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Why Can’t Indians Have A Debate Without Bringing In Race And Religion?

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By Anil Mammen:

It almost looks as though we do not have a common ground to discuss social issues anymore. For instance, consider casteism, a practice common even among Christians and Muslims in India. The moment you mention caste, standing on a non-communal ground, caste interests will immediately term it an internal Hindu issue that can only be discussed on a Hindu platform. Or you are faced with the inevitable question — what about ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Christian evangelism’? Why don’t you talk about that?

Of course, I can talk about it. But why am I asked to talk about it? What is the intention behind that question? Is it to score a religious point or is it to establish a sense of neutrality? Ultimately, every political argument today is converted into one about religion and religious identity, which locks even the non-partisan into a religious position (forced to defend one against the other). It is almost as though we are genetically ordained to take certain argumentative positions based on which religion we are born into, reducing all of us in the process to narrow singular identities. So, every Muslim becomes a potential terrorist. Every liberal Hindu, a westernised bigot. And every Christian, a potential evangelist.

Sample Subramanian Swamy’s ‘tweet solution’ to combating terrorism:

And how does a Muslim become a Virat Hindustani? Simple. Just acknowledge his or her ancient Hindu ancestry. Historical ambiguities and migrations of various communities across centuries don’t matter. The culture and traditions of Adivasis don’t matter. If you are an Indian, your forefathers were definitely Hindu. No questions asked. And hopefully, then you would stop asking questions about caste. It would have been annihilated forever as a Virat Hindu family matter. Atheists, communists, liberals, scientists, sociologists and other non-religious identities don’t matter in this scheme of things. They are peripheral distractions with which you are trying to fool yourself.

Let us consider another common social issue, which in itself has no religious connotation: freedom of expression. Let’s say you bring up Wendy Doniger. In no time Taslima Nasreen will be brought up. Or Salman Rushdie. From a neutral ground of free speech, the argument is quickly brought down to one concerning the freedom to offend Hinduism vs. the freedom to offend Islam. It’s no more an argument to establish neutrality but one to defend a certain kind of partiality.

To consider the issue of how perceptions of our own identities have been messed up by the colonial project, or to consider historical contexts, inequality of power relations and multiple identities of each individual are just pseudo-academic gimmicks to avoid getting to the point according to this new game of religious polemics. History has shown us time and again how majoritarian bigotry (or the bigotry of the powerful) needs to be resisted much harder than the bigotries of minority communities – Nazis vs. Jews, White American racism vs. African American resistance, Iraqi Sunni aggression vs. Yazidis, Men vs. Women (patriarchy vs. feminism) and so on. It is also obvious that the majority-minority markers shift based on contexts. If you use the Christian marker, then many white Americans, as well as African Americans, fall within a majority category. So is the case with Dalits when they are classified as Hindu. However, when politics plays out, markers shift and power relations are exposed.

Even the most rigid ideological positions of the 20th-century now seem quite sophisticated compared to the religious-cultural street fights of today. Is this what a post-ideological world sound like in India? Or is this the high-point of anti-colonial nationalism, where under the guise of guarding spiritual traditions, you condemn what were once globally accepted liberal ideas like the right to personal liberty (including cuisine and ways of living) and the right to criticise one’s nation?

The nature of dominant voices has evolved over time. The idea has always been to maintain the status quo (or accommodate changes to suit one’s convenience) and keep dissenting voices from spilling out onto the streets. The critical difference between then and now is that the dominant groups of those days never doubted their dominance. So, they avoided talking about themselves and pretended to listen to dissenting voices. Today’s dominant group has taken the fight on to the streets, and are running a PR campaign to tell others that they are indeed the dominant group now.

It is a fight to reclaim “cultural purity” by chasing out one’s own colonial demons while pursuing the “western dream” — material prosperity for oneself. At the cost of rivers, forests and mountains. At the cost of dismantling the traditional ways of living of our indigenous communities. By sweeping social inequities under the carpet. If you are to consider this as a persona, you can see that it is an intensely troubled persona: “For my economic development, I shall shake hands with Islamic and western leaders. I will talk of universal brotherhood and the common threads that bind us. I will praise them and would like to be praised by them. But in my own house, I’ll fight anything resembling them or their values. But wait a minute, do I resemble them?”

Featured image credit: REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash.

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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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