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#Jallikattu: Reflections By A Tamil Youth On Culture, Identity And The Law

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The crowd at Marina Beach, incensed and in plenty, is indeed an overwhelming sight. The mind falls quiet and is found staring at a tremendous moment in history. On November 26, 1949, a gathering of the tallest individuals of that age assembled, with great solemnity, to adopt the Constitution of India. Years of treachery and serfdom had come to an end. The most diverse nation on earth was about to resume her ancient name. The world watched with wonderment.

Will history repeat itself?” asked Dr B.R. Ambedkar in what was to be his final address to the Constituent Assembly. “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional ways. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for the contrary.”

The Republic of India survives on the wisdom of these words.

Let me confess that I am very uncomfortable with Jallikattu. I don’t sympathise with the sport at all. But this doesn’t diminish my respect for those who disagree and, to my infinite admiration, for the peaceful and lawful manner in which they’ve carried out their protest. Surely, had Dr Ambedkar been alive, he would concur and with pride.

But observing the events of the last few days carefully, one is pained by the brute force of the decibel and its assault on conversation and nuance. Central to our democratic life is dialogue. The object of dialogue is not victory but progress. Those who have expressed their disaffection for Jallikattu have been abused or hounded. Counter arguments, if any, are often sloppy and unbecoming of intelligent and progressive people.

Take for instance the claim that those who eat meat or wear leather products are unqualified to express pain for the Jallikattu bull. This is nothing short of a deflection. One is uncomfortable with confronting the possible problem in one’s stand and immediately chooses to justify it by acts of cruelty committed by others. Another’s wrong does not make my wrong alright and it is simply absurd to argue in this fashion.

I will be honest and admit that I do eat meat and I have worn leather products too. My stance on Jallikattu, if anything, has exposed me to the obvious hypocrisy I’d harbour in ignoring the inconsistency between my lifestyle and my stance on this matter. I am undergoing a difficult process of self-reflection. It certainly is unsettling. But I’m committed to this effort and am genuinely grateful for this chance to progress in mind and heart.

Tamil culture is one of the most ancient and inspiring in the world. It has given us people like the legendary sage Thiruvalluvar. He manifested and gifted to the world the absolute pinnacle and sophistication of human thought. Tamil culture has also given the world Thanthai Periyar, the man who turned a fledgling nation towards its own conscience with the reminder that true freedom comes only when the most vulnerable and oppressed feel that the nation indeed is their own too. Those who come to my home state rarely leave without feeling its warmth.

This is why I am so proud to be a Tamilian. My community’s culture is far too rich and lofty to be assaulted by the events that have captured the past few days.

Lastly, I will submit that regardless of my views, a ban on Jallikattu is purely wrong. The law is an offspring of culture and it is strange and worrying to think that the law, on its own, can affect cultural reform.

Expressions like ‘equity’, ‘good conscience’ and ‘the rule of law’ – are these not born from culture? Surely the law did not descend from some objective heaven of justice. Our concept of justice itself – lovely as it is – is manmade, cooked and nurtured over the ages. For a practice that is understood to be centuries old and symbolic of a community’s identity, the law, should it seek to reform it, cannot work in isolation. If it does, like in the present case, it will be viewed as hostile to culture and against the sensitivities of a people.

This is not to say that the law must function in deference to culture. Certainly not. But the law must function in dialogue with culture. For a democratic republic to survive, respect for the rule of law is absolutely essential. Isn’t it difficult to feel respect for something that appears willfully oblivious or hostile to the cultural sensitivity of a community?

In the case of the Hindu Code Bills, years of dialogue and grassroots advocacy led by the likes of Swami Vivekananda, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lokmanya Tilak and Gandhi, to name a few, allowed the law to ‘officialise’ cultural progress during the infant years of our independence.

The LGBTQ movement in the U.S. is another example. The Supreme Court verdict legalising gay marriage wasn’t a legal victory alone. Thousands of brave activists and advocates across America and the world went straight to the grassroots, fell down on their knees and urged the mainstream to look beyond the barbed walls of orthodoxy and recognise the diversity in the human condition.

A groundswell of public awareness and sensitisation paved way for the Supreme Court to deliver its verdict such that it was accepted and respected across the country. Detractors in the public remained – and still do remain – but there is no disputing that the public conversation had taken a turn towards greater awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ concerns.

Conversation and advocacy must be coupled with legal enforcement. The former without the latter will be a toothless effort; the latter without the former will be an invitation towards anarchy.

Cultural reform can never be enforced. It can only be invoked by a people for themselves and unto themselves.

We are presented with a splendid opportunity to reflect, converse and move forward. What a tragedy it would be if this moment were to pass unheeded to.

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Image source: Manu Manohar/ Flickr

This post was initially published on the author’s personal blog.

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By India Fellow Social Leadership Program

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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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