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“At 69, India Does Not Show The Wisdom And Maturity That Comes With Age”

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By Nissim Mannathukkaren:

It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.

— Ernest Gellner

After living many years in North America, the first question that Indians, both at home and outside, ask me is if I have acquired foreign citizenship. An answer in the negative produces bafflement as to why one would choose to hold on to an Indian passport when “better options” are available.

As India celebrates 69 years of independence, it is marked by a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, despite India’s status as a “rising power,” substantial sections of its middle and affluent classes abandon India and take up citizenship of a developed country. On the other hand, there is a virulent eruption of a chauvinistic nationalism driven, ironically, by the same classes.

The dark underside of this nationalism was on gory display this year, ranging from Rohith Vemula to Una in Gujarat, where Dalit men were flogged in public for skinning a dead cow. It was also on display in the heartless response to the killing of nearly 50 civilians, including children, in Kashmir by security forces. The mainstream argument that the Kashmiris are themselves to be blamed, or that the problem is entirely due to the machinations of the neighbour, is a catastrophic refusal to look in the mirror.

The largest democracy in the world has also, ironically, the largest militarised zone in the world. There is one soldier for every 15 Kashmiris, a staggering figure by any count. (For India as a whole, it is one policeman for 761 people!) Yet, Indians continue to believe that Kashmiris can be made to love fellow Indians at gunpoint and through barbed wires and picket fences. And despite the colossal lessons of history from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Indians brazenly continue to believe that the solution to a political problem lies with the military.

The irony of the 69th year of freedom is that freedom is still a mythical concept for a majority of Indians who are forced to slave under the restrictions imposed by caste, class and patriarchy. The ideal Indian is still an upper-class, upper-caste male. While we sing paeans to freedom, we leave the tasks of cleaning human waste, disposing of cow carcasses and burning the dead to the Dalits. And they are condemned for the very occupations that make our freedoms possible.

The paradox of wanting to leave India for the greener pastures of the developed world and simultaneously hold on to jingoistic forms of nationalism is, on closer examination, not really a paradox. The nation does not exist from time immemorial, but is a modern community, produced by forces of capitalist industrialisation, technology and urbanisation, and the breakdown of smaller, face-to-face communities. It is an imagined and invented community, as scholars tell us, and various people have imagined it in various ways.

Yet, all nationalisms, even benign ones, are ultimately limited, for humanity cannot be realised only within the confines of the nation. Bigoted nationalism is the most extreme manifestation of a stunted imagination. That is why a chauvinistic nationalism cannot be anything but hollow, empty rhetoric. Hence the excessive love for Kashmir, but a callous disregard for the everyday incarceration and lived life of the Kashmiri; excessive love for the nation, but disdain for the actual members of the nation, the religious minorities and the oppressed castes; and excessive love for the cow, but nary a thought for the millions of cattle that survive on plastic in urban jungles.

Being an Indian at 69, in this imagination, does not mean fighting for the principles that laid the foundation of the nation: democracy, equality and secularism. These ideals are untethered from the idea of the nation. Once this untethering is done, one can define and imagine the nation in any which way, as it is happening now. Being an Indian does not involve any material contribution to, or sacrifices for, the elimination of the still-substantial scale of poverty and deprivation. It merely involves exaggerated symbolisms of various kinds, from hoisting national flags in educational institutes to chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, or labelling those who do not conform to this jingoistic vision as anti-nationals and traitors.

It is this hollowness that has also now placed affluent NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and Persons of Indian Origin with foreign citizenship, themselves purveyors of such a nationalism, at the centre of Indian politics. In many ways, this is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, there is an expansion of the idea of being an Indian. An Indian at 69 is not merely one living in India but one who is part of its global diaspora. The Prime Minister has assiduously cultivated this idea. On the other hand, there is the simultaneous contraction of what it means to be an Indian, for even the diasporic Indian is sought to be yoked to a majoritarian chauvinist nationalism. And anybody who does not conform is termed as “mentally not fully Indian”.

Thus, actors who have lived and worked in India all their lives are termed anti-national by Indians abroad with foreign citizenship. Thus, I too, an Indian citizen abroad, become an anti-national if I criticise the government. Here, again, the idea of the nation is untethered from any higher principles of justice or democracy, and merely conflated with the government and the state.

To overcome this, the nation has to be re-imagined. The fundamental question that should animate an Indian: is it merely territory that he should be fighting for, or is it something more ennobling that will define the territory and go beyond it? If it is the latter, there is no option for the nation but to draw from the most radical currents of Indian thought and practice that have questioned hierarchies of power, and from personalities ranging from the Buddha to Irom Sharmila. It cannot but reinstall in the national imagination obliterated figures like the Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali, one of the most extraordinary men the country has seen.

At 69, India does not show the wisdom and maturity that comes with age. India’s place in history, despite its gargantuan failure in ensuring equality and well-being comes from an experiment that no nation before has undertaken: to have the largest population in the world under a democracy. Instead of realising completely this magnificent idea, by eliminating its gross subversions, it threatens to contract itself.

Yet, the seeds of a new imagination are seen in recent acts of unprecedented resistance, such as the magnificent one of Dalits dumping cow carcasses in front of government buildings. If the nation has to go beyond symbolism, it has to be an imagination ploughed by the liberatory impulses of different oppressions. The shackles on freedom are self-imposed. As Kabir mused, “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive do you think ghosts will do it after?”

This article was first published here in The Hindu.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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