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Getting Over A Colonial Hangover: Need For More Reform

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By Fawaz Shaheen:

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 has now come into force. Its merits and demerits continue to be debated, and the events of the past few months have been such that the entire debate has centered wholly and purely around laws relating to sexual offences. Without belittling the importance of this issue, I would like to draw attention to another section of criminal laws in India that needs urgent reform but has been completely ignored by both the legislature as well as the court of public opinion. This includes the entire legacy of British colonialism which we have retained in the name of ‘National Security’, in particular Section 124-A or the law relating to ‘sedition’ in the Indian Penal Code.

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Nearly two years ago, when the campaign for the release of Dr. Binayak Sen — who was arrested on charges of ‘sedition’ — gathered momentum, there was a great furor and many sections of the media and civil society demanded the repeal of Section 124-A. The then Law Minister, Veerappa Moily, had also conceded that the law needed revision. However, after Dr Binayak Sen was released on bail, the clamor calmed down and there has been no activity by the government since. Every time a known figure is booked under this section, such as in the case of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, or to some extent the Allahabad-based journalist Seema Azad, a section of the media makes noise. But apart from a dedicated band of Human Rights activists, no one seems to be too bothered.

The truth is that we should all be bothered. To understand this requires us to view this issue with a bit of perspective.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted in 1860, close after the remarkable events of 1857, popularly regarded as a revolt and widely considered to be the first battle of independence. Although the IPC, like any other criminal law, contains a comprehensive catalogue of criminal behaviour, the shadow of 1857 lies heavy on it. It contains many provisions specially designed to quell dissent, such as the provisions relating to waging war against the state and sedition.

While some of these may be honestly justified on grounds of National security, the language of some is such that by no stretch of imagination can they be acceptable to a free society. Take 124-A (sedition) for instance. It criminalises anything that in anyway “…excited disaffection towards, the Government established by law…”. Almost without exception every freedom fighter who we today remember with reverence was at one time or another charged with this section. Gandhi’s witty quip when he was sentenced to six years under this very section, that affection cannot be regulated by the law, aptly highlights the absurdity of this law.

Indeed, it could be argued that the very point of a democratic setup is to allow people to ‘excite disaffection’ and regulate the reigns of power. Even Nehru as Prime Minister called the law “… most objectionable and obnoxious…” in Parliament. It is a wonder then, that this provision was retained at all.

But the reality is that it was retained. What is even more terrifying is the fact that with it was retained the mentality that created it. The problem is not any single law or specific provision, but an entire colonial mindset that frowns upon dissent and difference.

In any democratic setup, there are bound to be people with different opinions, people who disagree with the status quo. The purpose of democratic politics is to reconcile these differences, to make sure that every spectrum of opinion is provided space.

But when a system begins to be irritated by dissent, when it chooses to do away with disagreement, democracy is perverted and the seed of colonialism is laid. In independent India, the State has shown many evidences of this tendency. It is not just laws within IPC, but a host of special provisions like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), TADA, POTA, more recently Unlawful Activities Prevention Act(UAPA), and many others which demonstrate a marked intolerance to freedom of expression.

Wherever the State has met complicated questions, be it in Manipur or Kashmir or in areas like Kudankulam or movements like Narmada Bachao, the answer has been force over dialogue. It is in these grey areas that the strength of any democracy is tested, and it is here that we have repeatedly failed.

It is high time for the Indian State to overcome its colonial hangover. A good way to start could be by de-colonialising our criminal justice system.

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  1. Spoo Rthi

    “In any democratic setup, there are bound to be people with different opinions, people who disagree with the status quo. The purpose of democratic politics is to reconcile these differences, to make sure that every spectrum of opinion is provided space.”
    These are the lines that I most connected with!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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