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‘I Could Never Have Matched Her Revolutionary Fervor’: Rajdeep Sardesai On Gauri Lankesh

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In early August, Gauri Lankesh rang me up with a special request: “I am helping to organize an event in Mangalore for progressive Muslim writers, I am keen that you should attend.” I asked her a little more about the group, and why it was confined to Muslim writers. “Trust me Rajdeep, these are genuine grassroot intellectuals that you would like to listen to, and I’m sure they would like to hear you too,” she replied. She said that the aim of the conference was to build bridges, to find ways to promote the values of peace and tolerance. Gauri could be very persuasive, so a few weeks later, she WhatsApped me again: “Remember my request, when can we have you in Mangalore?” I promised her that I would confirm within a week. The week, sadly, would never come.

A few days later, I was preparing for my 9 pm news show. The Rohingya issue was top of the mind that evening and I had prerecorded a discussion questioning the government policy of deporting thousands of people, including women and children. As I walked into the studio, I was shaken out of my comfort zone. There was a news flash onscreen: ‘Breaking News: Gauri Lankesh shot dead’. For a moment, as I adjusted my mic and jacket and prepared to read the headlines, I was gripped by a sense of total numbness. I read the headlines in a state of shock before my producer whispered, “Sir, let’s go straight to the breaking news, journalist Gauri Lankesh has been shot dead.”

News journalists living in the whirl of 24-hour television where today’s news is the next hour’s history are inured to earthquake, flash floods, terror, disaster. Even so, when a news flash tells you that someone you know has been just shot dead, the mind freezes, the hands start to shake. We managed to finish the news show that evening amidst a rising sense of disbelief, sadness and yes, anger. “Shit,” I said to myself, “Don’t tell me that Gauri has been killed by one of the right-wing loonies she has been speaking out against.” I even put this question to a Karnataka BJP local leader on the show, a question that seemed to agitate him, perhaps rightly so, since within minutes of a murder how does one reach any conclusion on the killers or their motives.

And yet, Gauri’s death seemed to fit a pattern. Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Govindrao Pansare, all staunch rationalist voices shot dead by unknown assassins, their murderers, shamefully, still not caught or convicted. All these individuals, much like Gauri, had spoken out against a poisonous streak of communal politics, an ideology driven by hate and prejudice. Was Gauri also a victim of these hatemongers simply because she had refused to back off and instead chosen to confront them? Or was there some other angle to her killing that might not be immediately apparent?

It was wrong to speculate while the investigations were still ongoing. We were not sure who had killed Gauri, but we were certain of who was gloating over, almost celebrating her death. The venomous response on social media in particular against her, suggesting that she ‘deserved’ to die because she was an ‘antinational’, ‘leftist’, ‘naxal sympathizer’, left me dazed. Is this what we had come to as a ‘civil’ society, so polarized that we could not even mourn the dead with dignity? And why would the prime minister of our country choose to follow such ugly voices on Twitter?

I cannot claim to have known Gauri intimately but always saw her as an integral part of the larger journalistic fraternity. Yes, there was a time when journalists saw themselves as part of a community, and not as ‘rivals’ engaged in constant one-upmanship. Gauri and I both started at the “Times of India” around the same period. She moved on to “Sunday” magazine and later became a driving force at the Kannada news magazine, “Lankesh Patrike”, that her father had started.

While Gauri sought to go back to her roots, I chose to drift from print into the glamorous world of television. I was in the public gaze as a ‘celebrity’ anchor but always admired Gauri for the manner in which she had abandoned the high-profile ‘mainstream’ media to build an institution that was seeking to bridge the gaping divide between regional and English language journalism. While we were impostors in the rarefied world of national news TV studios, she was undoubtedly in touch with a more authentic reality. Whenever I needed an angry voice to respond to a Bengaluru issue, or indeed a show where communal politics was being discussed, I would turn to Gauri for an articulate perspective. Whenever there was a debate that angered her, she would SMS or WhatsApp an irate response.

I always sensed in Gauri, an energetic persona, the earnest desire for change, the impatience with political correctness, the yearning for a better, more egalitarian society. I may not have agreed with all her views, but respected the courage of her convictions. She was not a cynic but an idealist who hoped and hankered for a more just social and political system. I could never have matched her revolutionary fervour: she lived life with the spirit of a fearless advocate for human rights, with an uncompromising attitude of reaching out to those who she felt were being victimized. Which is why I guess she was pushing me to attend the Muslim writers’ forum in Mangalore, if only to listen to marginalized voices she thought I would probably never get to hear in a noisy studio cage. I will still try and go to Mangalore one day soon. Only Gauri won’t be there by my side.

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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, 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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