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What Is Assam Thinking: A Look At The Word On The Streets, This Election

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By Minakshi Bujarbaruah for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

A woman smiles after casting her vote at a polling station in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014. The first electors cast their votes in the world's biggest election on Monday with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3KA4Y
Image source: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The current air in Assam is such that the election vibe is affecting even those who think themselves to be apolitical. If one drives around Guwahati city and further beyond, going past bus terminals, flyovers, and other hot-spots, one notices the political strategies used by the Congress and the BJP especially in their use of cartoon and caricature in hoardings that have been a unique feature of this year’s elections.

Utpal Datta, a film critic, thinks that the use of print and audio-visual advertisements has been the most striking aspect of this year’s elections in Assam. Dark humor and sarcasm pitted against the backdrop of the recent political developments have been very wittily used by campaign planners to generate public opinion and reach out to the masses.

College campuses like that of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Cotton College State University, Guwahati University, roadside tea stalls, adda joints and coffee shops are abuzz with political discussions, debates and critical thought. Megha Kashyap, a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus, who has also been socially vocal and active on issues of the youth and other social causes, finds the caricature politics in hoardings striking.

Megha elaborates, “For me the striking aspect of this election would have to be the big hoardings of the Congress and the BJP. It is amusing to watch this mud-slinging game in public. The witty cartoon caricatures are innovative and it is interesting to watch the parties wash their dirty linen in public.”

Angarag Bhuyan opines that there is nothing wrong in using cartoons and caricature as it appeals to people instantly. The popular dialogue of CM Tarun Gogoi- ‘baad diya hey‘ (‘Forget it ya!’) has been used in both a positive and a negative light to suit the need of both parties. For instance, the BJP has used this popular dialogue to depict his careless, callous ways whereas the ruling Congress has used the same to highlight his confidence and courage. “It could, however, have been more creative and fun had the parties not resorted only to mud-slinging through these cartoons. Change is inevitable and if the Congress beats the anti-incumbency, it will have to deliver. The same is with the BJP. Else the public will be non-forgiving.”

What The Public Has To Say

An American comedian Groucho Marx had very wittily once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” In a countdown to the final phase of the Assembly elections in Assam, the political landscape is shaping up in a similar manner.

For many, the elections mean nothing but yet another form of propaganda in order to gain power and continue the exploitation of the poor and the marginalised in the worst possible manner. For another section, the election is crucial for the people of Assam in terms of expectations from the party that comes to power this time.

Many even say the political scenario in Assam is at crossroads.

The Asom Ganah Parishad (AGP), a regional party known for voicing Assamese sub-nationalism, allying with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a right-wing nationalist party, has indeed come as a shocker for many, leading even to a further split in the regional party which formed a separate faction- AGP Ancholikotabadi Moncho/Regionalist Platform, headed by former AGP youth President Sunil Rajkonwar.

Angarag Bhuyan, a young social activist and educator atMorigaon College opines, “Political alliances that are taking place at this juncture are out of compulsion rather than out of ideological similarities. Regional parties like AGP have allied with BJP only to save their skin from the impending debacle that they would have met otherwise.”

The manner in which alliance building is unfolding indicates a lack of serious ideological commitment on the part of parties and introspection regarding the same. Big talk, propaganda and partial truths, all flashed in the name of ‘poribortan‘ or ‘development’ of Assam without reflecting on the ironies of the same have appalled many.

Poonam Kakoti Borah, Assistant Professor at the Department of Women’s Studies, Guwahati University, who is also pursuing her PhD. from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal NehruUniversity, says, “The politics of alliance building in Assam is important and interesting at the same time as it shows a blurring of political arguments used previously by the parties. While the AGP might believe that this will lead to their resuscitation, the BJP knows that AGP will become almost non-existent by the next elections (with the AGP vote bank and candidates slowly shifting to BJP).”

The elections have also seen a massive participation of youth- as candidates as well as flag-bearers in campaigns for parties and candidates. This is yet another section that is highly critical of developments that are taking shape. Some say alliances are exposing the double standards of parties and their thirst for money and power.

Bitopi Dutta from Dhakuakhana sub-division in Lakhimpur district in Assam, who is currently pursuing her PhD. from Dublin City University, opines, “Yesterday’s apolitical (people) are becoming political today after BJP has come to power in the Centre and everyone suddenly seems to have an opinion. However, how informed is the opinion is hardly questioned. A more polarised campaign than before, this year’s elections portray a political atmosphere that is getting more about a binary affiliation – of being a nationalist or an anti-nationalist.”

