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When Injustice Isn’t Reported But Govt Heroics Are: Being An Ethical Journalist In Chhattisgarh

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By Surabhi Singh:

With the announcement of Salwa Judum-2 preparing to launch itself with slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma’s son Chhavindra Karma at the helm of affairs, the political storm brewing in my state, is all set to intensify with cataclysmic velocity. The spate of arrests, surrenders, encounters and murders have all been part of my journey as a journalist in Chhattisgarh, where not a day goes by when the violence reeking of injustice across the forests and hills, does not make its mark on newsprint. In the face of extreme farmer suicides, authoritative hegemony perpetrating inhuman atrocities on tribal rights, and increasing rural migration, the denial of Marxism propagated violent struggle within the state has been a long standing route to power in the state.

Photo Credit: Joe Athlaly

Back home, we prepare for the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by stuffing our jungles with an unprecedented swarm of security personnel. The arrest of tribal girls, boys, men, and women continues. The arrests, their advertisements, the corroborated statements, the farmer suicides, suicides of CRPF jawans, the missing land pattas and (trafficked) human beings, the destroyed crops, the dried up wells and ponds, the missing funds, wages, vacant school buildings, Lok Suraaj Abhiyaan are all gawking with authority at us.

For the mainstream media, it has become a double edged sword. The news, as it reaches our desks is almost always loaded with state authoritarian culpability. The stories are reeking of government heroics, their almost unbelievable humanitarian charity, the announcements of the pro stimulus projects, inauguration of schemes, buildings, roads, schools and the unbelievable amount of money allocated for these is almost cathartic in its approach. The entire state machinery is riding high on the streamlined, articulately quoted headlines that come to our doorsteps each morning. So, categorically, there are no farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh, and hardly a few cases of human trafficking. Surrendered Naxals claim rape and voyeurism by their senior cadres, schools and colleges have good results, land pattas and MNREGA wages are paid on time, and tribals are exploited by Maoists.

So what happens when these carefully articulated facts and headlines are challenged by some shocking revelations from other sources, profoundly banking on the first-hand accounts of victims who have been subjected to inhuman atrocities perpetrated by the forces? Where does that leave a journalist with a conscience? Do we get the leverage to express our doubts, without justifiably putting our own legitimacy at risk? How does an ethical journalist keep her job, without crossing over the lines of dictations?

As a media person who has seen a terrifying war building up in the neighbouring district of Bastar for the last decade or so, it has become extremely difficult to stay neutral or simply present the facts as they happen. The truth is, almost every news of arrest, surrender, and encounter killing that reach our desks, is misinterpreted, quoted and unquoted through a volley of legal and political colours. The recent case of the arrest of three minor tribal girls and later their overnight incarceration in Kukanar Thana, followed by them being sent to Rajnandgaon, has resurrected the poignant question of whether the media has a role to play in establishing social order, or whether we are simply observers and chroniclers of a skewed history.

After it was apparent that the Sukma Police had flouted the essential Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, by detaining minors, I contacted Additional Superintendent of Police Santosh Singh. His remarks were, “The girls were picked up from Kormigondi forests where a Naxal police encounter has just ended. And the girls had been preparing food for the Naxals for three days. The girls have confessed to their crimes. Every Naxal is a simple villager after he hides his weapons.

According to Isha Khandelwal of Legal Aid Group Jagdalpur, “After the family members of the girls tried to meet them outside the Kukanar thana for one whole night, they were denied the rights. They were also beaten black and blue by the personnel, causing grievous injuries to unarmed women.” ASP Santosh Singh added, “It’s a common practice that Naxals send women to gherao (surround) thanas after the arrest of their aides.” In other words, beating women and children is fully justified since they were “sent by Naxals.

Isha Khandelwal is helping the parents file their bail petitions. Even as this piece comes out, five more tribals have been similarly arrested in Dantewada and booked under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 149 (unlawful assembly), 323 (wrongful restraint) and 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to cause damage) of the IPC and Sections 25 and 27 of the Arms Act. Almost always these Sections are same as if universally drafted for all tribals found wandering or running from the forces in the jungles, the very jungles that are their homes, workplaces, their only abode.

The story runs, the statements reach. There is no weighing scale, no measure of right or wrong. In the midst of these ethical misgivings and official statements, journalists like me, stare at a future hounded with moral dilemma which scathingly reminds us each time, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu.

The question is, do we have the leverage to make the choice?

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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