Even in a country dictated by social and cultural systems like India, Aruna Roy was never the kind of person whose life could be dictated by expectation.
Her unorthodox roots stem back to her grandparents, whose marriage in 1918 broke from the traditional boundaries of the Indian caste system. Both were proud, intelligent, socially conscientious people who served the poor and cared little for the orthodoxy. They taught their children that class and religion were not factors by which to judge another individual.
One of those children was Hema, Roy’s mother. She married lawyer E.D. Jayaram when she was 25 – an age considered late for women to marry – and they passed down these values to their children, including Aruna, their eldest, who was born on May 26th, 1946.
Roy spent much of her early life moving from school to school across the country. She first attended school at only three-and-a-half years of age; first at a Catholic convent in Madras, then the conservative Convent of Jesus in New Delhi for five years.
After all this time being taught by French and English nuns, it was decided that Roy should learn about her own culture. She was enrolled at the prestigious Kalakshetra art school, one of the rare institutes operated by a woman. Here she learnt classical dance, art, and music for two years. After that, she spent a short amount of time at a school in Pondicherry, before transferring to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, an ‘Indianising’ school at which she would complete her secondary education.
By this point, Roy could speak four languages – Tamil, Hindi, English and French – and was an accomplished classical singer who performed in the South Indian style. The family home was constantly filled with music and lively discussion. In fact, Hema used to joke that a sign should be placed on their door reading “If you can’t argue, please don’t enter”.
One of the most prominent points of conversation in the household were the accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi, who had been assassinated less than two years after Roy’s birth. “I have lived with Gandhi all my life,” Roy says. The honesty upon which he led his life made Gandhi a role model for the young woman looking to leave her own mark on her homeland.
Always one to pick up a book rather than socialise, it came as a surprise to nobody that she chose English literature as her major at Indraprastra College. After completing her course, she undertook two years of postgraduate study at the University of Delhi, where she met Sanjit Roy, who was to become her husband. Sanjit came from the Brahmo Bengalis, a group renowned for championing women’s rights and speaking out against the caste system.
Graduating with her master’s degree in 1967, Roy started examining her career prospects. As a woman, few options were granted to her, and she ultimately took the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) examination.
100 people qualified for the IAS that year. Roy was one of only 10 women. Sent to Northern India for training, they found the service focused more heavily on etiquette than basic administration. One of the primary expectations was for members to learn how to ride a horse, as had been common in the colonial days. Roy was thrown off her horse and injured, and so became one of several cadets who objected to the entire practice. “If you can’t ride your horse, how will you control your district?” asked her instructor. “I may be able to control my district,” she retorted, “but never your horse”.
After completing the course, Roy was sent to Tamil Nadu in the south of the country. Infuriatingly, the collector appointed to the division refused to take her on rounds to assist the locals because he was afraid of what his wife would think. She therefore requested a transfer, and was sent to North Arcot, the first rural community in which she had ever lived.
It was an eye-opening experience. For the first time, she had an opportunity to interact with the poor and disenfranchised, and heard many stories of pain and suffering besides. Though her gender meant that she was forced to work harder than her male counterparts, Roy did so with pride, and a sense that she could truly be of help.
Around this time, Roy married Sanjit. Refusing to let marriage interrupt her endeavours, the couple set out rules for their relationship: they would have no children in order to not be tied down, they would not be financially dependent on one another, and they were free to live their lives however they pleased.
By 1971, she was a subdivisional magistrate, overseeing six police stations in the Delhi area. Here she discovered the true extent of government corruption, and the corrupting influence of power. She had entered the IAS believing the government was working for social justice, and now realised that the system cared little for the issues it was designed to address.
For three years, Roy struggled to decide where to take her career in light of such revelations. The IAS provided privilege which many argued she should not give up, but her husband had established the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) in 1972, an organisation she felt had the ability to make a significant impact. So it was that she left the IAS in 1974 to work for the SWRC.
Roy’s first posting was Tilona, a small village which she had chosen to support “because I wanted to understand socio-economic realities but also to work with individuals and to recognise faces – to work, in other words, with human beings, not with an aggregate of human beings reduced to a statistical number.” She learnt a fifth language, Rajasthani, in order to better communicate with the locals, and had to come to terms with their communal politics.
Quickly, she began to realise that since she was no longer a bureaucrat, villagers were talking with her far more honestly and openly than ever before. Without a badge, she was treated as one of their own.
She spent nine years with the SWRC. “I really was educated-in processes, in methods, in human relationships, in understanding women.”
The experience turned Roy’s focus to the issue of women’s equality in India. She saw that in Tilonia, though the area was still dominated by the caste system, the advice women would give to their families and community was on par with what man had to say.
One of these women was Nautri, a worker and feminist from one of the country’s lower castes. In 1981, Nautri mobilised 500 men and women and convinced them not to accept their government wages until everyone, of every caste, was receiving the legal minimum wage. Roy was sent to negotiate with Nautri, and the two became close friends, with the SWRC eventually taking her side on the matter. The district was taken to the Supreme Court, who sided with the workers. It was one of the first cases of its kind in the country.
Roy would spend several years working with women’s groups in the region, ultimately ending up in Devdungri with two of her peers – Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey – who were looking to help make a difference.
The major turning point came in 1988, when the villagers of Sohangarh came to the trio for support in their protest against a landlord who had claimed 25 hectares of forested land and was demanding the villagers pay for its use. When the villagers refused to pay, the landlord hired gunmen to attack them. Roy, Singh, and Dey took the complaint to the administration with the weight of the villagers behind them, and the local collector forced the landlord to accede the land.
It was a major victory, and one that led 5000 people to supporting Roy’s decision to found the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS): the Organisation for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants.
The MKSS was a far-left group with no semblance of a power structure. It had no hierarchy, no leader, no constitution, not even a document declaring it an organisation. They do not accept donations from institutional bodies, nor charge membership fees.
Every year, the MKSS focus on one or two major issues to lend their resources to. The first of these was minimum wage, a battle over which continues today. The group have also opened grocery stores to provide quality goods at affordable prices, while seeking only a 1% net profit. The Bhim store opened in 1991 thanks to loans from villagers, which were paid back in two years.
One of the most defining elements of MKSS’s work is their jan sunwais; public hearings designed to fight corruption by sharing information openly with the public. The government has fought hard against these hearings, in response to a grass-roots campaign for the public’s right to information. Each hearing draws a crowd many hundreds strong.
The Right to Information Act finally passed in 2005.
At age 70, Aruna Roy is still active in fostering change across a country with many social issues continuing to challenge equality across the nation. She has become an icon, a symbol of hope for those searching for a life not lived in the gutters of society, but she refuses to take credit for what she has brought about.
“Many collectives of the poor people struggling for change gave us the ideas and commitment to bring about meaningful change. I owe my ideas to the clarity of others, my courage to being with people who confront injustice with fearlessness and equanimity, my hope to the persistence and resilience of men and women struggling to get themselves heard, my generosity to the poor family that shared its last roti with me, and my sense of well-being to the many who have supported me in difficult moments of my life.”