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A Day In The Life Of A Satyagrahi: How Volunteerism Mirrors Reality

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By Nitin V George:

Coalgate was stupefying enough for me to watch Kala Pathar – the Yash Chopra classic about coal miners – again. In the film, a catharsis seeking Amitabh Bachchan tells Rakhee, the resident mining town doctor, “Pain is my destiny and I can’t avoid it.”

Funny that: Pain and Destiny.

I started wondering if pain could be written into someone’s destiny, if some in this world were destined to be ‘sufferers’. And then how do you escape destiny if you were born into a war torn middle India Adivasi house? If prison would be your initiation into adulthood, if the women in your community would be seen as ‘easy’ hence drooled over, groped, raped; if dispossession would be the turnstile for your community’s entry into the media gaze.

jansatyagrah

As a facilitator on the recently concluded Group Exposures to the Jan Satyagraha and Narmada Bachao Andolan, I had to suspend at times the fury that builds inside, at justice delayed, injustice, juris imprudence.

To wear a hat with mirrors which I could hold up to my volunteers to reflect, learn, get challenged and to find it in themselves to partake in that experience is great. To actually find a whole community of tribals whose traditional headgear is a hat with mirrors is blurring the line between metaphor and real life. Brilliant! And yet that’s what I found myself doing.

The Walk:
Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you…

“The government is for us? We don’t want to create any trouble. But what should be ours is not given to us; it is like they’ve forgotten us”

…If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

“Land is everything; it is our identity, our roots, our entire life, where will we go, if there is no land”  

Since Independence, generations of rural poor and marginalised farmers have been promised land reform. But what we see across India is the systematic enclosure of what was earlier a common terrain through reversal of land ceilings, mining, SEZs, deregulation of coastal areas.

The Jan Satyagraha was a master class in non-violent direct action where communities across India walked 350 kilometres to raise attention towards land as a key asset as well as the prevailing conditions of landlessness and poverty.

I spent three days in the run up to the Jan Satyagraha wondering if we would walk. Having to spend an entire day inside a tent listening to Jyotiraditya, the Scindia of Gwalior, talk about his emancipation plan for some tribal regions by re-opening abandoned mines was hair-raising. The rural development minister Jairam Ramesh trying to worm his way out by appeasing, pleading, parenting the 100000 people to not jam the streets of Delhi was amusing.

So we walked. And we talked. I listened.

Through historical cities, mofussil towns, farmland, and the Chambal, sleeping by the highway, singing, dancing, getting to know how, 50,000 people walking to Delhi to whisper into the Sarkaar’s ears that their Raj was found, proved to be an uplifting experience.

I interacted with tribal communities across India, who by choosing to walk, were re-writing their destiny and overcoming the inheritance of loss by playing a different power game; the politics of reclaiming, of non-violence, of challenging hegemony by turning themselves in; the politics of Satyagraha.

The Jan Satyagraha community tempo-kitchens were preparing meals for about 60,000-70,000 people on the move. The grains and finances contributed by scores of villages: well-wishers over a period of a year. Every town we walked to, locals would shower us with flowers, cheers and warm wishes- instruments to fight a Parliament, a system.

And while one Jan Satyagraha inched towards Delhi fighting for land, another set of Satyagrahis had just done the opposite. They were standing, immovable from where they first stood; in neck deep waters.

The Submergence

For 17 days, the ousted of the Omkareshwar dam stood in the waters that threatened to surround their village Goghul Gaon demanding proper rehabilitation as well as a lowering of levels of the dam water.

For some the Narmada Bachao Andolan is a failed movement. Perhaps from the metros, from a lens that seeks all sides of a story, perhaps for those who want objectivity. I believe in the Narmada. And the Andolan.

So this is what we did. We sat and ate with the community at the site of the Jan Satyagraha. Spoke to the ladies who braved the rising waters, blistered, bitten and proud about what it meant to defend their land. We went to other villages in the upstream and downstream of the Omkareshwar and Maheshwar dams. We visited Dharaji, an old pilgrim site now tottering amongst mud mounds, rising waters, police posts and the prized memory of a submerged sacred 50 foot waterfall.

“It [standing in the water] did hurt. But this pain is less than seeing my village submerge.”

A signboard marks the entry to Goghul Gaon — it bars any government official from entering the village without permission. I wondered how stopping entry of officials would have worked. After 17 days in the water, the Satyagraha in Khandwa was called off after the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government accepted all the demands. [Harda protesters were arrested and forcefully removed from the water].

Spending time in NBA has given me insights into how to leverage systemic positions to a campaign’s advantage. That to reclaim rights, one’s appetite for conflict needs to increase. That one needs to create a ‘living’ politics — that it arises from the needs and challenges of daily life, is easily understood and that everyone needs to share that understanding of strategies and tactics.

The Group Exposure to NBA has planted the seeds of a new politic in my young volunteers. To be able to see a movement for rights and justice struggle against the dominant narrative of India’s emergence as a superpower has not only inspired them to look beyond their own sometimes self limiting stories of who they are, but what they can achieve and who they can become. They have decided to raise awareness about the village of Dharaji which will be under submergence soon and have formed a group – V for Dharaji. Resistance comes in different sizes and age groups.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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