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Can Democracy Exist When The ‘Truth’ Is Handed Down To People By Those In Power?

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By Saurabh Arora:

Muslim school girls form a shape of India as they pray for world peace during the holy month of Ramadan at Jodhpur in the western Indian state of Rajasthan August 9, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR36IL3
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The question of facts, of truth, of ‘reliable history‘ has been central to the student activists’ struggle in Jawaharlal Nehru University and beyond. At least since the arrest of JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar on February 12, 2016.

Since then, the debate on whose side true facts lie has gained further prominence with the airing of doctored videos. More recently, in his teach-in lecture at JNU, Makarand Paranjape impressed upon Kanhaiya to check his facts.

Everyone in this debate appears to fully understand what a ‘fact’ is. Two strands of this understanding are clear to see.

First, a fact is believed to be a standalone entity that will remain true no matter how many trials it is subjected to and no matter how far it travels. Truth is somehow the essence of a fact.

Second, facts are claims, statements and judgements that are backed up by requisite evidence. Indeed, reliable history is factual because it has substantial archival evidence behind it.

But, what is evidence? Who selects and interprets it and then presents to the world?

It is experts who tell the public what counts as evidence, and how it is undergirded by rigour (often, of ‘the scientific method’). They even set the frameworks for demarcating good evidence from bad fabrications. The public is expected to simply believe in expert knowledge and participate in the implementation of policies based on the experts’ facts.

It is perhaps on the basis of the second understanding of facts as buttressed by experts’ evidence that Paranjape is able to make a case for separating the factual from the ‘not factual’, with certainty.

Fact-Making

By ‘exposing the non-factuality’ of some of Kanhaiya’s recent claims, one wonders if Paranjape’s aim to disqualify Kanhaiya. Does he want to discredit the vibrant and much-needed movement that Kanhaiya has become an effective spokesperson for?

Even if this is the case, Paranjape’s call to “check your facts” cannot simply be dismissed. He should not be disqualified, as no one perhaps should be, by the invocation of truer facts, at least not without due process.

As Bruno Latour has argued, this due process entails making public how evidence is collected, collated, processed and presented. Thus, what needs to be made public are not readymade facts, but rather the process through which they are made.

Facts are not simply revealed by the real world (as scientists would argue), through the application of a ‘rigorous method’, but also by moral values, political pressures, professional obligations, economic interests, technical equipment, persistent doubts and collective creativity. To treat facts as neutral is to ignore the substantial influence of the latter.

By presenting facts as value-free and objective, modern expert knowledge, and modernist ideologies such as orthodox Marxism, manage to frame the underlying logic of social and natural problems to be the same or similar everywhere. Taking this as given, universalist remedies, in the form of modern technologies or the application of strategies based on socialist principles, are stated to be adequate for addressing these problems.

Actual problem-solving effects of expert knowledge have often been dramatic, but very rarely unproblematic or uncontroversial, as Timothy Mitchell has so clearly shown.

Thus, rather than letting statements such as ‘check your facts before you speak’ to silence voices that are already weaker, we need to democratise fact-making expertise. Successes for wider social justice will remain seriously limited if we fail to bring experts into the fold of democracy.

Knowing Democracy

A true democracy ensures that the most marginalised sections of a society are able to raise their voices. It also requires the more powerful sections, especially those in government and other centres of ‘expertise’, to register these voices. Registration means that the powerful transform how they engage with the marginalised.

Also, a democratic society continually carves and nurtures spaces in which the vulnerable and the marginal can work towards their empowerment. This is done not through the imposition of expert-driven social engineering plans but through their creative localising appropriation of those plans and through their own diverse projects and practices.

For these goals to be materialised, democratisation of fact-making expertise is not a luxury that must be put off until India has joined the league of so-called developed nations. It is a necessary ingredient of development that is genuinely inclusive and sustainable.

To further this democratisation, I have argued that ‘how facts are made’ must be made public, in science and beyond by all ‘experts’. This implies that each citizen is empowered to question what is made to count as reliable evidence by experts and how. And to demand the experts to reveal the uncertainty and ambiguity associated with their knowledge claims.

Thus, when a fact is presented to the wider public as true in a democracy, the raising of dissenting voices must be nurtured rather than snubbed.

Perhaps the bypassing of this dissent is one reason why experts present their descriptions in a language that few outside their own community can understand.

In order to democratise expertise, it is indeed important to make this language more accessible, to make public scrutiny and dissent possible. It also requires that lay people are treated as knowledgeable in their own right.

Furthering social justice thus might require us to bring facts into democracy. There is no blueprint for how to go about this. Those interested in justice must publicly deliberate over how to democratise expertise, rather than assume the role of experts themselves in their struggle against power.

The deployment of truth against power may be necessary, but genuine truth is one that makes the process of its making public, instead of hiding behind the garb of expertise.

This has crucial implications for re-thinking the role of all centres of expertise in society. These include the university. It must find a new way to engage with society, rather than sustaining its legitimacy on the basis of indisputable fact-making.

Finally, if democracy and freedom are inseparable, as Kanhaiya and many other student activists have repeatedly proclaimed, then we might also need to work towards freedom from the unhindered ‘rule of experts’, from the tyrannies of modernist development.

A version of this article has been published here on IndiaResists.com.

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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.

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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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