Story of the MKSS: A Process of Peoples’ Political Mobilisation for Democratic Rights
The MAZDOOR KISAN SHAKTI SANGATHAN, (MKSS) is a People’s Organisation and part of the growing non-party political process in India.
A rough translation of the name is: “Organisation for the empowerment of workers and peasants.” As the name indicates, the MKSS works with the rural poor: workers and peasants from the central districts of the north western Indian state of Rajasthan. The MKSS was set up by the people of the area in 1990 to strengthen participatory democratic processes and to collectively fight exploitation. Formed on the basis of the twin slogans of justice and equality there was an immediate focus on satisfying the minimum needs of the family and the community, so that ordinary people could live their lives with dignity and participate as citizens with a sense of equality. Later, as the organization grew in strength and experience, its constituents began to see the links of their own local struggles with wider ongoing national or even global processes. The Right to Information struggle, for which the organization is best known outside, is one such example. However, the MKSS retains its commitment to broad based work at a local level, and it is therefore important to understand the organization and the role it sees for itself, in order to better perceive the context of a particular campaign.
This note will therefore first explain some of the emerging positions and structure of the organization, and then examine the MKSS and the Right to Information Campaign.
Ideological Positions and Organisational Structure
A People’s Organisation
The MKSS describes itself as a “people’s organisation”. In India today, there are a number of efforts outside Government, which vary from organisations of charity on one end of the spectrum, to non-party political organisations on the other. In between come the (foreign and Indian) funded; (large and small) development organisations. All these are clubbed under the descriptively deceptive category of “NGOs”.
The MKSS considers itself a political organisation, with an understanding of this term in its broadest connotation, including an examination of the norms for power sharing and distribution. The organisation has a commitment to challenge the inequality and inequity of distribution of power in the socio-political structure. The poor cannot get a greater share, unless they can understand and operate the political structure. This means operating the democratic process to their benefit.
A stated objective of working in the mainstream
It is therefore important that the MKSS work with issues that affect people and impact the mainstream, both politically and economically. The MKSS does not work in a tribal area, but with people who are part of a caste ridden society. The area reflects the socio-cultural ethos of the mainstream, and the organisation has to therefore address those issues. There are a range of issues related to equality and justice from communalism; dalit atrocities, caste factors in electoral politics; corruption; gender issues in a feudal society; human rights violations; to the co-option of development paradigms, in particular in the context of “economic liberalisation”. These are all concerns which affect large numbers of people in a similar manner all over the country. It is in this context that the work on transparency and right to information has been widely accepted and seen as an issue of empowerment and governance.
A non-party political organisation
As mentioned earlier, the MKSS is a non-party people’s organisation. It is an argued position within the MKSS, that in India today, solutions to the prevalent lack of ethics in governance will have to be sought in the context of people’s rights and responsibilities. The Indian Constitution says that the sovereignty of India vests in its people. The people have to understand that they are not merely vote banks, but share holders in the country’s future and have collectively, a right to decide for themselves the nature of their own development. We will have to evolve systems of control and accountability, whereby the elected representative can govern only in the interest of the collective, he or she represents. For this it is essential that the MKSS work with people to evolve modes by which political parties and their representatives are made constantly accountable to the people themselves.
Nevertheless, the fact of being unable to have the necessary impact on large spheres of mainstream decision making is a matter of concern. This is particularly true for organisations that concentrate on one or two issues, and do not work with the objective of the capture of State power. Questions which have arisen about using the space and energy generated by electoral politics have not been adequately answered.
A long term interest in basic electoral reform
The MKSS has therefore an interest in electoral reform, not merely in terms of changing the rules and regulations of electoral processes, but working for a change in the paradigm to participatory democracy, where the elected representative is controlled by the people and is directly accountable to them.
A local, independent organisation of peasants and workers
The MKSS is an organisation which directly addresses the issues of survival for the poor peasants and workers of an area roughly covering 5 tehsils in 4 districts. About 300,000 people live in the geographical area where the MKSS works. However, the MKSS is involved in larger ongoing processes and campaigns at a state and national level with an objective of helping these processes of participatory democracy spread and mature. While there are many people who contribute to MKSS efforts and activities on a voluntary basis, only a small number of people are involved with the MKSS on a full time, and day-to-day basis.
