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Why Political Debate In India Needs To Move Beyond Secularism

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By Saidalavi PC:

Maybe it is the blissful destiny of our generation to be living quite unconsciously in the middle of a revolution. If the term ‘revolution’ means the culmination of an idea in the imaginations of the people, the assumed realisation of a dream often proclaimed, and the straitening of the imaginaries into a single ideal, we are indeed living in the middle of a revolution. Though one does not seem to use the epithet ‘revolutionary’ to refer to the politics of the Right in any country, the usage in our context may illuminate the political imaginary of our times. It could also be true that the Right may be the most averse to the usage of the term to signify their politics.

Many leaders of the Hindutva brigade have exhorted that India is a Hindu rashtra. If an ideal ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is not born, for that would mean the extermination of a large quantum of the population in real terms, a rashtra is already born where the ideal overwhelms the material. Many instances could be drawn to corroborate this statement from contemporary politics.

A casual observer might notice that the political culture of the country is painstakingly being drawn by the opposition parties along the binaries such as communal/secularist, fascist/democratic, tolerant/intolerant, and so on. During the time of ‘Award Wapsi‘, it was often proclaimed that it is a statement for democracy against fascism, though the word felt a little unpalatable to some. The same sentiments were echoed when Muslim youths were beaten for not chanting praise for ‘Bharat Mata’ and also when a Muslim was beaten to death in Dadri for allegedly eating beef. And assembly elections are being fought in each and every corner of the country against the monster of communalism, fascism and what not.

It would seem that eventually things are crystal clear, more than ever, and the battle-lines are drawn, and it is just a matter of time that the pendulum swings the other way. The ruling dispensation seems less interested in engaging in these debates as if these are things not to be signified by harsher terms as the opposition does. If push comes to shove, they may brush them aside as aberrations or deviations from the normal, though hate seems to form the core of their politics.

While this high drama unfurls on one side, the country is being brutally sold out to corporate empires. A time has come when the government itself silently supports a corporate empire for a loan from a public sector bank. Though amid much criticism the move was shelved, think about the way the government is concerning itself with the corporates. It was just a few days back that a controversy arose over the cancellation of a fine of 200 crores imposed on the Adani Group. The report was refuted by the Ministry of Environment arguing that it was done with the intention of keeping options open to impose more stringent actions, if necessary. However, it may be the first step to undermine the whole procedure since, as a Business Standard report says, the officials in the Ministry have noted that Adani group may not be held responsible for all the environmental damage.

The government is fast signing off all the production activities from the public to private sector and privatising hitherto controlled sectors. From allowing private enterprise in defence, to allowing FDI in many sectors to the recent moves is to privatise the oil fields in Assam are examples of this move. But this is not showcased as just an inevitable step for the growth of the country, but glued to an ultra-nationalism which thrives on the strategic upliftment of the country’s global profile in terms of its economic and security requirements and the hubris of positioning itself as a force to reckon with in South Asia.

But the economic aspect of the country is nowhere in our political discussions. How many times were the streets of Delhi filled with raised fists against the policy decisions of the government? How many artists of various orientations returned their awards against the anti-poor policies of the government? How many lectures were conducted by the academia to teach the nation of its pathetic socio-economic conditions of the poor and the need to re-orient our politics? The debates we get to engross in these days are the ones on which the imaginary of Hindutva is founded and perpetuated. One could be reverieing to be doing a politics of secularism by trying to counter such debates. One is raging a battle in which the rules of the game are not just set, but the game itself is invented for the purpose. Seeing the current chaos, one may also be urged to think that if it were not for all the undesirable realities from communalism to intolerance to fascism, the differences between Hindutva and the opposition shall melt into air, and the two groups would merge in an applause for an Alice’s wonderland in the making.

For solace, one may point out the recurring failures the Hindutva brigade is tasting in state elections. But, is it because the people have taken to disliking Hindutva politics as all the opposition would have us believe? Or is it that people are feeling frustrated with their lives being not so dissimilar or far worse economically? Maybe they are feeling that ‘achhe din’ is like a mirage that one often witnesses on a sunny day. It seems that the opposition parties have the biggest role in straitjacketing the political alternatives to a confrontation with Hindutva. We are made to believe that confronting Hindutva on its own turf is the only solution as if this is the sole available option at a time when hard thinking should find alternatives.

I do feel that the only potent figure that could combat this politics is the category of the ‘poor’. How did this category become extinct from our political repertoire? The figure of the poor as a metaphor—because metaphors can mean many things from those earning 25 rupees to having the capacity to eat a healthy meal to those having jobs three days a week—as a haunting spectre is absolved now in the high drama of political debates. This figure has given enough headache to ‘poor’ politicians in the country for a long time, from the high developmentalist drama of the Nehruvian times to Indira Gandhi’s exorcism drives like ‘garibi hatao’ to the riddle of definitional accuracy in the UPA.

In short, the figure of the poor has remained at the centre of the activities of the Planning Commission in Independent India. The state governments also had an important role in directing the activities of the central government through the Commission. BJP was shrewd enough about one thing the moment they assumed power, that the figure of the poor should be buried six feet under once and for all. They were also insightful to realise that the root of the problem lay in the planning. The neta exhorted us to get rid of the Planning Commission so that nothing becomes agendaesque anymore. An alternative platform named NITI Ayog was constituted which would perform just like any other central government body. This transformation also determined the extinction of planning and formulating an agenda keeping the poor within the purview of decision-making.

Isn’t it high time that we brought back the spectral figure of our political imaginary back to the picture – the poor? If politics remains constricted to the ideology of Hindutva alone, we could be sure that the politics of the Hindutva is here to stay.

Featured image credit: Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

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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.

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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.

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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