Infirmity and old age have been addressed in political battles for old-age pensions and benefits for the ill, widows and orphaned children. However, the middle-class activist is often left without security of benefits or income. Financial support may or may not come from friends and well-wishers. Many work till they can, changing to softer aspects of public intervention – writing, training, conducting studies and so on. There is also a constriction to conform to stereotypical expectations. There are those who idealise the activist and are appalled that they should ever tire! I remember a friendly reporter telling me that politicians never tire and they keep such odd hours, implying that we should not tire either. I remember muttering that politicians do not camp on the road or wait on the whims and fancies of others, but command!

Exhaustion has to be dealt with over years of work. As I went along from day to day, the need for more time to think and reflect became urgent. My insistence very often to stop and think led me to evolve a space for sharing the learnings of many activists and to fill in the gaps – the School for Democracy. Since 2013-14, the School for Democracy has created space for the action-oriented to think, debate and plan.

The psychology of continual struggle, the inconvenience and erratic hours of living push many of us into spaces of either illness or withdrawal. We were once in Jantar Mantar for hours on end and the elderly were packed elbow-to-elbow in hundreds. Apart from the langar (a meal served free to all who visit) in the gurudwara and the occasional chai, there was no food. I recall a woman sitting patiently, clutching her tattered pouch, her fragile frame wedged into a tiny space. There were kiosks that sold food, but she could not afford even a cup of tea. Long hours of starvation are part of sit-ins and rallies. Crouching and adjusting to a small sitting space is a physical manifestation of poverty and marginalisation.

It is seldom realised that access to space is a privilege. There is anger with a democratic system that provides neither space for public action nor access to utilities where activists are gathered to protest. Activists face a running battle with the municipality for the provision of mobile toilets, tankers of drinking water and permission to pitch tents wherever they have gathered to protest. When I was an SDM in 1972-73, protests usually took place on the roads and lawns around Delhi’s India Gate. This went on till the protestors were pushed into the premises that housed the Jantar Mantar, located beside a small winding road close to Parliament. The Modi government, on the pretext of environmental violations, banned protests at Jantar Mantar. Ultimately, the MKSS filed a writ in the Supreme Court to get the space back, with limitations of time and restrictions.

“Am I right?” is another sword that hangs over the head of a conscientious activist wrapped in endless action. There is the fear that often arises from refining too much on moral choices, of becoming enmeshed in circular arguments, indulging in Hamletian procrastination. Such discussions need to be taken to the collective to contest cynicism and inaction.

While the collective is important, it has to make space for both individual expression, difference and dissent. Discussions of political correctness tend to gloss over basic cultural perceptions and differences. The urban-born activist comes from a background where work and home are clearly defined and boxed. Political commitment does not mix with the personal and the domestic. In rural India, the concerns overlap, and lines are not easy to draw. Most often sensitive issues arise out of different ways of understanding gender, caste and religion. Dissent is sometimes expressed through “irrelevant” emotions – anger, tears and angst. Exigencies of immediate action push sentiment and feelings away. We engage partially and turn a blind eye to the person. It is no surprise then that a friend with whom we fought a battle for rights suddenly sees release from misery only through identity politics and religious affiliation. For a collective to remain healthy, individual angst must be dealt with. Dealing with reactions may consume time, but they are an investment in solidarity and evolving an ideological constitutional commitment to equality, liberty and fraternity.

Women activists face gender inequality and patriarchy in many forms. This has particular reference to the ingrained social conditioning of masculinity, so fine-tuned and internalised that it needs a sensitive and reflective persistence to unpack. Unpacking masculinity, therefore, becomes a part of many important debates.

Vulnerability is considered a weakness and is not recognised by the average male. For most men introspection and self-assessment are not important and they do not accept weaknesses. Masculinity and vulnerabilities are now being discussed increasingly in activist meetings than elsewhere, but still leaves even a “powerful” woman like me at the edges, struggling to make colleagues give space for emotional expression.

Friction stemming from internalised masculinity is dismissive of anything that doesn’t fit into preconceived boxes. There is also the battle of agenda vs process. Male activists tend to be agenda-driven, whereas women activists are keener on processes and in looking at pluralities. It could even be said that male arguments tend to be linear, whereas female expression tends to be lateral and cyclical.

Sometimes the desire to be politically correct may overwhelmingly tilt an argument in favour of a process that may not reflect the situation on the ground. This is particularly true when there is a conflict between empowerment as an ideal and the reality on the ground. Two areas of social interaction – caste and gender – require careful handling. Faith and belief in traditional values are deeply entrenched and have their own architecture. It is very complex and the emotional response is also a political statement. The activists and change agents mistakenly believed that uniting the community on concerns of the poor, for example on “work and wages”, could build a strong enough understanding to oppose caste inequality. But it does not. We have not developed a discourse to deal with its presence in the communities we work for. Caste is often “social security”, despite its oppression and discomforts. Religion and social customs are the most difficult to challenge. My greatest friends in rural India agree to disagree when we discuss inter-caste marriages or even the freedom of women to choose a husband. I am happy to see that there is a generational difference now, and young women show acceptance of these changes; however, they do not have the courage to put them into practice.

Excerpted with permission from The Personal Is Political: An Activist’s Memoir, Aruna Roy, HarperCollins India.