Caste Never Leaves You

My birth was my immortal accident. I was born white with skin made of smooth polyester. They put me through 250 degrees of fire to bake me in a deep blue with white writing. I was cut and stitched. The face of a man adorned my centre. A man who would orchestrate my destiny. A man who had permeated me deeper than the blue that I was baked in. A man called Ambedkar, and I was the standard for the Ambedkar Students’ Association.

It was a trial by fire from the start. I was first unfurled in a protest against the death penalty. The Ambedkar Students’ Association believed in the sanctity of life, whoever the condemned. That’s where I saw him, a young PhD scholar with gorgeous locks and a killer smile. His eyes glinted of an imagination far beyond the realms of this world. Sparkled of a billion galaxies and bedazzling stars. His beautiful skin glowed in the heat of the Hyderabad sun, he picked me up and brandished me in the wind. I felt free, fluttering in the gaze of the throbbing masses below. Dancing to the chants of Jai Bhims and glittering in the gaze of the midday sun. Most entrancingly I was fastened to the mast that touched his hands. For me, that was reason enough to feel alive. I had arrived. I had begun.

Of all his meagre possessions, I was his favourite. He had given me pride of place above his belongings as he hoisted me to the ceiling. I would gently sway to the breeze now and again watching the scholar as he studied, daydreamed, whispered of revolution and transfixed on the enigmas of science. Here was a fine young man who idolised the giants of science fiction like Carl Sagan and the colossal crusader against the caste system, Ambedkar.

But I would relish being released in the open. Battling my fascist and casteist saffron nemesis on behalf of the condemned and dispossessed. The battle was between nature and human, the injustices piled on by humans over their own species under the auspices of an unnatural caste order. I knew I was in the right as the blues sang of social justice and compassion. The saffron of cruelty and status. These beasts were divorced from nature, devoid of empathy, enraptured by power. I was in the company of love and love obliterates all.

“My birth is my fatal accident; I can never recover from my childhood loneliness; the unappreciated child from my past,” lamented the young scholar. I didn’t know what drove him to such melancholy but slowly learned. His story predates his birth as is often the case with such stories. Once upon a time, his mother was the daughter of impoverished migrant labourers toiling on a railway track. Hailing from a Dalit caste and being a girl conferred the triple disadvantage of caste, poverty and gender on the one-year-old. A non-Dalit woman who owned a house adjoining the tracks had just lost her baby, and the one-year-old offered a ready substitution to fill her void.

She offered to adopt the child which the migrant couple accepted. In a Moses-like tale, they parted with their child wishing a better life for her than the one they could offer in their caste’s trap. Thus, Radhika entered the house of Anjani Devi as a daughter and a domestic. The only consolation was being fed and not playing near the tracks waiting for train death. Devi thought it wise to marry Radhika off as a child bride to a man from Devi’s own non-Dalit caste.

But who marries a Dalit girl? The true power of caste comes alive in marriage halls. How many inter-caste celebrations do you see? One occasionally sees inter-caste unions but usually sliced in ponds of blood by their own honourable families. Caste is water-tight, air-tight and separated by an untraversable ocean of hate. Love tries an audacious attempt to leap across the tracks but is rammed into by the Vedic train that leaves dismembered bodies in its wake. So Radhika was passed off as a non-Dalit and married off at 14 to an alcoholic, schizophrenic wife-beater. It is possible that an equally grim fate would have awaited Radhika had she never been adopted, but at least her caste status would’ve been clearly advertised to potential suitors.

But beggars can’t be choosers and Dalits can’t be dreamers. Three children were born out of the abuse before the alcoholic schizophrenic wife-beater discovered that he’d been cheated and that Radhika was Dalit and adopted. You can see the evil in a man’s heart by what unleashes his fury. The violence exploded and believe it or not, even Dalits have a limit. Radhika left him and returned to Devi’s house. She resumed her role as the servant daughter pressing her children into servitude. Our scholar hated this as it continued even after the family moved out. The price for being adopted in an upper caste house was intended to be inherited.

