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The Fight Against Caste And Oppression In Our Universities Has One BIG Enemy

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By Shruti Mukherjee:

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Image Credit: Mayuri Ghosh.

His name is ‪Umar‬ ‪Khalid‬ and he is not a terrorist. If one has to explain that just because one has a Muslim name in 21st century India, I am afraid to say we are not a mature democracy. I am particularly disturbed by the way in which Umar was described as a Muslim from Kashmir and hence a terrorist. I saw several posters doing rounds on facebook with this description. Umar is my batch mate and I was his contemporary in ‪Jawaharlal Nehru University‬ student politics. I have had many political differences with him but that was in the realm of debate and discussion. And precisely because of this, university spaces need to protect campus democracy and the right to dissent.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

When we see a person with a Muslim name we construct a demon in our mind. This time, the demon was created in the newsrooms of India and fed to you. Just a few symbols constructed the demon. The Pakistani flag, fire, guns, and boom. Media and Government manufactured lies to witch hunt Umar and harass his family. I am going to very strongly say that the Modi government was backing this entire crackdown because we can see a re-run of the Godhra script here. How consent gets manufactured in newsrooms by repetitive messaging and BJP backed lawyers do not let the courts function. The entire state machinery appeared to be involved in it.

But just discussing and having an opinion does not make someone ‘anti-national’ or a ‘nationalist’. There is a need to get out of this binary description of the world because there is a lot of grey area in between. Identities don’t exist in isolation. They intersect at various points and don’t make sense most of the time. For instance, India has a narrative for Kashmir, Pakistan has a narrative for Kashmir, and inside Kashmir there are various narratives. So, when someone says, “Kashmir maangoge, to cheer denge (we’ll rip you apart if you ask for Kashmir),” it actually reflects a colonial conception of the Indian state.

Like Nivedita Menon said in her open class during the recent JNU strike, asking for Kashmir, when decoded, means you want their land, resources and not the people. What do the people want? For that, Kashmir needs to be brought to the table for political discussion. There cannot be a militarised solution to the question of Kashmir.

The concerns which led to the agitation by the students’ movement from Hyderabad Central University to JNU, however, are much bigger. It is a fight, like P. Sainath said in the JNU open class, against a nexus of religious fundamentalism and market capitalist fundamentalism.

What Rohith Vemula, Kanahiya, Umar and Anirban represent is the face of resistance to the racist/casteist neoliberal forces the world over which is being fought in universities across the globe. You can make links to similar crackdowns on university campuses and academic freedom in U.S.A., Latin America, Turkey, Iran and so on.

I want to specifically link the attack on campus democracy to the larger neoliberal forces at play here. The world over, we are fighting battles in universities which are increasingly becoming privatised. In the U.S.A., where I am a research student, we are seeing an increase in student debt and an increase in adjunct (contractual) faculty positions. So one needs to ask, where is the big money going if universities are not hiring professors with permanent tenure and are increasing the student fee? Hiring an adjunct faculty also means that the university is not liable to give any health insurance benefit, office space, or any other job security. Who is benefitting from this?

Now coming back to India, the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1990s required that we undergo a structural adjustment change where the World Bank asked us to start spending less on social sectors like education and health (David Harvey, 2005). We have therefore seen a systematic undermining of both centrally funded education and health with a simultaneous increase in privatisation of these spaces.

What started as Occupy UGC was a resistance to signing an agreement with the World Trade Organisation to privatise central universities. The students were demanding an increase in research fellowship which is Rs. 8,000 for Ph.D. per month today. This discourse is also getting linked to tax payers money and the question being raised is that why should tax payers fund ‘anti-national’ activities. This is a problematic analogy not only because the definition of anti-national is very spurious here, but also because the idea of a university is not to produce an army of service class people for absorption into the corporate sector. It is a space to imagine the impossible and beyond mere profit.

I think this is where the problem is. Institutes like FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), HCU, JNU and JU (Javadpur University) are fighting the neoliberal forces which are hand in glove with the religious right-wing. This fight has many intersections of caste, class and religion as is visible in the student leadership of the movement – Rohith, Kanahiya and Umar.

Equality for the poor and oppressed feels like oppression to the rich and the middle-class because they are fearful that their social and financial capital accumulated through generations in the family and passed down as inheritance will be challenged.

These capital accumulations are maintained by a very strict monitoring of the caste and religious boundaries in the society. Therefore, it becomes imperative to control the boundaries of the community. Control over women’s sexuality in the community is crucial to maintaining a caste based, Hindu society. Inter-caste, inter-religious marriages, and homosexuality strike at the heart of the hetero-normative patriarchal Hindu nation.

This is going to be a long drawn out struggle because we are fighting very powerful and racist neoliberal forces the world over. And our fight is against criminalising dissent!

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  1. Aniruddha Shidhaye

    You can’t fight the neo-liberal forces by saying Bharat ke barbadi tak Jung rahegi. And may I ask you what problem do you have with the Hindu religion?
    The Hindu society is very reformative. Till a few decades ago, Dalits were shunned by the society. Nowadays, barring a few stray incidents, Dalits are well integrated in the Hindu society. Also, patriarchy, Opposition to Homosexuality etc are associated world wide with Muslim societies world wide. If you remove the Leftist spectacles you will see. You club Dalits and Muslims as oppressed classes. Agreed Dalits were oppressed. But who oppressed the Muslims? They were the former rulers of India. Surely they would not heed to the diktats of the then Upper caste Hindu society?
    Also, I would like to especially mention FTII. Tell me did you choose your school principal? Were you offered choices of the principals by the governing committee of the college where you did your undergraduate education? The same way, What rights do the FTII students have to select their Principal?

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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.

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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 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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