A belief in getting involved in all aspects of people’s lives
The poor have not had a chance to shape and express their ideas of an egalitarian society. The MKSS has given them a voice. The issues raised by the MKSS – including the Right to Information – have been ideas shaped by people who have been damned “illiterate and uneducated”. The MKSS believes that workers and peasants should not be limited in their battles to survival issues alone, where they are always on the fringes of policies decided by others. They must also aim to raise fundamental issues of governance and polity. In a functioning democracy, questions raised at a small, local level can and must impact the larger fabric of governance, because the governing principles are the same. It also seems clear that the Indian middle class is bankrupt of ideas, and is caught up in the mirage of consumerism.
Unlike an urban trade union, the MKSS has to be involved in all sorts of issues of empowerment and oppression that people may face. They cannot draw theoretical lines of concern. All collective issues have therefore to be taken up. They may be related to land, gender, health facilities, education, wages, employment, housing, communalism, market prices, common property issues, alcoholism and governance. The concern for human rights is fundamental to many of the struggles of the MKSS.
Collective leadership and decision making
The MKSS has believed in evolving a collective ethos – including collective decision making and collective leadership. It has been important to continually evolve systematic ways of resolving the question of leadership, not so much the perception within the MKSS, as those outside the organisation, where there is a popular notion of a single leader – normally from the middle class.
Towards a peoples understanding and a support structure
There is also a belief within the MKSS that ordinary people are the best placed to find answers for problems that concern them. There is recognition that there are many people in the rural areas who have been fighting lonely battles for justice, but have had no structural support. The immediate need therefore, was for such people to create a structure for themselves with their own priorities. Alliances also had to be formed, spanning different categories of people so that the plurality of concerns is recognised by all, while the priorities of the most disadvantaged are recognised as being primary.
Use of legal spaces
Progressive laws have to be used and the Constitutional structure invoked to expose the hypocrisy in the ruling power structures, in their policy, functioning, and implementation.
Redefining democratic modes and functioning
The immense power of democratic functioning and its severe limitations in the way it is practiced had to be practically demonstrated so that it made sense. Therefore, there has been an emphasis on the need to evolve more vibrant and appropriate democratic modes. The innovative and creative use of non-electoral democratic spaces has demonstrated how under used these modes and spaces have remained after the time of the independence movement.
Perception of the State and Civil Society
The MKSS has resisted the definition of its work being externally classified by various government and academic categories. It engages with development issues but is not a registered society – so superficially classified as an “NGO”. It engages with issues of labour, and has been in the process of fostering formation of labour unions for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers. However, the MKSS itself does not fall within the parameters of a labour union. It has had people stand for election at the panchayat level. It sees many of its activities as being political in nature, but it does not see itself as a political party. That is why it has said that it is a non-party people’s organization.
Amongst other things, it finds the classification and separation of State and non-State efforts as limiting. This includes the concept of the State being the perpetrator of all exploitation. The concept of the State being outside ourselves we felt, had to be perceptionally turned around. The State is ours, usurped by a ruling elite. Some of the slogans which have come out of struggles are indications of this changed perception.
`HAMARA PAISA- HAMARA HISAB!’ (Our Money and our Accounts’) and therefore `SARKAR HAMARE AAP KI…NAHIN KISI KE BAAP KI! (The State is ours not the inheritance of a feudal few)
Sources of Funds
The MKSS does not seek or accept institutional funding external (non Indian) or internal (Indian). All moneys raised for local activities including agitations have come from local residents. Activities and movements like the Right to Information movement, which cover a larger canvas have been supported by people from all over the country. The MKSS believes that the best way to reduce a dependence on funds is to keep expenditure as low as possible. Therefore the organisation spends very little money on infrastructure development for itself. It also feels that when individuals contribute personal funds to a cause there is a more organic relationship that is built up. The organisation has a small number of full-time workers who all draw the statutory minimum wage. Some of the money for their remuneration, and for travel to other areas, has come from personally raised funds from supporters and sympathisers, award money received by the organisation, and from the small economic enterprises the organisation runs in the area.