In fact, concerned with the recent happenings across Indian universities on this issue, a joint public appeal/statement urging the people of Assam to vote sensibly and stop the divisive agenda of the BJP coming into power in Assam was sent across by noted academicians, scholars, youth activists, writers and conscious citizens. The statement signed by noted intellectuals like Prof. Hiren Gohain, Prof. Arupjyoti Saikia, Dr. Xonzoi Barbora, Udayaditya Bharali, Loknath Goswami, Prof. Baniprasanna Mishra, Shantanu Borthakur and many others, states in conclusion that:

“In such a complicated moment, the following signatories humbly request the people of Assam to reject the divisive, communal, fascist and corporate agent BJP in ensuing Assembly Elections. Let every conscious voter of Assam vote against BJP and stand by the interest of the people of Assam.”

But as Poonam K. Borah adds, with a strong anti-incumbency factor, this election may signify the advent of the BJP (in Assam) which doesn’t bode too well for the state: “Also, the rhetoric of larger nationalism used by the party subsumes the sub-nationalist voice that Assam has personified for a long time. If the BJP-led alliance forms the government, then there will be an obvious rise in corporate investment in the region. But through corporate instead of state investment, will come the concomitant danger of environmental degradation and ecological threat.”

Miguel Das Queah (Founder Chairman at UTSAH- Universal Team for Social Action and Help ), a passionate young child rights activist, is not too optimistic about the elections and change that is foreseen by many. Das explains that while the Congress has gone into a super-charity mode, the BJP is clinching onto the illegal immigration issue without having any concrete plans for addressing the same. “Each party is trying their best to milk electoral benefit capitalising on the sentiments of innocent people. This election means nothing other than the fulfillment of a mandated constitutional exercise. It lacks empathy, vision and foresight and has no conviction about addressing the real issues. The politicians, each one more desperate than the other, are hardly concerned about the good of the common people. The entire frenzy about elections is an attempt to cling to power and all that the politicians seek is a position that could help fill their coffers. Where are the voices demanding human rights? Where are the votaries of child rights? Have we seen any of these in the manifestos? Even these manifestos are a marketing exercise to woo the voters.”

A woman (L) casts her vote with an electronic voting machine as others get their voting slip from an officer at a polling station in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014. The first electors cast their votes in the world's biggest election on Monday with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3K8J6
Image source: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

What It Means For The Youth Of Assam

On the question of what this election has to offer or what it means to youth in Assam and those residing elsewhere in search of better educational institutions and employment opportunities, not many are hopeful of change in a post-election scenario in Assam. Monimoy Bujarbaruah, from Guwahati currently pursuing his undergrad studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay says that the youth should not be swept off by the wave of this election. Bujarbaruah adds, “Rather, I think the youth should focus on the concept of politics, democracy and social justice. These elections, with their inherent flaws and biases can make a young mind lose hope in the future of our state and our country. But, one should always know that with a Constitution like ours, we all have equal opportunities to think, work and flourish. The youth should be aware of the state of our politics, should be willing to work for the improvement of everyone regardless of their faith and caste and should avoid conflating political chauvinism with love for the nation.”

Navanil Baruah, a senior health professional also highly vocal about socio-political issues over social media, is cynical and argues, “The youth being positive, always are restless and look for that ethereal change. However, they sit back and fall into the rut as they grow old. This election has nothing to offer for youth, more so, when people (mostly men) above 50 years masquerade as ‘youth’.”

For yet another section of youth, the elections are significant and they would disagree with Baruah’s argument. Given the current political atmosphere and a new consciousness and rise of student voices across the country, the student community and youth in Assam are closely watching every small and big development in the course of this election as it unfolds and the drama turns tense.

‘Change’ & ‘Development’ – Not Really The Magic Words

Amidst this political frenzy, some feel ‘change’ and ‘development’ that have been the buzzwords of this year’s election are illusory. Promises and tall claims made are often far from the reality that gets delivered on ground. From the issue of ethnic unrest in Bodo Territorial Autonomous District, peace talks, the National Registration of Citizens (NRC), resource management, dam construction and environmental degradation, rhino poaching and encroachment in Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wild Life Sanctuary, to land rights, unemployment, education, rights of the indigenous and tea tribes, Assam has a lot on its platter.

Unfortunately, no party has spoken of ways to address these issues and think of concrete solutions for the same. Disability rights activist and Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, Arman Ali, thinks that the elections this year are important and political parties have to look above their own party interest and keep people’s mandate as a priority and not forget the bio-diversity and ethnicity that defines the land. “The foremost thing would be to create and tap the potential of the state and to look within. The party that comes to power would need to focus on health, create employment avenues and entrepreneurship for its people by making use of existing resources.”

In a nail-biting turn of events, as the stage is set and the performance gets more measured, nuanced and calculated, it will be interesting to watch who Assam elects in this ‘Last Battle of Saraighat’ (as quoted by BJP enthusiasts).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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