A Conversation with Rooprekha Verma
By Nadeem Hasnain
Rooprekha Verma is formerly professor of philosophy and vice-chancellor of University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India. A commited and dedicated social activist for the past more than three decades, she is the founder-secretary of Saajhi Duniya (Shared World). She is a relentless fighter against religious bigotry and communalism, strong advocate of the rights of the weaker and marginalized sections of the Indian society especially women, minorities, and oppressed castes. Based in Lucknow, she is recognized as a prominent social activist of South Asia. In this interview, she spoke to Prof. Nadeem Hasnain:
What inspired you to become a social activist?
The Inequalities all around and subjugation of the marginalized classes. My mind and heart revolted against the acceptance of injustices and violence of various kinds and denial of basic rights to various categories like women, dalits, and minorities. Even the accepted patterns of the relationships between parents and children or between teachers and students seemed to be faulty and based on dominance. Restiveness at these things spontaneously turned me to social activism.
What commitment and vision drive your work?
The utopia of a world where all are equal in the sense of everyone having equal dignity of life, where each individual practically avails all human rights and equal citizenship, where respect or roles are not divided on the basis of gender, caste, colour or creed, and where no human relationship is based on dominance.
How do you balance social activism and your other ‘Lives’?
Frankly, I fail to maintain this balance often. My personal tasks are often suspended for harmfully long times; my social visits are curtailed, often inviting unhappiness from friends and relatives. My views invite displeasure many a times, spoiling personal warmth. I try to compensate and repair as much as possible. Success rates vary from case to case.
What has been your greatest learning as a social activist?
There have been several learnings:
- Plurality of faith, life-style and approach have to be respected. Homogeneity is both impossible and harmful;
- For social change, the worker has to learn to stand on the same footing as those whom she wishes to change. You cannot make your audience listen to you effectively if you speak as if you are on a higher pedestal and have some wisdom which they pitiably lack;
- The struggles of social change are long and complex and these demand lot of sacrifice of personal comforts and peace. One has to be mentally prepared to face failures and yet maintain hope. Also, eagerness to see the results of your efforts in your own life-time might kill you; one has to work in the hope that the future generations will see the results.
What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you respond to them?
That would be a long list. To cite a few only:
- To establish the credibility. There are sorts of organizations and activities in the name of social activism. In the initial years one faces the problem of proving credibility. Sincerity of work, transparency and standing despite risk prove your credibility.
- Status-quoists who have their vested interest in the continuation of the hierarchical, exploitative, and unequal social structures like patriarchy, caste system and militant nationalism are the biggest challenge. But, then, that is why work for social change is all the more needed. I have had my quota of hate mail and abusive discourses. The conflicts continue even today, Firm but patient rebuttals and continuation of work are the only remedies. Patience is hard to come. I am still learning.
- Non-performance by the state structures of justice is another big challenge. We have to confront non-cooperative, insensitive, inefficient and extremely harassing process of justice. Both, the costly and complex procedures as well as the patriarchal and communally prejudiced attitudes of the support systems make the search for justice many times more difficult. Continuous struggles, case-to-case fights and lobbying for better procedures and systems are the ways in which we have been responding .
- Mistakes by our fellow organizations and activists present another subtle but serious challenge. Solidarity between different organizations and activists is necessary for wider impact. But sometimes your fellow organizations embarrass you in many ways. Sometimes they highjack issues for their exclusive publicity and sometimes they work with extremely insufficient understanding of the issues and thus give wrong directions to the movement. For bigger causes, one has to ignore some of these actions and for some others, we try making corrections for better understanding and more appropriate directions. On any issue and in any situation, there will always be plurality of voices and motives. As far as voices are concerned we try to continue discourses on different issues, presenting critiques of the alternative approaches. Sometimes we agree to disagree. As far as impurity of motives is concerned, we try our best to ignore them.
Do you think Social activism can be ‘taught’? How do you keep the fire of your vision burning?
The latter part of the question first. I do not know. It (the fire of my vision) just burns. I am a sort of captive of this fire. There are moments of hopelessness. But then there is no option but to keep trying and keep proving that you are not dead.
About ‘teaching’ social activism, I think that if one refrains from applying this word to most of the NGOs which create themselves just for a paid occupation, social activism would automatically come by if there is fire to encounter the wrongs. However, even to recognize the wrongs and channelize the fire an understanding and critique of social and cultural structures is absolutely essential. (I disagree with those who deride all kinds of theorization in the context of social activism). This and the alternative remedies can be ‘Taught’ in the sense of being discussed and analyzed.
[Nadeem Hasnain is a Professor of Anthropology, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India.]
What a wonderful warm, humble and humane person, she does not speak from the pulpit even if she undertakes herculean tasks!
Yes, Ruhi. I love these lines: “For social change, the worker has to learn to stand on the same footing as those whom she wishes to change. You cannot make your audience listen to you effectively if you speak as if you are on a higher pedestal and have some wisdom which they pitiably lack”