The MKSS runs some fair price shops in the area. These shops were set up with interest free loans raised from the people, which have been returned. Apart from providing good quality groceries at a reasonable price, each shop ensures the salary of one full time worker who works for the area as an activist.
Using funds received from external sources has been seen by the MKSS as a severe restriction in terms of political freedom of operation. At the theoretical level, it is not acceptable to us to receive foreign funds to fight battles with our own governments. There is a complex debate regarding the politics of inequality that underlie foreign funding. It is sufficient to state that we feel that there is a contradiction in receiving money from abroad to conduct political campaigns within our own country, when there is a democratic system in existence which we feel should be activated to exercise our rights, and influence policy formulation.
Funding from within the country, through an institutional source also involves questions relating to the agenda of the source of funding, and questions of who the organisation should be accountable to.
Ultimately, it is important for the MKSS’s own accountability and credibility to mobilise resources from amongst the people with whom it works. The most effective way of ensuring a basic accountability to the people, is for the people themselves to be the funders.
Lifestyles, and work ethics
Most of the people in the MKSS come from the local area, and from poor families. There are only two people who were from urban and privileged backgrounds at the time the MKSS was formed, and since then the preponderance of MKSS full timers have been drawn from the people of the area. There is an ideological commitment in the MKSS to try to match the lifestyle and work ethics with the community to which it belongs. The lifestyle in the MKSS is subjected therefore to the same restrictions and facilities that exist in the community around it. This is not to say that there are no additional facilities available for its use. However, thought is given to using only those facilities that it is felt are practical, and do not contradict with the basic working norms of the organisation.
An ideology defined through the peoples own words and action
Even the language of such an ideology must emerge from those who are seeking to bring about change.
It has been both a strength and a weakness, not to define a pre-set ideology. For the people it has been easier to understand and adjust to a theory that has evolved through their immediate needs, never seen in isolation and always related to larger political, social and other values in society.
For those of us who see the links before others do and also seek comfort in logically worked out world views within pre-defined “isms”, the non-conformity has denied comfort of working within an easily understood and accepted paradigm. But at the same level has been a challenge to balance the principles and values that underlie people orientated political ideologies, action and the contradictions that do, may arise from within the paradigm itself, or from happenings outside of it. It has of course made us sensitive to timing and action that will make the best use of opportunities.
Many of the strengths of the MKSS are also causes for constraints. There are two kinds of constraints that one cannot easily overcome. The first is the socio-political environment, which obviously is unavoidable. The other set of constraints comes out of the nature and structure of the organisation, and since this is a result of deliberate choices made, it is obvious that these constraints/weaknesses would only go if the choices were to change. Nevertheless we touch upon them below:
In the socio-political environment:
The discourse of the mainstream on the political system defines democracy in very narrow terms of casting votes once every 5 years, and guarantees accountability of elected representatives only in terms of voting people out in the next election. This narrowing down of the meaning of democracy has been of great advantage to the ruling elite. Despite the fact that now the elite has got a multi caste /class face, the moment privileges come, the character of the ruling class dominates. It has been essential therefore to define democracy in its broadest terms. The problem arises when the MKSS has to define its position about the electoral process itself. While it cannot deny the immense importance of it, it also cannot offer solutions or choices between candidates as they are today. This be-fuddles both the community and the MKSS. The MKSS has been trying to understand when, where and how, the other democratic processes the MKSS has been working on can converge with the electoral process.
