Posts Tagged ‘Aruna Roy

Has the jholawallah, the social activist whose hallmark often was a beard — or a handloom sari — and a bag, faded out? Sonia Sarkar and Moumita Chaudhurilooked for him and her here and there — and found it tough to catch a glimpse of that once iconic individual

  • PIC: Rashbehari Das


Giridhar Poddar has seen it all. The waiter at the Indian Coffee House in Calcutta remembers the time when an adda meant a revolution. Men and women would gather around their cups of tea — mostly black, with a squeeze of lime — and change the world. “They do have addas now, but they are just pure addas — only conversation,” he says.

A large whiteboard at the reception underlines all that Poddar misses. The board — titled Voice of Kolkata — is almost blank, but for a reference to an exhibition in the city and a few lines scribbled by an obscure poet. “People no longer raise a storm in their teacups. Nobody has the time anymore,” manager Jahid Hussain points out.

There was a time when a place like a coffee house was the watering hole for radicals, liberals, activists and armchair revolutionists. But the jholawallah is hard to find these days. The term, used generically and somewhat derogatorily for the activist in the Eighties, referred to a class that was easily identifiable — the men wore scraggly beards and khadi kurtas; the women had unkempt hair and wore cotton saris. And they all carried jholas — cloth bags that somehow symbolised their missions.

But the times have changed. A new National Democratic Alliance government has been installed at the Centre which has little in common with the activists. The old United Progressive Alliance government — which had given a platform to a wide spectrum of activists in its National Advisory Council (NAC) — has been deposed. And the NAC has downed its shutters.

The arc lights are on the activist as well. A report by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has listed non-government organisations (NGOs) and social activists associated with various peoples’ movements as those stalling developmental work in the country.

“This is not a conducive environment for social activists to function,” says Anil Chaudhary, a peace and NGO activist associated with the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a platform for some 700 movements and NGOs.

Many believe that the jholawallah — already marginalised by a host of global and domestic developments — is on his way out.

But who is the jholawallah in the first place? Academics agree that the term refers to a large section of Left liberals who are usually not part of a political party. You see them at rallies, at seminars and conferences, at world fora and in villages. Their causes differ — and some jump from cause to cause. But the issues are varied — from protecting villagers against big dams and spreading literacy to people’s right to information and against nuclear projects.

“Of course, the word jholawallah is now obsolete. Nowadays hardly anybody walks around with a beard and a jhola,” says theatre personality Bibhas Chakraborty. “But generally, jholawallahs are educated and erudite people giving unsolicited advice.”

Most agree that the presence of jholawallahs is felt most during times of crisis. The end of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta, the growth of the JP movement and the start of the Emergency were some such flashpoints. Small groups formed over the years, taking up issues such as the rights of women and of tribals and Dalits, and for the environment. In recent times, the activists have been rallying together under an anti-nuclear banner. Not surprisingly, many of the groups mentioned in the IB report are against nuclear energy.

“If communities feel threatened, they will give birth to activists who will give voice to their concerns,” reasons former NAC member and Right to Information activist Aruna Roy. “As a society we need to listen to those voices.”

But the movements have also lost steam over the years, and jholawallahs their place in the sun. Observers say that a host of developments across the world has together pushed the activist to the margins. The Vietnam War gave birth to a whole new generation of Left-winged activists. But subsequent events such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the firing on students in Tiananmen Square in China — shrunk the radical’s world.

“The role of an activist is a very difficult one in a globalised, liberalised economy and in the age of sponsorships,” says Mohammed Selim, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of Parliament. “But though they may be invisible at the moment, they have not been vanquished.”

Calcutta, of course, has seen the rise of a “civil society” movement — the participation of artistes, academics and others in rallies that started with the firing at Nandigarm and more or less ended with the fall of the Left Front government in 2011. “But it is true that jholawallahs are a rare sight these days,” agrees actor Badshah Moitra. “They are not as ubiquitous as they were 15 years ago in coffee houses and tea stalls.”

