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‘These Are Dark Times For Democracy And Freedom In India’

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These are dark times for democracy and freedom in India, when reason is being replaced by exposés, logic replaced by faith and democratic deliberations by fanatic mob violence.

Since the arrival of the Narendra Modi-led government in 2014, there have been ubiquitous marks of suppression and decadence in the values India always stood for. Be it intolerance to opposing views, protection of religious minorities, imposition of a fundamentalist religious ideology, indirect political support to public violence (cow vigilantes) and the neglect in following parliamentary procedures for the arbitrary imposition related to the currency note ban – all of this suggests that India is sliding towards a dictatorship like situation, where holding the government accountable can put one in prison or risk being labelled as an ‘anti-national’. These are popular tactics by the BJP supporters to silence opposing views and genuine criticism. Also, the media is selectively ignoring the burning issues which could put pressure on the government.

Our national concern has already shifted from increasing unemployment rate and dwindling business environment to war-mongering, religious nationalism, and silencing civil society.

Based on these observations, the following points are noted as subjects of concern, as the situation of democracy, rule of law and human rights decline in India.

Decline in Journalistic Freedom

In its latest report, Reporters without Borders (RSF) gave India the abysmally low rank of 136 in a list of 180 countries, as far as journalistic freedom was concerned. Even Afghanistan, Burma and Cambodia outshined India. This report stressed, “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” and, “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

The report goes on to say, “Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists, who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report, “These laws are vaguely worded, overly broad, and prone to misuse, and have been repeatedly used for political purposes against critics at the national and state levels.”

However, more alarming is the ‘polarisation of people’ along religious lines and the callous attitude of the majority of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) supporters (media, intellectuals, party workers, including the fringe Hindu nationalist religious elements) who are quick to label any dissent as ‘anti-national’, thus narrowing the space for logical debate, hindering access to fundamental rights of freedom of expression.

In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organisation closely affiliated to the BJP, seeks to decide for a nation of more than one billion people what to eat (ban on beef – controlling the eating pattern of the largest minority in India), what to read/see/listen (media control, self-censorship) and what to say (threat of sedition laws; only dominant Hindu narratives allowed in public discourse).

Along with it, self-censorship is on the rise and the media leaves no stone unturned to block any alternative views into public discourse.

RSS March (Image Credit: Adarsh Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Restricting the Right to Protest

The Adityanath-led government in Uttar Pradesh has banned all kinds of strikes by employees and teachers in state universities and colleges effectively, violating their right to protest and freedom of expression. The ban is put under the stringent Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). ESMA gives police the powers to arrest, without a warrant, anybody violating the act’s provisions.

Selectively Ignoring Higher Unemployment Rates

The United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its 2017 World Employment and Social Outlook report, which found economic growth trends lagging behind employment needs and predicted both rising unemployment and worsening social inequality throughout 2017. A Labour Bureau report found that the rate of unemployment in India had shot up to a five-year high of 5% in 2015-16.  The future looked grim with unemployment rates projected to be at 8.7% for women as compared to 4.3% for men.

Dwindling International Trade and Investment Credits

The impression being given by the media is that the Indian economy is growing; media also downplayed the loss of income and economy due to the note ban, specifically when the economy is sliding down. However, international credit rating agencies predicted a decline in India’s GDP due to the note ban.

Shrinking Spaces for Religious Minorities

In its 2017 report, US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed deep concern over the rising intolerance and public violence against religious minorities in India. The Report states, “The heightened enforcement against religious minorities by BJP government officials and/or Hindu nationalists . . . has contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom in the country.”

The report goes on to say, “In 2016, ‘cow protector’ vigilantes—often Hindu nationalists—intimidated, harassed, and attacked Muslims and Hindu Dalits for allegedly slaughtering, selling, or consuming cow products. For example, in April 2016, in the Punjab area of Uttar Pradesh, police arrested six Muslim men who RSS members, allegedly without evidence, believed were slaughtering stray cows. At the end of the reporting period, the six men remain detained and no court date has been scheduled. In July 2016 in Madhya Pradesh, members of a Hindu nationalist group beat two Muslim women who they alleged were carrying beef. Reportedly, the incident took place in full view of the police, who did nothing to help the victims and even allowed onlookers to film the incident. Also in July, in Una Town, Gujarat, four Hindu Dalit men were stripped naked and beaten, reportedly by members of Shiv Sena, an Indian far-right regional political party, for killing a cow and skinning it.”

Moreover, the report mentions how, “Christian communities across many denominations reported numerous incidents of harassment and attacks in 2016, which they attribute to the Hindu nationalist groups supported by the BJP. In early 2017, the NGO, Open Doors, estimated that a church was burned down or a cleric was beaten 10 times a week on average in India between January and October 2016—triple the number of incidents the group reported in 2015.”

“Forced conversions of Christians and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists also were reported in 2016. For example, in April 2016 in Chhattisgarh, two unidentified attackers, believed to be Hindu extremists, broke into a Pentecostal Church and beat the pastor and his pregnant wife,” the report also mentions.

Disregard For The Rule Of Law

In Uttar Pradesh and other parts of our country, the gau rakshaks and ‘anti-Romeo’ enthusiasts run amok with impunity. The police, eager as always to remain on the right side of might, arrest the victims first, lest they are labelled as ‘anti-national’.

Final Remark

Recently, President Pranab Mukherjee said, “…the need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society.” He further added, “That’s why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree.” He showed his concern that the media was not resisting enough against dominant views. Events occurring at the political-social stage indeed demonstrate that a disregard for democratic values and critical opinion is on the rise. The government directly or indirectly supports its political and religious affiliates who are pushing totalitarian hegemonic political ideas in mainstream discourse (fringe elements have become mainstream). They have thus jeopardised our Constitution and the liberal values India always stood for.

This article was originally published here.

Image Credit: Rajesh Sinha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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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