreams are and they want to be poets and they can’t write poetry. They want to sing and they can’t sing, and hey’re creative … at all kinds of things. And then how the timidity and so on. Terrible stories emerged from those things.

And I learned a lot and I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about my own inhibitions, my own reservations. And I also learned about how unequal we are as trainers. We go there thinking that we are going to train somebody. What arrogance. Because the trainer is as much a learner as a trainer, which I still hold that there is no such thing as a leader.

I feel a leader is just a person who’s temporarily there, but there’s no such thing as a leader, which has gone into my understanding so many other concepts. So it was amazing learning for me. And one extraordinary thing was that in being together for so long, in those 21 days of living together, we reached a kind of high, and every time it happened because of the process of sharing and understanding, and it was something else undescribable, but it has happened to many women’s groups all over the world.

It’s not just us. But the transference of that to the Mahila Mela that we did in 1985 was amazing because I was asked if I would go to [Nairobi for the Women’s decade, and I said, no. I told the people who give us some money and we will have a thousand women get together, and 900 local women and hundred urban women got together.

I won’t go into it because it’s too long, but the process of interaction and understanding finally led to the first big demonstration, organized demonstration against rape, at least in that part of Rajasthan when we went on silent rally in Kishangarh. And it has lived on people’s memories. How things transform, like the Prabhat pheri in the morning transformed into the rally and how these transformations take place actually in the minds of people.


Yeah. So building upon this, uh, Aruna, how did the community then grapple with the Bhanwari Devi rape case? Because it was, it was in many ways an attack on the whole culture of Sathens. And it was, of course, it was a personal tragedy. It was also a kind of a political act. How did it all of you, you know, cope with it? Because in many ways. There were echos of the Roop Kanwar sense of pain.


In my mind they are two separate things, actually, I don’t couple Roop Kanwar with Bhanwari Devi. By the time Bhanwari Devi happened, I was in MKSS. So my whole political formulation of support was very different. Thousands of us women there, but women working and fighting for rights and, understanding wages and understanding sexual assault on the body.

In the case of Bhanwari Devi, I think it was the first feminist issue, which was taken up by the WDP. It had been taken up outside, but the WDP had not taken up any such thing. And it was something which called for strong support to Bhanwari and an affirmation of those values. And it did happen across all ideologies.

And in that mass support for Bhanwari emerged a politics, which has not gone as far as it should have in Rajasthan. But it did change each one of its units and MKSS was the lead group that broke the cordon on the day we broke the cordon. And many of us, one of our fellow beings, got hit badly by a baton and had to have stitches and all that.

And we broke the cordon. And then to, and it brings me to another area of how do you deal with that fear when you face an armed constability with nothing in your hands? And the absurdity of calling non-violent protest cowardly. It’s still something that baffles me. It requires the greatest courage in the world to face that armed layered group of police constables and women who stand there to beat you up, to go there and actually break it. So brought Gandhi into me at that stage and I thought I had understood him before in all the protests, but in this facing of violence, I really understood the strength of non-violence and how really strongly you have to believe in what you think you are is right to face that baton and that rifle and that gun pointing at you


So the, the Sathen community was not cowed down by the fear that was because I think the whole attack on Bhanwari Devi was also an attempt to instill fear in other women who were doing similar work.


I wouldn’t say that all the Sathens were there, substantial amount of them were there. Sathen community, and actually progressively it has become a real, if you look at what the Sathens are like today in Rajasthan and it’s really a watered down version of what began as a very progressive and very strong women’s group.

Now they are functionaries. Do you know the transformation of a woman worker into a functionary? A functionaries is a government servant. You know you really do what you’re told to do. But a woman’s worker is somebody who decides for herself what is a vital necessity for the dignity of women or for the rights of women and do it.


Yes. Which was the case here, because she was basically resisting a child marriage.


She was all Sathens and the WDP were given a directive by the government of Rajasthan to stop child marriage. It was on that directive that she went to stop the child marriage. So she was a functionary as well as a woman worker. Both when she did that.


So maybe this is a good point then to take up the question of change from the top, as you said just now by directive and the organic and and rooted social transformation that is to, you know, abolish a concept like child marriage.

And over the years, are you seeing a progression towards the progressive side or is that kind of organic change from below still too slow?


I don’t think that there are these absolute categories, and I really think that why, why did I, my great-grandmother was married at the age of seven. Why did I get married at the age of 24?

Or why did my mother get married at the age of 25? One has to look at oneself and one’s own changes. And then you understand that it’s… many things. It’s it’s power. How much power did my mother have or did I have …what my grandmother have who also got married at the age of 19? How much power did we have to face society?

How much power did we actually have to argue our way out into a position of declaring our rights? If those women have that power, they’ll also be like that, and they are now more or less. It’s amazing. Rural Rajasthan is not what it was 40 years ago. Our girls who even take the cows and the sheep herding wear jeans and they wear tops and they are modern and they all go to beauty parlors and god knows it’s huge transformation and women get married much later.

And, unfortunately in the, when they were married younger, it was bride price, which meant that the man gave money to the women’s family to take the girl away. Now, dowry has crept in. I think I they get married much older, but dowry has crept in and you have to now give dowry. So there’s always an up and a down in all these things and I think changes have happened.

But that’s the argument, no, that if you bring in literacy and you bring in schooling and you bring in, and I’m differentiating between education and schooling and I always have. So you bring in schooling and you bring in a smattering of possibilities of change. Then other things in the social strata also change. 

When Mangi was asked, for instance… she was brilliant. Mangi, my other friend, yes, since passed away, also a Dalit. Beautiful woman. She was asked by this group of, again, by people from Jaipur, why do you get your children married so early? So she said, you know, when we get one child married, we get a whole lot married. So the eldest is about 17 or 18, and the youngest is about six.

And the whole lot get married because it’s cheaper for us. So in one go we get, but they don’t go to the in-laws, they go much later, and that is called gona. She said, we don’t send them off. She said, we are very stupid people. She said, I got married early. My daughter will get married when she’s 17 or 16, maybe my granddaughter will get married at 24.

Ahe said, okay, very sarcastically. She said, we are very stupid people. We are gawars, so we disobey the law, but you people are very literate. How many of you have you, how many of you have given dowry or received dowry? Dead silence because they’d all either given or received dowry. So she said, yes. So you come to us with a superiority telling us we shouldn’t have child marriage.

How many of you have not spent money on your daughters’ and sons’ weddings going beyond all limits of the law? So that’s where I stand. I said, yeah, you think that they are right or wrong, but why don’t we ever introspect? We go there with such a feeling of superiority. I always feel that when I go there and I look at something that is unacceptable, there is a flip off side, flip side of the coin which has my face on it and I have to look at it to see where am I and what did I do wrong?



In the next episode, Aruna moves to Devdungri, recollects moments from her journey that began with the MKSS and resulted in the Right to Information Act. 

Grassroots Nation is a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. For more information go to rohini nilekani philanthropies dot org or join the conversation on social media at RNP underscore foundation. 

Stay tuned for our next episode 

Thank you for listening to Grassroots Nation.