Aruna Roy should have needed no introduction, but as often happens with real heroes, they manage to be everywhere and invisible all at once.
Perhaps the best way to describe what Aruna does is to say she is our foremost constitutional bodyguard: a member of the elite fiercely committed to delivering its ideals to those deprived of them.
And at Algebra, she spoke with her customary candour and courage about why civil society matters, and her greatest fear in today’s India.
“In every democracy you need space for difference, dissent, for disagreement. The moment you outlaw dissent from a society, you’re finished,” she vehemently argued.
Perhaps our greatest reason to fear as members of civil society, then, she said, is the systematic outlawing of physical space for protest.
“Jantar Mantar is now out of bounds. The most marginalised of this country; people fighting to receive Rs 200 a month as pension after a lifetime of work, are told to book Ramlila grounds at Rs 50,000 to be allowed to protest. Can a democracy run if you give no space for protest?”
She spoke passionately about the space the street – the hard, physical reality of public streets – hold in a country’s democratic foundation.
“The street is the people’s parliament. We walked the streets for 11 long years, talked to activists and ordinary citizens and media and politicians and the elite on these streets, to create the RTI act,” she said.
Aruna is that extraordinary mix of intellect, integrity and grassroots action who doesn’t just talk ideas, she has put them into revolutionary practice, so it is impossible to encapsulate this riveting conversation here, but perhaps her answer to an audience question put it best.
“What should we do to help?” asked a member of the audience.
“Gandhiji said it better than I can,” Aruna replied. “Seva, sangharsh, aur nirmaan. Seva – charity – give anything you can to those who have less than you. Sangharsh – protest – where something needs to be fought, start the fight. And creatively dealing with issues – nirmaan – find creative solutions to issues.”
Algebra, the Arts & Ideas Club brings together a fellowship of people who believe great cities are built not just on infrastructure but a life of the mind; who understand robust and liberal societies need the oxygen of great conversation and nuanced thinking.
At a time when we are increasingly surrounded by rage and noise, Algebra is a live and continuous space for people to come together for a genuine exchange of ideas and exposure to issues; where new seeds could be sparked, fresh perspectives formed, and intelligent connections made.
Algebra – the Arts and Ideas Club is designed to host almost 35 engagements over the year with topline thinkers and practitioners from almost every discipline that impacts human affairs: politics, economy, environment, spirituality, cinema, medicine, science, technology, music, media, literature, the arts, sports, people’s movements, et al.