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Meet The Activist Who Is Fighting Deep-Rooted Caste Discrimination At The Grassroots

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Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi does not need an introduction. He has been honoured with many prestigious awards in the field of human rights. Ensuring that ‘basic human rights for all’ remains a phrase with a value, Dr Raghuvanshi has made his path with his clear mind, dedication, and determination. In a brief interview, he talks about his journey so far and the way forward.

Ashish: What is the story behind you becoming a human rights activist?

Lenin Raghuvanshi (LR): From the beginning, I was averse to the caste system. I refer to my upper caste Hindu upbringing as ‘feudal’. This sprung the seed of social activism in me. I became the president of the Uttar Pradesh chapter of United Nations Youth Organisation at the age of 23 in 1993.

I was influenced by the ideals of my grandfather, who was a freedom fighter and a Gandhian. Initially, I started to work on environmental rights and sanitation awareness. In 1992, I came into contact with Kailash Satyarthi (Nobel laureate) through Swami Agnivesh. I worked with him on issues of child labour and bonded labour. I realised that most people engaged in bonded labour belong to lower castes and that it was primarily lower caste children who were the victims of bonded labour. Thus, in order to redress the problem of bonded labour and caste discrimination, I established the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in 1996.

Lenin Raghuvanshi

Ashish: What inspires you to continue what you believe is right for you and the society at large?

LR: I was born in Dhaurahara village, in Varanasi district, on May 18, 1970. The eldest of seven brothers and a sister. The lineage of the Raghuvanshi family can be traced back to Lord Rama. Our forefathers were freedom fighters. Three of them rose against the tyranny of the Raj in 1857 and were executed. My great granduncle, Markendey Singh, was a freedom fighter. His first wife, Rama Devi, who died of tuberculosis, handed over the Indian flag of the revolutionaries to my father, Surendranath Singh before she took her last breath. Rama Devi had defeated Lal Bahadur Shastri in an election of the Congress, during her lifetime. Being from a family of freedom fighters, my ancestors lost their landlord-ship. Initially pushed to penury, they struggled and became middle-class farmers. Some of them were doing government jobs.

Meanwhile, my grandfather, Shanti Kumar Singh, protested against the Raj and joined the agitation against World War II. He had to serve rigorous imprisonment. His son, my father, had joined the RSS. When he came home, one day, wearing a black cap, my grandmother objected and said that it was against our culture (my 107-year-old grandmother is alive). My father quit the RSS. He then came in contact with a Dalit leader, Hichchu Ram. He was in the CPI, and later, the CPI(M).

All my brothers and sisters were named after prominent Marxist leaders by my father. Though he was a leftist, he was deeply religious. Meanwhile, my grandfather, a Gandhian, was an atheist. An egalitarian, he had a good grasp of grassroots politics. I grew up with my grandparents in Bombay. Our home felt the turbulence of ideologies. These shaped me. Other influences on me were the ideologies of Gautam Buddha, Kabir, Dr BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Agnivesh. Though a left-liberal ideologist, engaged with the politics of the marginal (Dalits and minorities), I am a firm believer in non-violence.

I have combined these ideologies, along with my struggle as a human rights defender against caste-based discriminations, to shape a new ideology, that of neo-Dalits. He aspires to reclaim human dignity. These are the cognitive and contextual factors for the energy in my life.

Ashish: How do you see India from a human rights perspective? Where do you see it going?

LR: India has one of the highest GDP rates in the world. As a ‘developing economy’ in a global economy, the country tries more and more to immerse itself in the international market for goods and capital. This amazing economic growth is beautifully accompanied by the establishment of democracy and seems to make India a paradise under construction. But this lovely facade hides many inappropriate practices such as poverty, brutality and destruction of nature. Let’s review these practices in the context of economic policies.

We may describe Indian economic policy as a conversion to the neoliberal religion with a brutal ’shut up’, steeped in ritualisation. On one hand, politicians use India as a reservoir of raw materials. They allow the big corporations to exploit nature, and destroy the fragile ecosystem which allows rural people to live. Rural people have been living there for ages. They sell the entire national key infrastructure — such as water, electricity, health, telecommunication, transport, education, natural resources to private companies to make money through corrupt practices. This privatisation process of the State and land is strongly encouraged by neoliberal global institutions such as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc.

