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Teesta And Javed – 13 Years Post Gujarat Riots, The Two People We Owe A Lot To

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By N. P. Ashley:

In one of those youthful, angst ridden days of social work, Javeed Alam referred Javed Anand’s name to me some time in November 2006, sitting in the cafeteria of the then CIEFL, Hyderabad. I hadn’t heard that name.

I had requested a meeting with Javeed to give shape to the work against Muslim fundamentalism and extremism in Kerala, a phenomenon, that seemed to be taking dangerous proportions in Kerala then (the horrors of the Marad Hindu massacre and many other things were signalling something ominous). Islamophobia and Islamism seemed to make the macro majority of Muslims invisible. Muslims were torn between Bushs and Ladens of the time. Some of the Muslim organizations in Kerala – the sunni groups, the Mujahid groups and a section of the Muslim league (C T Abdurahim, the chief architect of Dayapuram educational and cultural centre, provided the Islamic theoretical foundation against Islamism), were very keen on disowning the micro-minority of criminal elements that claimed their existence to strange and dangerously ahistorical readings of Islam, getting the macro-majority of the community involved precisely by claiming to do what they were, as done for Islam. In this “Not in our name” assertion by the otherwise silenced majority, I, a confused student and concerned citizen, needed to know who could give some guidance. Javeed Alam said that Javed Anand, Teesta Setalvad’s husband, has done amazing work in fighting Muslim fanaticism.

Picture Credit: K. Ramesh Babu
Picture Credit: K. Ramesh Babu

I went back and googled the name. He was the secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy, with Javed Akhtar as President. His articles were sophisticated in argumentation, strong in ethical concerns and lucid in presentation. I took to his phrase “Jihad Against Terrorism” rather instantly. He looked like the best person to inaugurate Dayapuram Stage for Humanitarian Activism, a wing of Dayapuram launched to provide a stage for those who believed in inclusivism and egalitarianism. When I spoke to him on the phone, he readily agreed to come, in his fast and engaging voice.

Javed Anand arrived at Calicut Airport with a bandaged hand and spectacles propped up on his forehead. The coolness that gait communicated was not totally in sync with the flame in the eyes. He spoke of the necessity of secularism, human rights and democracy at the meeting, repeating how the absence of any one of these lead to huge ethical issues, quoting historical examples. When asked by the students why he would be the Secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy and not People for Secular Democracy, he said: “There are non Muslims who argue that Islam is not compatible with secular democracy. There are Muslims who argue that secular democracy is unIslamic. We believe this formulation to be historically wrong and ethically flawed. So the best negation of it is naming our very collective Muslims for Secular Democracy, make it our very being”.

A couple of months later Teesta Setalvad came to Dayapuram to give keynote address at the educationists meet for communal harmony that we organized. She spoke about KHOJ – her marvellous project to spread the message of communal harmony through historical examples of hundreds of years of co-living. KHOJ attempts to get out of the perils of colonialist historiography and its vertical division of the society into Hindu and Muslim by bringing out horizontal connections as the norm of social interaction through situations, data and examples, all rolled into stories and sometimes, as hearty practices. It was not the fiery activist we saw that morning but a concerned and worried Indian activist-educationist. I was awed by the fact that a couple of years before the Muslim genocide of Gujarat in 2002, Teesta had published a number of stories about the dangerous situation in Gujarat. Reading them post the genocide sent chills down my spine. It was not the prophetic nature of reportage but her commitment to the cause of India that made me think of the value of courageous and selfless social work.

I went to meet Javed in their house in Juhu, Nirant. I was familiar with the address as it was the address of Communalism Combat, their magazine. The independent house in heavy security, with Teesta’s father, the iconic jurist and longest serving Attorney General of India, M.C. Setalvad’s name written outside on the white wall, didn’t give any sense of congestion of the prime locality. Whoever has seen that house would want to smile off the current accusation that they are alleged of corruption of one and a half crore rupees. In any case, Javed spoke to me about the necessity of defeating Muslim fanaticism continuously because it is misogynistic, elitist and destructive. In the discussions he kept bringing the constitution of India as a reference point to hold on to. My academic background refused to buy such simple formulations: “You are speaking as though the Constitution of India is the last word in human rights in India”. He didn’t smile: “Show me a document that goes beyond Indian constitution in human rights. Then we can talk”. I couldn’t. I still can’t.

Javed invariably had amazing replies and observations : when secular liberals were attacked in a meeting in Calicut, Javed asked whether there was any proof of Islamists fighting for justice for the Muslim victims in riots. They use such instances to grab political power. The cases of victims are fought by these so called secular liberals. While talking about Dalits and Muslims he said to me: “After the Babri Masjid was demolished, Indian Muslims suddenly discovered that there were Dalits in India”.

A couple of years after knowing him, I requested if he could help in bringing Javed Akhtar to Dayapuram. When he confirmed the visit promptly, he added: “I will also come but my ticket will be on me”. The scene was clear to me. Javed Akhtarsaab must have said yes on the condition that Javed Anand accompanies him to Calicut. But he didn’t even tell me that. Of course, we didn’t let him pay for his ticket in addition to all that he was doing, but there was much to learn in the offer to spend ones time, energy and money for a social cause.

I heard the energetic Javed sad only once: this was after the 26/11 attacks. When I called, he was returning from the funeral of Hemant Karkare. “Such a fine officer we lost”, the voice almost lamented. Immediately, he went on to organize demonstrations against terrorism in Mumbai. Even in the middle of cases, I saw photos of Javed organising a meeting against the horrors of the ISIS in Iraq. I wondered how he gets the energy to keep fighting injustice and cruelty so consistently.

If, for argument’s sake, we agree that the 64 cases that Teesta filed in the Gujarat genocide are all politically motivated and should be rubbished, and suppose we erase them totally, who should be held responsible for about 2000 murders, many more rapes and instances of looting? If one has killed 5 people, we are talking about 400 murderers. How inefficient is such a police force that can’t catch any of those murderers? Or think of this situation: somebody who a certain police agency names a criminal or a terrorist gets killed in an encounter. Later another agency or another officer establishes that it was a fake encounter staged for whatever reasons. Inevitably, a number of people get implicated and later each of them get exonerated and the case dies out. Either the officials responsible should be able to prove how the killed individuals were dangerous beings who deserved to be finished then and there, that is at least technically admissible, or, if it indeed was a fake encounter, there has to be people responsible who should be treated as nothing short of cold blooded criminals. But a fake encounter without any responsible official, the murder without any murderer, signals to an awful ethical vacancy in the life of a nation-state. A whirlpool that will devour its people and itself. Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “If an injustice is committed in a city and if not a single person questions it before the sun set, it is better that the city is burned down by the lightning”.

Teesta and Javed are among the people who demonstrate why India has its claims to be a fair, humane and efficient conglomerate of people. Hindus of India owe Teesta a huge deal for her courageous reminders about the butchering in their name, just like Muslims of India are indebted to Javed for his strategic and energetic conceptualization and coordination in the attempts to disclaim dangerous criminals who parade in the name of Islam. We cannot let them down without letting down ourselves. We cannot ignore them being hunted down without erasing some questions that (should) bother us about ourselves.

Now as another February 28 arrives, the day Gujarat genocide began, a day that has been upheld as the memory day for the loss of life, justice and peace that communalism inflicts, these are two people to turn to. As I go over the nightmarish images of the blood-soaked Rafida Ahamed Banna groping in nothingness next to the butchered husband Avijit Roy in Dhaka, theirs are of course models to reach after for hope and endurance.

N. P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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