Indeed, you can hardly see the jholawallah in many parts of the country today. Take Bangalore’s Koshy’s, where, the locals joke, many court cases were argued and newspaper articles written over steaming coffee and chilled beer. Started during the days of the Raj and located just off M.G. Road, Koshy’s for decades served the city’s intelligentsia.

“While some people discussed glasnost and perestroika on one table, you’d find another table occupied by a writer penning a novel,” a spokesman for the restaurant says. “But the city’s young don’t hang around at Koshy’s as much as they did a decade ago,” he says.

In fact, that, many hold, is the crux of the problem — the fact that the young are not as enamoured of the jhola as their parents were. The trendy Caf� Coffee Day (CCD), Barista and Starbucks outlets are where the young would rather be. If there is one Koshy’s in Bangalore, CCD has 250 outlets. When Tata Starbucks opened its outlet in Bangalore last year, youngsters waited for an hour to get a table.

“The youth of today believes more in aspirational politics than confrontation,” points out Anirban Ganguly, director of the BJP-affiliated think tank Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Research Foundation in Delhi. “They believe in a different lexicon.”

But some believe the young do have a role to play in movements. “Our work will not be stalled. We are committed to the cause,” says Medha Patkar, whose anti-big dam movement attracted the young in large numbers. “All pro-people agencies, from civil rights activists to journalists to the judiciary, should come forth to fight against the government. The challenge is to stay together,” adds Teesta Setalvad, who runs the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace.

Some argue that the jholawallah is not extinct but has taken on different forms. The BJP, for instance, has its share of supporters who may carry laptop backpacks instead of jholas, but have a mission as well. “Modi would not have become Prime Minister without the support of an army of Right-wing activists in the corporate sector, the media, the economics profession, the Hindutva movement and the public at large,” social activist Jean Dr�ze, a former NAC member, stresses.

Political and social observers also point out that the platform for the jholawallah has changed. Anil Chaudhary recalls that there was a time when demonstrators gathered at Delhi’s Boat Club — or India Gate — for all kinds of protests. The protestors have now been shoved to a corner near Jantar Mantar, so as not to obstruct traffic.

But many contend today’s platform for protest is neither Calcutta’s Maidan nor Jantar Mantar. It’s the Internet.

“Now dissent has become digital. Protests have taken a cyber form,” points out sociologist G.K. Karanth.

Indeed, many small movements have spread their message through and congregated on the Internet — from stone-throwing schoolboys in Kashmir to the thousands that came together to protest against the gang rape and death of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. Many of the gay parades across India have been put into motion on the Internet. The Pink Chaddi campaign — against conservatives who frowned at women going to pubs — found supporters on social networking sites. In other parts of the world, too, urban movements — such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement — have been garnering support, thanks to the Internet.

There are movements on the ground, too, but, as Karanth points out, they have to be sufficiently large or grand to attract people. Anna Hazare, for instance, brought the jholawallahs and the Prada-wallahs together. But the latter outnumber the former.

So is the score, for the present, Jholas 0 and Pradas 1? The supporters of the jhola are livid. “I have strong reservations about the very word jholawallah and such labelling of people. They have contributed to our society and stood by the interests of the poor and faced stiff opposition and even physical resistance from governments in their crusades,” says theatre director and actor Kaushik Sen, who was part of the “Paribartan” wave in favour of Mamata Banerjee three years ago. “But that has not eroded their resolve and grit.”

As for the detractors, they are busy coining jhola jokes. So what is the jholawallah song? I’m a jholi good fellow.

Severe six

Aruna Roy

Heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and led the Right to Information movement

Medha Patkar

Founder member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

Jean Drèze

Works on hunger, famine, child health and education. He drafted the first version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the UPA government

Vandana Shiva

Environmental activist. Founded Navadanya, a national green movement on organic farming and fair trade

Teesta Setalvad

Secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace which fights against communalism

Arundhati Roy

Essay writer and human rights activist. A member of the anti-globalisation movement


The knives are out in the Congress Party — and fingers are being pointed at Rahul Gandhi’s lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s aide in the National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Sonia Sarkarand Smitha Verma look at the rumpus

Success, as the wise man said, has many fathers; failure is an orphan. The Congress party’s electoral debacle is a case in point. Nobody wants to take the blame for its worst ever performance in a general election, but quite a few are ready to point fingers at others. Milind Deora has blamed advisors of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for the defeat; former sports minister Jitendra Singh has accused Deora of not speaking out when he was a minister. And quite a few stalwarts have blamed outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The knives, indeed, are out.

