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‘Today’s Activists Want A Spectacle More Than Systemic Change’

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Thousands of citizens walking on the streets, sloganeering, asserting their democratic right of free expression, demanding change, provoking the power, create an emotional and passionate spectacle. The whole idea of organizing people on the basis of an idea, making them feel confident about coming together and speaking up, sounds fascinating. However, the question which remains unanswered is – what after that?

In today’s time, politics has become a capital-intensive business, which is devoid of reality and disconnected from the public sphere. Also, the rapid technological advancements and radically networked societies have left behind the institutions of the state with respect to their design, functions, and even legitimacy. With that, the forms and modes of exercise of power are also changing, and have changed in fact. In this context, the question ‘what after that?’, and the role of activists who organize people around an idea, requires a collective attention of everyone, especially those who are concerned about future of Democracy.

The anxiety and haste of activists, to gain the attention of the media and a large number of people quickly, exposes their desire for spectacle, and little concern for systemic change. A social movement requires an alternative idea, a class of people whom it affects, a leader, and a strategy. What generally happens with the young activists of today is that they have some half-baked ideas, social media following in the name of a class of people, a crowd gathered on the street in the name of strategy, and, ‘a’ person, who is ambitious, in the name of the leader. Any alternative idea requires a deeper understanding of the issue which is being dealt with. It is true, though, that the normative discourse cannot sustain without the specifics backed by an action agenda. Yet, normative discourse can also not be left as a post-spectacle agenda. When young activists, face this paradox, they tend to completely sideline the normative discourse as something which is a hurdle to the plan of action.

How then can the activists be considered different from a conman, also called as politician these days? If activists too have the desire for a spectacle alone, then how are they custodians of the public sphere? The designs of spectacle and their surgical execution by those in power have diminished the importance and power of public sphere. Activists who do not think about the systemic change viz. policy alternatives, design and processes of implementation, and monitoring and assessment of outcome, as part of the ‘grand strategy’ of social movement, do nothing but tread the same path as those in power. This failure of activists might not be deliberate but it surely needs to take centre stage in their thinking when there are no actual political alternatives left.

If one were to organize people for demanding the state to provide common public education system, could it only be done by people gathering on the street? Which political party today is ready to accept and promote the idea of the common public education system? There isn’t any. Here, common public education system is just taken as an example of an alternative idea. It highlights that there aren’t any political alternatives. Then the question arises, who would carry forward the momentum created in the form of public opinion, perhaps political consciousness as well, (in favour of a certain idea) to its manifestation of a real change in the policy, its implementation, and ultimately in the lives of the people. Hence, the question ‘what after that’ is important and inevitable at the early stages of the social movement.

The role of social media, actually over-dependence on it, in context of social movements, also requires a reassessment. In his popular Ted Talk, Wael Ghonim highlights the five critical challenges that social media faces today. He talks about rumours, echo chambers, online angry mobs, hardening of opinions and shallow comments on deep conversation. The last point among others is of utmost relevance to the social movements today. The social base of these movements is shrinking and the solidarities of various similar thinking groups are weakening. There is no doubt that social media plays the role of a catalyst in social movement, but without a solid base of people on the ground, it remains a self-gratifying activity. Given the context of challenges of social media, could it be trusted as a primary strategy to organize people? It is an open question. Simultaneously if a formal organization of people is not built with some structure and ideology, could the movement survive?

One can look for an example of failure of a social movement in India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. Where does it stand today? What happened to its ideals, leader and strategy? With the benefit of hindsight, one can ascribe a motive to the team of people involved in it, other than fighting against corruption. Naturally, a social movement of this large a scale has multiple forces working with it and it ultimately creates also multiple forces. But, could this movement answer the question of ‘what after that’, perhaps, no. Even after the passage of Lokpal Bill, India has not got a Lokpal. Corruption and crony capitalism are rampant, going on even at the larger pace. What went wrong? One thing which can be concluded without any doubt is the desire for spectacle in the team of people involved in the movement.

The aim of this article is not to present social activists in a bad light. In fact, it tries to pose in front of them some critical thoughts and questions about the future of activism, with which future of democracy is intrinsically linked. The three key points discussed in the article are a changing environment with respect to technology and power, thoughts about real alternatives and the implementation, and, the role of social media in building a real social base.

Going forward, the new movements and their leaders would definitely want to reflect upon their ideas and strategies. Believers in Democracy understand that social movements and such organizations are necessary for strengthening the public sphere and increasing its power, where the actual decisions should be made. That is the power of participatory democracy!

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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, 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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