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The Murder Of Dr. Kalburgi Signals The Death Of Free Speech, Reasoning & Dissent In India

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By Arati Nair

The murder of Dr. M. M. Kalburgi, a renowned rationalist thinker and ex-Vice Chancellor of Hampi University, in broad daylight underscores the festering culture of intolerance gaining perpetuity in the India of today. Dr. Kalburgi was quite vocal in his condemnation of idol worship and fuelled the ire of the Lingayat community in particular through his staunch views on Hinduism and its origin. What is even more alarming, following his death, is the audacity of certain religious groups that vouch for a killing spree on social media, going so far as to name the next victim too. This incident is eerily similar to past instances of scholars like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare being targeted by hardliners for soldiering against blind beliefs and propagating reasoned thinking.

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For a democracy bereft of the essential ethos, strangling free thought and stifling dissent becomes commonplace. The practice of exterminating individuals who question the sanctity of faith and its myriad rituals sets a dangerous precedent for the enlightened new generation. When Perumal Murugan denounced his role as an author, following widespread protests against his works by the Kongu Vellala Gounder community in Tamil Nadu, he inadvertently gave in to the hegemonic demands of the group. Alternatively, he could have done little else as the right to freedom in India is more selective than fundamental.

With ideologues like Nripendra Misra, Ajit Doval, P.K. Mishra, affiliated to the RSS, as policymakers in the Modi sarkar, it seems imminent that inflamed passions against contrarian ideas are bound to burst free. Certain right wing groups have become increasingly active as their ideology forms the bedrock of the ruling dispensation. Political parties usually steer clear of the communal livewire, leaving agitational tactics to fringe elements, for vote-bank gains and this erodes the secular credentials that our nation stands for. But, religious fanaticism curbing free speech has been a feature of our illustrious democratic tradition even before independence. Successive governments run by the UPA and the NDA silently endorsed all such protests. So, both are equally to blame for the present scenario.

Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1927 after widespread protests by Muslims in India, following the publication of ‘Rangila Rasul‘, a controversial book concerning the marriage of Prophet Mohammad. Thus began the ‘ban’ syndrome in India with books, films, paintings and plays being banned for daring to overstep the diktats of one religion or the other. Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, M.F. Hussain, Wendy Doniger and Perumal Murugan have all been casualties of a stifling discourse on unilateral thinking.

The Indian law does not confer absolute freedom of speech and expression on its citizens but allows reasonable restrictions on grounds of national security, decency and morality, incitement to an offence etc. However, these do not curtail the right of any person to express an opinion based on rationalism or scientific deduction. The ruling by the apex court in the Maneka Gandhi case (1978) is pertinent in this regard as it provides citizens with the right to express themselves, unrestricted by geographical barriers, and share their opinions without fear. More recently, the quashing of Section 66A of the IT Act further lends credence to the higher judiciary’s attempts to safeguard individual opinion and free thinking.

While bans may emerge as potent tools to safeguard the feelings and beliefs of a select group, the murder of dissenting intellectuals begets a terrifying trend of silencing discordant voices. India has not yet evolved to honour different opinions, as evident from the killing of three academicians within a span of two years.
But has their elimination muzzled free speech?

Narendra Dabolkar’s campaign against fraudulent superstitious practices bore fruit in 2013 when, after his death, the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act was passed in Maharashtra. Govind Pansare’s demise increased the sale of his books, signifying greater public support for his ideas against social wrongdoings. Dr. Kalburgi is the latest martyr and his teachings too will not be in vain. It can only be hoped that the perpetrators of all three crimes be put behind bars at the earliest.

Every faith propagates the doctrine of peaceful coexistence. Our holy books too contain varying ideologies interpreted differently by different schools of thought. A mature debate on these distinct features could further enrich our religious legacy. The extremism propagated in the garb of religious righteousness is the means for socio-political dominance by a fanatical faction. The larger populace though, supports loud voices and celebrates differences.

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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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