On the other hand, such practices of piracy against people who are dispossessed of the wealth of their country by political and economic leaders — are perpetrated through authoritarian and violent measures that the government takes against people who resist, and in the powers-that-be’s lingo, try to mutiny against such policies. The police use torture, the army is called in to crush innocent citizens, who dare to speak the truth. The state machinery and certain laws make them safe from having to face any penalty for their human rights violations. Legislation like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), which are used more against people who dare to criticise these policies than against dreaded terrorists. During that time, other legal texts are enacted to protect and attract multinational companies to provide them fiscal and legal advantages on a very broad definition of what we call the ’free market’, such as the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, which limits the liabilities of Transnational Companies (TNC) from nuclear industrial disasters.

Thus, Indian leaders create a good ‘investment climate’ for big corporations. This transforms India into a beautiful dream for TNCs, though they remain a daily nightmare for rural and urban workers. Furthermore, we should understand that this situation is dangerous, not only because this seems to foreshadow the establishment of an authoritarian regime, which allows brutal political repression with impunity, but also because this political impunity is put in place alongside the implementation of an economic policy of corporate impunity.

But this political and economic culture of impunity cannot be fully understood by the opening of the Indian market to the international one or by the corrupt practices that plague public and private institutions. Behind those external factors, there is a cognitive reason, which is also very important to understand such behaviour: The caste system and the casteist mindset.

Indian society has lived for hundreds of years on a strict and rigid social hierarchy, based on the Brahmanism stream within Hinduism. The caste system, which so many people see wrongly as a concomitant to Hinduism, is a social organisation, which allows upper caste people to do whatever they want, including inflicting psychological and physical torture to lower caste people and women, who are considered inferior because of their birth. People from the lower castes are forced to accept this supremacy theologically, as if it was founded by the gods, but was actually put in place by select human beings to implement an unequal socio-political regime. This belief creates a cognitive complex of inferiority and superiority for the lower and the upper castes, respectively. Sadly, it allowed the implementation of a national culture of caste and social impunity, perpetuated by a culture of silence created by fear, pain and a lack of self-esteem of lower caste people.

But the story doesn’t stop here, because all these ’cultures of impunity’, which allows a minority group to govern and exploit the majority, can be partly questioned by civil society organisations and protest movements that wish to reverse this cognitive and social pyramid or flatten it. For these reasons, power holders use many means to divide the lower caste majority and divert them from the key issues that face India. One such method being communitarian hatred. Thus, they ensure their freedom to act as leaders, by enacting draconian laws to ‘protect’ people from communitarian acts and acts of terrorism that they create to further their diabolical plans.

Ashish: What are the main focus areas of your work?

LRMainly three areas:

  • Creating models of non-violent and democratic communities in different villages: Residents are trained to fight against human rights violations and come together if any fellow villager is being mistreated by their family members, authorities, or any other person. PVCHR has created local cadres, called aguwas, which are groups of people who raise their voices against injustice. It has formed these aguwas in 250 villages in eastern Uttar Pradesh and the Koderma district of Jharkhand.
  • Linking grassroots activities and international human rights institutions: PVCHR is also networked with other human rights organisations like India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Human Rights Lawyers’ Network, People’s Commission against Assault on Minorities, Sajhaa Sanskriti Manch, Samanvay, Childline, and the National Federation for Right to Education.
  • Providing psychological support through testimonial therapy: Testimonial therapy takes place in four sessions. In the first two sessions, the survivor sits with a therapist and narrates the situation they have been in, while a third person takes notes. Together, they create a testimonial or a narrative of the entire incident. A ceremony is organised in the third session, where inhabitants of the survivor’s village are also present. The therapist or the survivor reads the testimony to the audience. After this, the survivor receives a garland to symbolise a transition from being a victim to becoming a survivor. Studies show the ceremony helps in healing mechanisms through self-awareness and community support.
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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.

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.

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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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