The MKSS also has to work within the context of a colonial bureaucracy, which is largely inaccessible and accountable only to superior officers. Working till very recently, in secrecy (under the umbrella of the notorious Official Secrets Act – a problem for all of South Asia that was under British rule), and riddled by increasing amounts of corruption at all levels; the basic bureaucratic structure itself requires an overhaul. The Right to Information Campaign, (discussed in detail later) grew from a series of local struggles, into a national campaign, and eventually into a people’s movement that ensured the passage of a strong national Law. This is an example of how strongly rooted local struggles can eventually have a fundamental impact on the whole paradigm of governance. This potential for impact at a much wider level has been seen in the MKSS experience of being a part of a campaign for a National Employment Guarantee Act also.
The organisation has to work in the context of a social structure where caste relationships, in which untouchability and discrimination, and a hierarchy of status and other customs – dominate almost every aspect of life, and where caste lobbies have co-opted modern structures to further strengthen caste groupings. Feudal practices like “purdah” make gender relationships even more unequal than in other parts of India.
In Rajasthan a dominant feudal political history also leaves most people with a very shallow understanding of political issues.
In the organisational structure:
The size of the MKSS is small mainly out of choice, but also because of constraints of expanding without quality. The scale of operations demands immediate action, simultaneously in a number of areas with varying demands. Yet, the MKSS has a small number of full time workers, again out of both choice, and necessity. The choice lies in the fact that MKSS does not believe that the spread of the organisation is synonymous with the commitment to ideas or action. Yet the issue of scale always hangs unresolved.
The nature of the organisation which is not cadre based with an objective of capturing State power. Yet, an undefined boundary of structure has allowed for tremendous growth. As a result of this while the MKSS has a world view on many issues; its impact on the wider canvass is limited to only a few issues.
Modes, Models and Tools
Over a period of time there have been a number of modes of action have emerged which could, in different ways be used by others with similar objectives. However, there is a great danger in the idea that such modes which draw their strength from the creative response of people to particular sets of circumstances and the particular historical reality of the region, be packaged neatly as a “model” and be replicated easily elsewhere. The MKSS has always been wary of such packaging, and feels that the strength in sharing of experiences comes from the stories of people’s struggles, and the learning from the complexities of such struggles. Similarly, the processes used we feel, are far more relevant to others, than the specifics of a methodology. There are nevertheless some universally important issues that result in a changed public perception based on the way they are interpreted. What can be learnt from the experiences of others is therefore sometimes a mode of struggle, sometimes a questioning of what is considered an axiomatic truth, and sometimes it is the minute examination of the layers of a basic issue. Given below is an example of each one of these experiences which have been perceived by many outsiders as “tools”.
Right to Information
The Right to Information Campaign was born out of a poor people’s need to survive. The need has been expressed and demands made many times before, but this time it was both seen as a fundamental right of all citizens and as a right for survival for the poor. The need for this right, transparency of all public operations including, but not limited to the operations of the government, has enabled the MKSS to communicate with a large number of people. That a government or any institution dealing with public life should be accountable to the people has been accepted as a primary democratic principle as well as crucially important for fighting corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power. It has also delineated the responsibilities of the MKSS itself, vis-a-vis the people.
“Jan Sunwais” or Public Hearings
The mode of public hearings is not new, but the village based ‘Jan Sunwai’ as an open democratic platform to verify information and entitlements was a breakthrough in people’s action. The MKSS has used it with people to share information, and examine the validity and details of official records. The Public Hearings have been both social audits of work done and a kind of forum for ascertaining the (truth) about the nature of democratic functioning at the most tangible and immediate level: the village panchayat. It has allowed for the expression of genuine people’s opinions and has empowered them, leading to an understanding of both the machinations of corruption and the way it can be fought.
Control over prices (exposing the “Free market”)
The MKSS has fought the encroaching and crippling domination of the so called “free market” at the only level that it can make an immediate impact on people’s lives, by running fair price grocery shops. These shops began with the financial support of the people themselves, to impact the prices of commodities at the local market. The tremendous reaction of shopkeepers against the shops and the popular support from consumers has allowed the community to understand methods of exploitation in price and quality, and the kind of price manipulations which were taking place in the name of the free market. The shops have also provided the MKSS a forum to communicate with the small urban centres from which they are otherwise isolated.