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Dissent Is The Spirit Of Democracy, What Does The Government Gain By Crushing It?

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By S.M. Faizan Ahmed:

1_1‘Anti-national’ is a paradox of the ‘national self’, a negative from which we develop a positive picture of the latter that holds true in diverse narratives. Constitutionally, a citizen is a self that is independent and remains equal before all others as far as exercising our fundamental rights is concerned. Free speech is one of them and Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President, was just exercising that. In JNU, a meeting was called on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was hanged on circumstantial evidence to satisfy the ‘collective conscience of the society’ as the Supreme Court of India ruled. It would be unrealistic to imagine no Kashmiri presence in such an event and would be even more unrealistic to expect their silence on such an occasion. The country should feel proud of having a university like JNU, where politics is taken perhaps more seriously than any other university in India. It is a university known for its openness, free thinking, debates, critical culture, and assertion of rights and for justice, where almost all marginal voices find a vent. Just like anti-national is the paradox of national self, margin remains the paradox of the centre/mainstream.

Kanhaiya Kumar, being the youth leader of JNUSU, practiced nothing unconstitutional and uttered nothing seditious. JNU is his constituency and students voted him to be the leader of the students union. One of the controversial slogans was “Bharat ki barbaadi tak jung rahegi, jung rahegi”. Those having observed protests in Kashmir valley would raise no eyebrows at such a slogan because for many Kashmiris it is their everyday tussle with India. Not long before, in India, we were familiar with similar slogan regarding Kashmir i.e. “Doodh maangoge, kheer denge; Kashmir maangoge, cheer denge” raised by the right wing forces to claim their rights over the land they consider an integral part of the nation. Officially, all political opinions are allowed but in practice, there are laws and claws that suppress some voices or the other. I see no difference in both the slogans as both of them are in bad taste. If the first one is seditious then the second one is no better.

As for students charged with sedition, the government needs to consider a few things: that (a) exercising one’s fundamental right is no crime (b) the event and the slogan raising were peaceful and within the campus boundary of JNU (c) dissent is the spirit by which a critical culture survives and a healthy political dialogue is possible (d) crackdown on JNU curtails and silences institutional autonomy (e) police action against students will only lead to further unrest among youth in general and students community in particular. The government should not forget that three members of ABVP have resigned and distanced themselves from the policies of the BJP. On the other hand, BJP MLA’s and lawyers’ behaviours at Patiala High Court towards students and journalists have not been appreciated by many. More importantly, it is unlawful.

Now, at JNU, students are not able to attend classes and are busy organizing protests against the government’s unnecessary and uncalled for intervention in the matter. This is understandable as the person arrested is the president of JNUSU and such a move by the government will inevitably make the best of our minds, insecure. Hence, fear is the atmosphere that is being perpetuated through the suspected henchmen of the ruling government in almost in all corners of the country – be it the Dadri killing over beef eating or Rohith Vemula’s suicide or the targeted killings of intellectuals or targeting a campus known for nurturing dissent. As far as the mindset of the right-wing cadres is concerned, it goes without saying that they are totalitarian in nature and do not understand and respect dissent.

The government seems to have learnt no lesson so far from humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar assembly elections in 2015. Ostensibly, what comes across is that the ruling party is getting desperate to regain its ‘face’ after the losses suffered in the two states. Clearly, the slogans of ‘good governance’ and NaMo wave did not work in Delhi; nor the ‘review of reservation’, hefty ‘packages’, and Dadri killing worked in its favour in Bihar; nor will the student community forget Rohith Vemula’s suicide; nor will the targeted killing of individuals and attack on our fundamental rights be tolerated by the silent majority.

It is time we start debating the review of sedition law with legal, statistical and ethnographic knowledge; in practice it has been invoked or (mis)used innumerable times against our own citizens, who are often poor and marginalized people, except the ideologically driven ones. Most importantly, it is often the youth and young professionals upon whom the sedition law is applied. Sedition law, once invoked carries the threat of destroying an individual’s life, career and future prospects. Who can/will/should compensate for this loss? And can it be compensated adequately ever as it is a phase in one’s life that can be ruined during the lengthy process of seeking justice? It is always the family that suffers unnecessary and unwanted harassments through the investigation agencies, media and society.

The Indian state should be liberal enough to tolerate dissent as long as there is no immediate incitement of violence against the state. Moreover, the university already maintains a Proctorial office to address issues. It is the university authorities that should ask questions from its students first. Shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans in a peaceful manner is more a sign of protest than sedition and we must not lose our sense of balance with the media agog over a specific brand of nationalism that suits the proclivities of the ruling regime. Else, Samuel Johnson’s famous quote ‘patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel’ would prove worthy of mention.

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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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