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‘We Are Each Responsible For The Injustices Of The Men We Place On Pedestals’

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Over the past decade, despite the impediments, a number of victories have been won in the war to achieve justice for women sexually exploited by India’s spiritual leaders. 

In 2017, Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his disciples. Like Asaram, he has millions of followers, with communities known as “deras” spread throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He also wielded significant political influence and would reputedly issue orders to his disciples to vote for one party or another. 

His downfall began in 2002 after a female disciple made public an anonymous letter alleging that Rahim had raped her. Explaining that the world viewed them as “celibate disciples,” she described how Rahim ordered her to his room one night and proceeded to rape her. “There is no doubt that I am God,” he told her in response to her objections. Furthermore, he cited his political clout as the reason he could get away with the crime. According to the victim, he told her, “I have considerable influence in the governments. The chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, and central Ministers touch my feet. Politicians seek my support and take money from me. They cannot take any action against me.”

Rahim’s pride went before his fall. The victim claimed, “If a probe is conducted by the press or some government agency, 40 to 45 girls — living in utmost fear at the Dera — if they are convinced, are willing to tell the truth.” Years later, she was proven correct and Rahim was imprisoned. Yet, as in the case of Asaram, the pursuit of justice for victims of sexual violence led to even more bloodshed. Immediately after Rahim’s conviction, his followers staged riots across large sections of northern Indian. Dozens died.

What is more, Rahim’s conviction didn’t destroy his reputation. Even politicians continued backing him. For instance, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj (who incidentally represents the Unnao constituency which neighbors that of accused rapist MP Kuldeep Singh Sengar) termed Rahim a “noble soul” — after his conviction — and declared, “One person alleges sexual exploitation but crores [tens of millions] stand with him today. Who is correct? One crore people who are supporting Baba or that girl who was raped?”

Asaram Bapu

A slew of other swamis have also been charged, arrested, or even convicted. In 2017, Swami Ichchadhari Bheemanand was arrested for running a prostitution ring. In 2008, Swami Amrita Chaitanya was arrested for rape, paedophilia, and producing pornographic films of underage girls. In 1997, Swami Premananda was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for rape, including of underage girls, oftentimes on the pretext that having sex with him constituted “service to God.”

However, not only do accusations of sexual exploitation often do little to even dent the reputations of the accused, but those accused frequently continue to be treated as heroes, authorities, or even deities. Sometimes they are even memorialized in statuary. There is no more prominent example of this than Mohandas Gandhi — nicknamed “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.”

Gandhi is the epitome of how the confluence of political and religious power can provide impunity for those who sexually exploit women in India. Known as the “Father of India” because of his role in India’s independence movement, he is also considered the world’s premiere apostle of nonviolence. Yet, unlike the bishop, no one ever protested on behalf of his victims; unlike the swamis, he was never taken to court.

“It’s uncanny how similar he is to Gandhi,” remarked author Rita Banerji. “I’m talking about Asaram, the Indian spiritual leader.” Examining the similarities, she says, “Both Gandhi and Asaram commanded followers in the millions, who regarded them as saints, spiritual ‘guides,’ and called them ‘Bapu’ or Father.” She explains that both spiritual leaders “regarded sex as and sexual desire as ‘sins’” and that “both preached abstinence to their followers and the control of sexual desire as a form of self-‘purification.’” Moreover, she concludes, “Both Gandhi and Asaram, in hypocritical violations of their own preaching, indulged in sexual gratification of one kind or another, even when it resulted in the sexual abuse of girls and women in their flock.”

Gandhi famously took a vow of celibacy in 1906. By 1944, after the death of his wife, he began conducting what he called “experiments” to “test” his celibacy. Most infamously, the 75-year-old Gandhi slept naked with his 18-year-old grandniece, Manu, who came under his guardianship at the age of 12, as well as with 18-year-old Abha, the wife of Gandhi’s grandnephew. 

Ramachandra Guha has spent the past 20 years writing a three-volume biography of Gandhi. He calls the spiritual leader “the greatest modern Indian.” Yet, reacting to Gandhi’s “experiments,” Guha says, “It was very strange.” Seeking to explain why the old man called his young female relatives to share his bed — naked — Guha says, “He was alone, lonely, without a guide.”

Gandhi himself offered a different explanation. He didn’t deny the abuse. Instead, he portrayed it as his moral obligation and cast himself (in the tradition of sexual exploiters everywhere) as a martyr. “Manu Gandhi, my grand-daughter as we consider blood relations, shares the bed with me,” stated Gandhi. “Sleeping with Manu is for me an inseparable part of the yajna (sacrifice).” 

Elaborating on the sacrifice he was making, he wrote, “Manu’s sleeping with me is a matter of dharma (duty), and I am resolved to drive home the lesson that a person cannot give up what is a matter of dharma to him for the love of those who are dear to him or out of fear of anybody. If, in a situation like this, I give up what I believe to be my dharma through false regard for friends or fear or love, my yajna would remain incomplete.”

Justifying the experiment to Manu, he told her, “[We] must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked.” His test, however, was apparently a failure. According to biographer Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi confided in another woman that, while sleeping with Manu, “Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience.”

Even if Gandhi’s test had produced the supposedly desired results, Banerji likely would have remained unconvinced. As it is, she says, “I saw Gandhi as a classic example of a sexual predator — a man who uses his position of power to manipulate and sexually exploit the people he directly controls.” She holds Gandhi’s followers culpable for the abuse and thinks Gandhi should serve, not as an example, but as a warning to the world. “Men in leadership positions can sexually prey on vulnerable girls and women because the people who honor their leadership also create the space and give them the power to do so,” declares Banerji. As a final word, she argues, “We are each responsible for the injustices of the men we place on pedestals.”

Gandhi was never held liable for his actions. More modern Indian spiritual leaders are being called to accountability, however. Ram Rahim was. So was Asaram. Perhaps Sanji Ram and Kuldeep Singh Singer will also face accountability. In a glimmer of hope, Bishop Franco Mulakkal is now being weighed in the scales of justice.

On September 20, the Vatican finally removed Mulakkal from his position. On September 21, the police finally arrested him. His arrest came nearly three months after charges were first filed on June 28, but it came nonetheless.

If other cases over the years are any evidence, however, the nuns who sat protesting in Kochi since September 8 may need to alter their demands. The arrest came, but Mulakkal has not been defrocked. And even if he is stripped of priesthood, prison may yet be a long way off.

The case of the bishop and the nun should, if nothing else, remind the world of the words of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. An attorney and intellectual who is particularly renowned as a champion of civil rights for India’s downtrodden communities, Ambedkar noted, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

In the modern Indian context, that’s a hopeful thought. From West to East, countless spiritual leaders are abusing their flocks. Prominent politicians boast of bowing and prostrating before these abusers. Yet, one after another, their victims are stepping forward to challenge the most powerful men in the world, proclaiming, “This will stop. We are not victims. We are survivors.” 

These survivors are the dignified ones. The true heroes. The real Mahatmas whose stories — if not their names — should go down in history.

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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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