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Nationalism, Universities And Cultures Of Protest

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What in essence defines a state, in practical terms of enforcement, is a monopoly on violence. It grants its agents immunity and separates it from any other class of citizens exhibiting its will through physical force. It also legally equips the agents to prevent other groups from indulging in the same. When this structure breaks, and foot soldiers of one ideology are able to play thought police with impunity or even with official support, a shift occurs; the state is relieved of any democratic character and morphs into another category of the rule altogether. There must be some word for it.

The violent events at Delhi University’s Ramjas College are the latest instalment in a long-drawn pattern. The HCU, JNU, IIT-Chennai, FTII, Jadavpur University and now DU can all attest to being victims of state agenda. Non-state actors (to say nothing of the police) thrashing those who voice dissent is one of the several methods being plied to subvert the idea of higher education. It could be handing ripe positions in varsities to less-than-qualified but politically compatible individuals. It could be forcibly shutting down study circles. It may be restructuring the entrance and admissions process or all of the above.

‘Cultures of Protest’, the seminar organised at Ramjas, was disrupted just as the event ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ was one year ago at JNU. In both instances, what is common is an emboldened ABVP, the ruling BJP’s student wing. Why talks and arguments are being stifled by stones and punches, and why currently any campus may rightly fear its ethos being shredded in a whirlwind of ‘patriotism’, needs closer examination. That institutions of learning are the prime recipients of state intervention is no wonder. It is by design.

The Siege On Universities

Higher education institutions are foundational to vibrant discourse, in and on society. If it is in the interest of a government to curb independent thought, it makes sense for it to train its guns on campuses. Here is where the ABVP becomes vital; it provides the regime with a readymade army of enforcers in student spaces. It lends a physical presence and agency in colleges, the hotbeds for multilateral debate. Therefore, it enables the RSS to hack at the roots of dissent at its very inception.

This is important for them. Their agenda dictates a general overhauling of which education is a crucial aspect. There is a certain absolutism at play in their motivations, which necessitates the removal of other points of view. It is unfeasible for them to allow Ambedkarite, Leftist or secular political bodies to flourish if indeed they are to inch closer to their vision of India.

This vision is a suspect one. In it, education resembles a factory which manufactures a uniform, unquestioning outlook; student activism is finished, dissent is not celebrated but demonised. There is a pre-decided way of thinking allowed, and the marketplace of ideas sells only one thing. In this vision, institutes get rapidly privatised and students are encouraged to keep student life limited to coursework. Careers are framed in terms of placements and packages. The mechanisms to provide an equal footing to those from less fortunate socio-economic backgrounds (and more likely to agitate for rights) are undone.

The ideal the RSS and BJP want to achieve is a homogenous fidelity. They are slowly creating an atmosphere where dissent is crushed, where people will think twice before raising their voices; a mode of governance which undermines other institutions, protects its thugs and tolerates only obedience even as it carries out a divisive agenda. There must be a word for it.

The situation is further illustrated by the fact that freedom of speech is being rationed out selectively. Anupam Kher, Maj. Gen. (retd) Bakshi and members of Sanathan Sanstha (an extremist group allegedly behind the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare) have all come and spoken at JNU. Pro-BJP filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri was allowed to make divisive statements at Jadavpur University. The prospect of Umar Khalid speaking at the Ramjas seminar, however, has led to injured students and teachers.

Nationalism, Violent But Vague

The Indian nationalism being peddled now is peculiar in that it only functions in an antagonistic sphere. It activates when it identifies the ‘other’; something to bash the daylights out of. Without rage, it is shapeless. There is no underlying nuance or logical political philosophy which dictates this particular nationalism.

It may be possible to deconstruct nationalism into empirical indicators to which a positive or negative value may be assigned. For example, it may be considered nationalistic to combat poverty in a country. The fight against unemployment or for some other kind of social justice may be deemed a patriotic fight. Some may feel a sense of national pride upon hearing Indian classical music or after India wins a cricket match, for its diverse cuisine or the dexterity of its charter.