Caste never leaves you. Leaving the smaller Guntur district of his birth to the bright lights of Hyderabad introduced the scholar to institutional casteism known by the name of Hyderabad Central University. Enough was enough, and the Ambedkar Students Association teamed with the innumerable Dalits united in the biggest fight of them all. The caste monster had hollowed them from birth, and here they were confronted with the fascist gangs of caste’s gatekeepers. Throwing himself into the fight, he brought me into the open to battle-cries of Educate, Organise, Agitate. This is the Ambedkar chant, and it threatened their world.

But what can you do when your University’s vice-chancellor is part of that gang? What can you do when your Union Minister is fascist to his core? What can you do when your Minister for Human Resource Development is anti-human? You see your fellowship stopped; you are falsely accused of manhandling their fellow fascist. The last straw comes when you are thrown out of your hostel. Welcome to your caste’s roadside abode. How can the progeny of Dalit migrant labourers study for a PhD? The caste system corrects itself on the backs of Dalits and swallows them whole like a voracious python crushing its devoured prey. “Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this,” he had once written in his letter to the vice-chancellor alongside a request for a good rope for Dalit students.

He gathered his things, clutched his Ambedkar poster and draped me over his paltry belongings. We lived in a tent amidst hunger strikes and weakening spirit. None of the powers retracted from their casteist stances. Not the Vice-Chancellor, not the Union Minister, not the Minister for Human Resource Development. Like partners in a planned genocide, they waited for the standoff to start claiming lives. Like vultures waiting on starving children. He picked me up and walked to his friend’s room. Sat at a table and scribbled something.

He then tied me to the ceiling fan and noosed the other end, slipped his neck through it and kicked his legs free. I gave Rohith Vemula a swift ending. I quickly snapped his neck instead of tightening my grip and making him suffer in suffocation. Caste had already strangled him enough. He was a man that belonged to the stars. Not the shadows of the indelible blot of caste on this world. He was beyond that. He was stardust.

Someone burst in and screamed. They cut me to free him, and the political battle over his death instantly ensued with earnest. I wasn’t bothered about that. I was touched by death. I was touched by caste. I was touched by the words he had scribbled. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” Please stitch me. Please make me whole again. Please raise me. Please fly me. I want to destroy their hegemony. I want to burn their dominion. I want to explode their hierarchy. I want to raze their arrogance. I want to stab their system and drain the gushing tar. Or else bundle his body and make me his shroud so I can travel to the stars far from your bigotry and dogma.

No, that’s too easy. Let’s fight this. Let’s finish this. Let’s avenge this. The world deserves to know their wretched practices. How the nation’s tyrant conferred the ‘Millenium Plaque of Honour’ to his killer.

You deserve to live as inferior to none. Why should you die? Why should you compromise? Why should you suffer? This world is as yours as it is theirs. Take a leaf from the book of the brave Sunkanna Velpula who refused to accept his award from that killer of Rohith’s.

They have perfected their wicked arts for thousands of years but no more in the age of Ambedkar. He exposed their designs, and now it is too little too late to renege to Vedic times. Our late scholar’s mother, Radhika and brother Raja, sought ultimate revenge by ditching Hinduism for Buddhism on Ambedkar’s 125th Birth Anniversary. Here, we kick your religion itself. Enough is enough.

Information is shared in an instant, atrocities are reported from all corners of the land, the world is up in arms at their savagery. The moment is now, the iron is hot, the blood is fresh. We can overturn their schemes, and Ambedkar is our weapon. Educate, Agitate, Organise under my stitched flutter and the scholar didn’t die in vain. The revolution is upon us and will be fought in the mind, in the heart and on the ground. We will leave a trail of freed multitudes and not corpses in our wake. We will live, we will fight, we will free. We have arrived, we have begun.

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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.

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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.

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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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