But nobody, perhaps, is being blamed as much as Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s vocal aide in the controversial National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Mistry failed miserably as the man in charge of Uttar Pradesh. And though Roy resigned from the NAC last year, many see her support for programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Assurance (MGNREGA) scheme as one of the reasons for the Congress’s downfall.

So who is Madhusudan Mistry?

In the Congress, the voice against Mistry is getting shriller by the day. The former Sabarkantha MP, who lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara, has been described as the “poor man’s Amit Shah”. Mistry did everything that Modi’s aide did — travel across UP, work on his laptop for long hours and weigh would-be candidates.

“But if Shah did everything right, Mistry did everything wrong,” a party watcher says. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally won 73 seats out of 80 in UP, the Congress won two.

Mistry, 69, doesn’t want to talk about all this. He is at home, recovering from sunstroke and diarrhoea. “We will speak (of the defeat) within the party. We will resolve our problems,” says Mistry, who is meeting Gujarat party workers on May 31.

The Rajya Sabha MP impressed Rahul Gandhi with his performance in Parliament. “He had cent per cent attendance. He is also extremely good at composing drafts and has a good grasp of social issues. Rahul liked these qualities and made him a part of his core team,” an observer says.

His entry into the Congress, however, was through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela. Mistry, who ran a non-government organisation called Developing Initiatives for Social and Human Action (DISHA) in Sabarkantha focusing on tribal rights, was addressing a tribal rally when Vaghela, who was then in the BJP, spotted him.

Later, when Vaghela left the BJP to set up the Rashtriya Janata Party, he made Mistry its president. When Vaghela joined the Congress in 1998, so did Mistry. He fought and won from Sabarkantha in 2002, reclaimed it in 2004 but lost the seat in 2009 by 17,000 votes.

Some Congressmen whisper that he has connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On Twitter, Mistry has denied this. Some accuse him of converting tribals into Christians, which again Mistry has denied. At a public meeting, he took out a string with beads around his neck to show that he was a Hindu.

The father of four lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara. Mistry is proud to be a jholachhap and maintains a simple lifestyle. “He is so simple that he eats sitting on the floor. Looking at him, nobody can gauge how big he is politically,” an aide says.

A Gujarati OBC, he was brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. He worked as a mason when he was in school, and then as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. After doing a course on moulding from the Indian Technical Institute, he won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started DISHA.

But the problem, the Congress watcher says, is that he likes to cash in on his “self-made image” which irks others. “And he harps on the fact that he has no old connections with the party, which many members have. Gandhi appreciates this, but the veteran party members don’t.”

Mistry was put in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, which the Congress-led front won. In 2013, he looked after the Karnataka elections, which again the Congress won. But some argue that Kerala anyway has a strong Congress presence, and Karnataka was going through an anti-BJP wave.

His failure in UP has elbowed out his successes. A party member says that one of the reasons behind the failure is his inability to handle people. “He doesn’t like people crowding his office. He doesn’t entertain calls at odd hours. He doesn’t even chat with party workers over chai and samosa.”

A small section, however, speaks up for him. Other Congressmen, it says, are irked by his rise in the party and closeness to Gandhi. “He is also very straight forward. His intentions are good but he can’t perform,” a Congress MLA says.

Mistry replaced Narendra Rawat, who had won the primary held in Vadodara. “Mistry told everyone in Gujarat that it was his lifetime wish to fight against Modi,” a Congress leader says. Modi defeated him by over 5,70,000 votes.

And then there was Roy.

This time last year, in one of the thickly-carpeted rooms of the NAC office in a sprawling bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi, a resignation letter was discussed in hushed tones. Just before the advisory board convened its 30th meeting, NAC chairperson Gandhi was handed over the letter. And Aruna Roy, social activist and anti-corruption crusader, walked out of the organisation for the second time since its inception in 2004, saying that she did not wish to be considered for another term.

