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Why 50 Former IIT Students Have Come Together To Form A Political Party In Bihar

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“If you do Hindu-Muslim, it’s not going to work. If you talk about our rights, our health and education, or social justice, then you are going to win. Otherwise, (people will say) we have BAP,” says Naveen Kumar, one of the founders of the Bahujan Azad Party.

Until the intervening night of April 22 and 23, when a PTI story on them got published everywhere, most people didn’t know about the Bahujan Azad Party (BAP), which is awaiting its approval from the Election Commission and plans to fight the 2020 Bihar elections. The party had organised meetings in around six districts of Bihar about Dalit-Bahujan rights until then, but had made little news.

A week later, the party was flooded with calls from different parts of the country. Many news organisations have interviewed them. This attention isn’t surprising. After all, they are a group of about 50 former IIT students, and the obsession in the country with everything IIT guarantees some of this early limelight.

But they aren’t just any group of IITians. They, definitely, aren’t the IIT-tribe of politicians such as Arvind Kejriwal, Manohar Parrikar, or Jairam Ramesh, who joined electoral politics much after their life at IIT. They are a much younger bunch. Their leader, Naveen Kumar, is only 26. And they are raising issues that – as cases such as that of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras have shown — aren’t given much space in IITs to grow. “There is some hostel politics, at the institute level, but there is no mainstream politics,” Kumar told YKA.

Despite this apparent lack of exposure to organised politics, why and how exactly did 50 IITians come together to form a political party with a mission considered ‘controversial’ in IITs? In the last week of April, Kumar sat down with YKA at an IIT Delhi canteen to explain.

Ask Naveen Kumar to describe his party’s motto and he will answer in one word: representation. Like most parties based on the idea of fighting casteim, the Bahujan Azad Party promises to provide reservation in promotion, courts, media, and the redistribution of land.

In their campaign however in the past two and a half months in Bihar and on social media, the party adds another promise — making the Bahujan society the ruling class of the nation.

Naveen Kumar says they don’t want to see celebrations if the Congress comes to power, as it is also ruled by upper-castes. “If BJP is in power, it will definitely decimate (the Bahujan society), but if social justice parties also join hands with these two parties…” he trails off.

Naveen Kumar was motivated to forma political party when he saw Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad — both old heavyweights of anti-caste politics in Bihar — fail in fulfilling their promises. In fact, it was campaigning or the ‘Grand Alliance’ in 2015 that was an eye-opener, he says.

“50-60 families were drinking water from two hand pumps, and when one stopped working, there was nobody to fix it,” Kumar explained. Even before the JD(U) joined hands with the BJP, he was disillusioned with both JD(U) and RJD, after working on the ground. “There was another incident. Women for protesting for land reform and the police beat them up. They were ruthlessly suppressed,” he says.

If anti-caste leaders of these parties have compromised on their ideals, Kumar and his party has the vantage point of youth and their distance from electoral politics until now, having worked largely in the field of education. They are still idealistic.

After the Bihar elections, Kumar spent some time at an NGO run by Akhilesh Sarkar, a former senior from IIT, before returning to Delhi to prepare for the civil services exams. The following year would see big anti-caste agitations, first due to Rohith Vemula’s death in January, then the Una incident in July.

In the library at IIT, Kumar asked his friends, “How can you concentrate? Don’t these incidents rile you up?” The response was the usual chalta hai and kuch nahi hoga. “But I believed although one person can’t change this, somebody has to come forward,” he says, “This was not acceptable for me.”

In the library, other civil services aspirants and seniors suggested that he join politics. With the Saharanpur caste-riots in 2017, he was prepared to take the plunge. By October, he had re-connected with his network of friends and seniors, and they responded “as if they were waiting for it”.

But why did 50 people come together? Kumar says the foundation of this party was laid long back when his seniors Vikrant Vatsal and Akhilesh Sarkar were coaching IIT aspirants from underprivileged backrounds.

This laid the foundation of a slightly political platform with the aim of providing education. “Here there were people who had a problem with why farmer suicides happen. Some thought that the primary issue is that our politicians just don’t want to do anything. Somewhere, everybody had a common goal,” Kumar explained.

When Vatsal graduated, he tried to run a coaching institute in his village in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, but failed due to opposition from the dominant castes, who wouldn’t let him run a school. “They spread a rumour that he will get crores for a contract from the government and from abroad. So the villagers were misguided,” Kumar says.

Sarkar similarly faced discrimination at his job, where he was asked about his caste. “So he was like, ‘If you aren’t giving affirmative action, then why are you asking all this?’” Kumar told YKA. This made Sarkar resolute for ‘revolution’, and Kumar nudged him to find a ‘political solution’. “If Babasaheb has given the Constitution, then you will move forward with that only, right?” Kumar said.

There are questions of practical importance at this stage, of course. How will a group of relatively unknown politicians secure votes in a state that has not only options in the form of the two big national players, but also regional heavyweights?

Kumar guesses from the response they have been getting after news of the party broke that recognition won’t be a problem. Even in the meetings back home, he says, the crowd has increased. They say their idealistic vision of action on the promises of social-justice will at the very least improve the politics of the state.

“If you do Hindu-Muslim, it’s not going to work. If you talk about our rights, our health and education, or social justice, then you are going to win. Otherwise, (people will say) we have BAP,” he said.

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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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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.

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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