There can be endless permutations. Conversely, one can feel a sense of shame over, for example, the fleecing of tourists, caste dynamics or rampant corruption in India, where the very fact of having enough concern to be bothered can itself be construed as patriotic. In that light, there may be a definition of nationalism tied to real, observable phenomena.

This current brand of nationalism does not feel the need to substantiate itself. Its violent enforcement is confident and vague in equal measure. It does not adhere to anything which can be measured or subjected to rational argument, and instead relies on mythology, rumour and hyperbole. The proclamation of love for the country is simply serving as a catch-all excuse to terrorise people. There is no greater depth to work with.

The ‘nationalists’ who have beaten journalists, teachers and students in the past two years – whether at Ramjas College or Patiala House Courts – are involved in ironic work. Their pursuit is the polar opposite of what it claims to represent. Somewhere in the midst of labeling all opposition as Rashtra Virodhi, the Hindutva variety of nationalism has positioned itself against any national good that can actually be measured. This is based on the sheer number of constitutional values it has offended. Thrashing scribes and academics, not letting universities and courts function, interfering in cinematic freedom, hounding foreign artists, gagging free discourse and trying to dismantle secularism, if anything, are activities which choke national progress rather than further it.

Is Resistance Possible With A Fragmented Opposition?

It is of grave and immediate concern that the Sangh Parivar is on an educational and cultural rampage. However, a larger problem arises out of the factionalism plaguing the groups which oppose it. At the student level, Left politics is sadly mirroring the tradition of debilitating factionalism which has diluted it at the national level, with shaky ties to groups operating on primarily anti-caste platforms. A year since it was liberally used to counter the BJP, the slogan of ‘Jai Bheem, Lal Salaam’ now comes with an asterisk.

The recent protests against the suspension of eight JNU students, in the wake of the university’s Academic and Executive Council meetings, showed the cracks. On December 23, the JNU administration hastily called a mid-vacation Academic Council meeting to clear some controversial recommendations. Many members of the council were away at this time, and a request for rescheduling was made. The administration went ahead with it despite a significant number of members missing. Some students broached the meeting venue (after or at the end of the meet, as per varying accounts) to protest this high-handedness and were subsequently suspended by the administration.

When the student body came out in protest against the suspensions and the unilateral passing of regulations by the V-C, a splintered resistance was to be seen. The AISA-helmed students’ union, with some other groups, was protesting separately while the newly-formed ‘committee of suspended students for social justice’ had set up camp at a distance. This committee was composed of the student groups Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA), United OBC Forum and quite a few others.

The reasons for the disunity were not differences of ideology or goals, but baser ones such as arguments over who was for or against the students entering the meeting hall, which faction did or did not show up at the other’s march and so forth.

It was a ludicrous sight. The committee protested atop the steps of the JNU administration block while the union did the same below, with the stairs quite literally representing the gap in cohesion; two factions were at loggerheads even as they essentially rallied against the same thing. A counter-productive situation, it plays into the hands of the ABVP and sets a bad example for the political fence-sitter, who may not want to join a resistance so clearly fractured in the first place. This is but one instance from New Delhi and a notable one considering JNU’s previously exceptional ability to unite against the Right.

More than ever, the larger picture needs to be considered. It is crucial that internal squabbles be shelved in the face of whatever form of governance it is that currently administers India. The struggle is for the retention of vital traits of higher education, freedom of speech or even, as seen in Ramjas, for physical safety; who is seen at the forefront of a cause or scepticism over the methodology of struggle is unimportant.

The writing’s on the wall. Mainstream opposition parties, along with Leftist and Ambedkarite schools of thought, need to show uncompromising unity as the rupturing of democratic processes is guaranteed to continue. Anything short of a wholly united front will certainly collapse. When facing uncharted and multi-headed state power, there is no place for myopia, at the student or national level.

Provincial political desires may wait. At this grim juncture, patriotism dictates that a collective opposition needs to get its act together. Failing this, we may have already witnessed the end of the cultures of protest.

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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.

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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