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So Much To Say On Foreign Policy, But Silent In India: Why PM Modi Needs To Change

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By Pranav Prakash:

If one were to simply count the multifarious social media posts and news articles lauding the Indian Prime Minister’s recent appearance at a joint session of the US Congress, in what might well be his last official trip to the States before Obama’s term in office comes to an end, it might take longer than it took Modi to pay a quick visit to the US’s neighbor to the south, in a successful attempt to garner support for India’s bid to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

It is difficult to downplay the enormous impetus that has been given to India’s position and influence in the global stage thanks to Narendra Modi’s, often thankless, efforts to build diplomacy across the geopolitical landscape. We’ve simply never had a Head of Government, since Pandit Nehru, who has afforded foreign affairs and diplomacy the kind of lavish attention and primacy that it is receiving today.

At an average of about two foreign trips every month since he’s been in power, Modi has stunned critics who predicted in 2014 that foreign policy might take a backseat under the helm of a statesman who had no international diplomatic experience.  From military to economic to cultural advances, India seems to have a somewhat enduring disposition in an otherwise shifting international political landscape.

The historical Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US, for instance, which allows for the sharing of military supplies and fuel, can be described as nothing short of a tectonic shift in the foreign relations of a country that, for a significant period in its post-colonial history, was associated with the doctrine of Non-Alignment.

The Land Boundary Agreement that we inked with Bangladesh around this time last year allowed us to resolve a challenging border dispute that has subsisted since Independence, leaving over 50,000 people stateless and in enclaves that neither country had sovereignty over. It might be fair to say that where foreign affairs are concerned, we’ve left no stone unturned.

So where is the catch, one might wonder, for there’s always a catch. It can hardly be contested that to cement India’s position in world politics and to move increasingly towards a more dynamic grand strategy is in her best interest. But then, would we still praise our foreign policy if it comes at the price domestic security, as increasingly seems to be the case?

The sheer plurality of caste, class and religion that abound within the subcontinent in their infinite manifestations, is hardly anything new. We’ve existed within this diversity for years; our heterogeneity, if anything, is growing, as differences in sexuality, scientific beliefs and social practices arise. It would then, to the astute politician, be of tremendous consequence, to leverage this heterogeneity, as we appeal for importance to a global community.
That which has tragically resulted, in our quest for international relevance, is an indifference to the politics of the domestic, or so at least it seems in the case of Modi. Thrust into the limelight of national politics nearly a decade and a half ago for his inability to curb the macabre and savagery of the Gujarat pogrom, Modi has, to this day, kept away from any serious public acknowledgement of the events of 2002. It wouldn’t hurt to recall that this was precisely the reason for the United States government’s revoking of Modi’s visa in 2005. A lot has changed in the interim, in large part due to the stellar rise of Modi and the importance of strategic relations with India, for the States. But it would be misguided to presume that anyone, but us, has forgotten.

Not surprisingly, an article that didn’t get publicised as much as the ones keeping diligent track of the number of standing ovations that Modi received during his speech at Congress was one that revealed a markedly antagonistic sentiment, among the members of the US Congress, towards Modi, in the days leading up to his arrival at Capitol Hill. Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, who was testifying at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Indo-US relations, had to deal with a harsh dismissal of Modi when Bob Corker, Chairman of the Committee, reportedly blamed Modi for India having  “14 million slaves in the year 2016″. The term was used in reference to victims of trafficking, child labor and debt, and appeared in a global slavery index published by the Walk Free Foundation. To conflate the tumultuous hospitality that Modi received after this incident with compliance to and succor of Modi’s politics would be an embarrassing transgression. 

Back at home, the nation seems to be hovering precariously between religious fanaticism, bigotry and nationalist fundamentalism, all of which are inextricably intertwined with each other as much as they are with the social construct of caste and with communalism. Modi’s charismatic speeches abroad might be winning hearts, but his silence at home is stopping them. The propagation of religious extremism through the RSS and its organs, a growing apathy towards minority rights and the stifling of dissent through the evolution of archaic laws such as sedition are but the reverberations of a government without its leader. As a nation state, which is hailed as the world’s largest democracy, freedom of speech is considered a fundamental right. How is speech free, if students of the nation’s most prestigious universities are tortured for being a certain way? Indeed, for the first time in over thirty years, we have a majority government in power. Perhaps a coalition could have prevented the withering away of domestic security. We may only speculate.

On the 24th of June, in Seoul, India was hopeful that China would rescind its opposition, as it did in 2008, and allow us to join the 48-nation NSG. If this were to have happened, it would have been a testament to Modi’s diplomatic prowess in the first half of his term as Prime Minister. At the halfway mark, Modi has a choice to make. He could continue with his exuberant diplomacy and secure India’s position as a force in international politics to be reckoned with. Or he could divert his attention homeward, and be a leader to a people that is beginning to let differences tear it apart beyond recovery once again. There is incredible potential either way. The choice, as they say, is a matter of politics.

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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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