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How Basing Our Identities On Caste And Religion Is ‘Suffocating’ Us As Indians

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By Majid Hassan Khan:

identityWe are Indians, we are one and we all are a nation. Irrespective of our caste and religious affiliation we generally like to be defined by the fact that we are Indian. Being an Indian and being united as an Indian suffixed by various identities are different things. Identity is the skin of human existence. One can’t deny identity and live a life free from affiliations or, in some cases, appropriations.

“We, the people of India” has never been practiced in its true spirit. Indian identity has always been fragmented along region, language, political affiliation, gender, sexuality, religion, and caste.

Regional identity, which comes with cultural trappings and gifts, is broadly tolerated. But even this identity has its issues as there lies a divide in terms of north, south and north-east Indians. Besides, it has an inheritance of a linguistic divide based on one’s ‘accidental’ birth in a family speaking a certain language. But what one cherishes is the diversity due to region and language. This cultural diversity, if nurtured in harmony, would ensure a poetic identity to Indianness, with different cultures like various flowers wreathed in a garland. Alas, so far this identity has been a cause of xenophobia, bickering and assertions of regional or linguistic supremacy!

Political rivalry is gradually becoming intolerant and opinions are quickly classified in ideological compartments. So one can’t have political opinions without the tag of being a bhakt, or leftist, or an ‘Aaptard’, or an Ambedkarite. Political identity often backfires when any non-conforming ideology against the incumbent is termed as ‘anti-national’ or labeled as divisive.

Gender and sexuality as markers of identity differences have always seen differing views, with recent moves in favour of overcoming the discrimination based on these. Gender has generated a bigger support base but sexuality has miles to go before it establishes itself free from hatred, biases and discrimination.

All this divisiveness is dwarfed when age-old identities thrust on the chest of humanity are invoked in the form of religion or caste. Religion in the subcontinent mostly comes in the form of an identity suffix for faiths with origins outside India, like Indian-Muslim, Indian-catholic etc. What has been a boiling issue for India is whether it is the present landmass with a population of 1.252 billion or the ancient fragmented India that had this caste issue. Caste as an identity transcends religion, region and even in politics caste plays a major role. Caste as an identity has been used as a mode of oppression and discrimination for centuries. This baggage of hatred has persisted through the ages and is still remains in the present. It was always challenged but it re-asserted itself on popular beliefs. Discrimination due to caste has seeped so deep in the social psyche that for a very simple, sober citizen a regularly practiced discriminatory act won’t be evident. Jokes come in the form of derogatory remarks and discriminatory words are unconsciously used. One would puke at the thought of racism or untoward behavior with fellow human beings, being at the same time unaware of the discrimination inherent in such gestures. Even the oppressed sections accept this social bias and unknowingly practice it among themselves. This is similar to the use of the word ‘denigration’ by a black American, who is unaware that the word has as its root the derogatory ethnic slur “nigger.”

The noose of all such identities always hung around us and unknowingly we all are victims of our birth and social conditioning for most of these identities and choose few of them.

India has of late witnessed this discriminatory and intolerant noose of identity when a nonagenarian Dalit man was hacked and burnt in Hamirpur district of UP; a Muslim was lynched on a rumor of possessing beef. Caste and religious identities did play their role in these provocations and crimes.

But the noose tightens even in normal times; media reports are abuzz with atrocities and discrimination due to caste. One such case led a research scholar to end his life. What caused him to end his life? Most of us attribute it to the tussle with the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parished) and his suspension, but the cause dates much farther back. The cause could have been the regular hatred he might have experienced in his childhood. The cause could have been the stamping of a child as lower/upper caste at birth.

But one cause is certain and sure, the discriminatory society whose legacy we have inherited from ancient times has killed many, and it killed Rohith too. Won’t it be right to say that all those who believe that there is no caste issue in India and who feel there is no bias against the oppressed sections have killed one more? Won’t it be right to say that if the society doesn’t change its ways, it is going to collectively kill many Rohiths.

Hope for a society where the noose of identity is loose and it doesn’t kill in its name. Hope for a society where, “We, the people of India” is a reality and where justice, liberty, and equality are actually practiced.

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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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