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Why I Found Shashi Tharoor’s Speech To Be ‘Reasonable, Effective, And Loyal’

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By Amrita Douglas

By now, everyone who cares knows that in the few short minutes he had to address the Oxford Union, Shashi Tharoor condensed decades of academic research into a spirited argument for Britain to pay reparations for the misdeeds of its former Empire – and threw in quite a few jokes as well, a winning formula that carried the motion by a vote of 185 to 56. The debate was set up for an identity-based clash, pitting Tharoor, the Jamaican High Commissioner in London, Ndombet Assamba, and Ghanaian economist Dr George Ayittey against Richard Ottaway, former chair of Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee, John MacKenzie, a Scottish historian who edited ‘Studies in Imperialism’ for the Manchester University Press, and William Roger Louis, a Texan historian who served as editor-in-chief of The Oxford History of The British Empire, and was awarded a CBE for his efforts. In the fracas that ensued, it was nearly forgotten that the three men of British descent lost the debate.

shashi tharoor
Image source: Australia India Institute/Flickr

But the laudatory and viral recirculation of Tharoor’s speech, first seen on The Oxford Union’s YouTube channel in India and across the post-colonial diaspora, caused such alarm that a variety of opponents unmasked themselves rather quickly in the press, at least one debater bringing his arguments to bear well outside the chamber, and all trotting out familiar old canards about the purported gifts of Empire – the English language, the railways, the unification of India amid the gruesome sacrifice of Britons perishing from tropical diseases in the service of elevating the peoples of the world- just as if they hadn’t just heard Tharoor demolish those very arguments.

Most curiously, well placed Indian columnists came up with the lamest objection of all, and managed to do so without a trace of irony. It was our own fault for infighting, they said, and we lost our land because we were so engaged in squabbling amongst ourselves that we were taken unawares. Cue the Prime Minister stepping in, to laud the spontaneous eruption of seemingly near universal support for ideas whose time had come, followed by a swift public scolding from the CPI party chief in purdah on some other pretext.

In the wake of the debate, what most worries British and Indian opponents of reparation alike is the Koh-I-Noor diamond. The alarm has gone up that Modi wants it back when he visits London later this year, though Tharoor wasn’t seen to mention it in the popular video. Where the diamond did appear the very day before the debate, on the other hand, was at the Opening of Parliament, situated in its present perch, more or less in the position of the Queen’s Third Eye in the so-called Imperial Crown, even as HM set forth the policy objective for the coming year of limiting immigration to her sceptered isle. This diamond, now a mere one seventh of its original size, cut down the better to glitter for its new owners, clearly occupies a strongly polemical position, where it stands for might being not only right but sacrosanct. The ad hoc problem brought forth by the opponents of reparation is however that they wouldn’t know who to return it to, given the mess they made themselves of the nations involved at the time, never mind Andhra, where it came from.

In truth, Tharoor has taken on the monumental job of redefining in full view of the media what it means to be a reasonable and effective member of the Opposition, and how to be loyal to the country on the whole at the same time. This is new and unfamiliar territory for CPI members and supporters. Patriotism seems to be a mirage that has eluded the same folks lately, as they imagined a worldwide resistance to the idea of Narendra Modi, vilifying him abroad even as the massive mandate for a change of government took shape at home. Perhaps this is the leader we need to redefine what it means to inherit the true legacy of the CPI.

For the flip side of this argument, read Jonathan Old’s Why I Think Shashi Tharoor’s Speech Is Populist, Oversimplified And Ignores Problems.

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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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