Earlier this month, it held its last meeting.

Roy’s detractors believe that she contributed to the Congress defeat. MGNREGA, spearheaded by Roy among others, offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. And it led to an estimated two per cent rise in inflation — which rattled the middle class.

Not everybody is convinced of this. “How can you blame the NAC or Roy for the downfall? If anything, their advice was heeded in the UPA’s first term and not in the second one,” argues social activist and Roy aide Nikhil Dey.

Roy, 67, became a part of the Gandhi coterie when she was inducted into the 12-member body comprising former civil servants, activists and academics. It was often called a parallel or kitchen cabinet run by Sonia Gandhi.

“The NAC wielded extra-constitutional power, superseding the Cabinet, contributing to the perception that the Prime Minister wasn’t really in charge,” says Nitin Pai, who runs the think tank Takshashila Institution in Bangalore.

Roy and Sonia, says a former NAC member, shared a comfortable working relationship. “The chairperson always listened patiently to her and gave her inputs much credence.” But Roy quit the NAC in 2006, accusing the government of moving away from its common minimum programme. She returned to the NAC in 2010. “She and (academic) Jean Dreze were forever threatening to resign when things didn’t go their way,” a detractor says.

Gandhi, who relied on Roy, was “hurt” when she resigned last year, the former member says. “The chairperson wrote a nice parting letter to Roy highlighting her contribution but was greatly disappointed when Roy went to the media about her displeasure with the NAC,” he says.

Even as a section of economists rails against Roy, the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner is looked upon well in the social sector for her crusade against corruption. A Tamilian, she joined the IAS in 1968 but quit the bureaucracy in 1974 to follow in her husband Sanjit “Bunker” Roy’s path of social work. In 1983, she set up the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS) in Rajasthan for empowering farmers. From there she started a movement for the public’s right to scrutinise official records that laid the foundation for the Right to Information Act.

In 2011, Roy — whom political analyst Swapan Dasgupta describes as the “Queen Bee of India’s jholawalas” in one of his columns — figured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. But her background as a former IAS officer and the fact that she knew almost every senior bureaucrat riled a section in the Congress. Some say she particularly ruffled feathers when she referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by his first name at meetings.

MGNREGA has its share of vocal critics, too. They believe it’s a waste of money as people are paid for little or no work. “It wasn’t implemented well and it failed to create rural assets,” says economist Narendra Jadhav, member, Planning Commission, and former NAC member.

“There was often disagreement within the NAC. You had to come up with really good arguments to counter Roy because she held a strong viewpoint,” says Ashis Mondal, an NAC member in its second term.

Roy, back with MKSS, rubbishes the allegations. She doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with Sonia but is scathing about MGNREGA opponents. “There is a rich farmer-industrialist-contractor lobby opposing it. They are backed by economists who want no expenditure to be incurred on the development of the poor,” Roy adds.

The alumna of Delhi University is preparing for her next role. She is keeping a close watch on what the new government does with MGNREGA and warns of a backlash if it is disbanded.

But that’s for the new government to work on. For the Congress, the defeat marks the end — and start — of an era. After the blame game, work may start.

  • *Till 1.1.2013

Career Graph

  • Under fire: Madhusudan Mistry (top) and Aruna Roy

 Rajya Sabha MP Madhusudan Mistryis said to be close to Rahul Gandhi. The former MP from Sabarkantha lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara.

 Was in charge of UP for the Congress. Earlier, he’d been in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, and of the Karnataka elections in 2013.

 Entered the Congress through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela.

 Lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara and maintains a simple lifestyle.

 Brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. Worked as a mason when in school, and as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. Won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started an NGO.

 Former NAC member Aruna Roy is being blamed for MGNREGA, which offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. Critics hold that the jobs programme helped fuel inflation.

 The Ramon Magsaysay Award winner joined the IAS but quit to join her husband “Bunker” Roy in social work in Rajasthan.

 Figured in Time magazine’s 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.