Equality Vs Faith: Important Questions That Sabarimala Raises

Over the last few weeks, people have asked me about my views on the Sabarimala case and one gentleman, in particular, even asked me to write on it for a certain electronic media outlet. The reason I have kept away from such an exercise till now, even though the battle in Kerala over this matter has raged on for days, has been due to being caught in a dilemma: a dilemma to reconcile equality, which I strongly believe in, with faith, when it comes to politics and society in our contemporary world. More specifically, to reconcile these two ideas when they are at loggerheads due to constructs of faith in a religious order. Pondering over this dilemma opened a pandora’s box of instances and thoughts regarding how a politics of faith is a highly slippery slope at times, and a veritable entity that prevails in many sections of India and the world today. This article is a result of that meditation on this subject of interest.

Myths Evolve

Homo Sapiens established their clout in the food-chain based on their ability to mobilise around a cause or person or institution; mobilise not just in hundreds, as dolphins or chimpanzees can do, but in thousands, millions or even more if the situation so demands! A big factor in that ability to mobilise is the ability of human beings to create myths either over what can be veritable universal truths, revelations or structures of convenience. Ideas like nationalism and various religious elements are powerful enough to drive vast sections of the human populace to stick together not only in name but also in a very deep, sincere way. When the first civilisations emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Greece, one saw the movement away from an existence for survival that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to a more sedentary existence that gave a pre-eminent place to thought, reflection and constructs of the mind and society. The fact that many of these have a common root is all too clear with some Proto-Indo-European myths, symbols and societal elements (such as elements of linguistics) being adopted in various off-shoot cultures and civilisations, albeit in slightly variant forms. So if Ahura became the divine entity for the Zoroastrians, its slightly different rendition – Asura became a vile, diabolical presence. Myths were often assimilated and evolved over time: so while Indra went from being a pre-dominant God in Vedic times to a slightly more insecure one in Upanishadic times, elements of Mithraism were seen reflected in Christianity.

What was most important in all of this was mankind’s ability to adopt, assimilate and evolve. This often needed complete reworkings of society in ways that involved disturbances and even violence. So when Akhenaten abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced worship centred on the Aten (the disk of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology and an aspect of the Egyptian god Ra), it was met with widespread disdain. Early clashes between Judaism and Christianity over the mortality and resurrection of Christ are well-documented, even though up to that point and subject both orders agree on various nuances of their faith, including the importance of the Old Testament. What was the underlying commonality between all these moments? The movement of the thoughts, ideas and even emotions away from an established norm either due to a collective rethinking, imposition by a ruler, teaching by an individual or a group, reform from within society or even clash of civilisations.

Historically, there has usually been the alignment of the political structure with a certain school of religious beliefs and philosophy. While Queen Mary I of England preferred the Roman Catholic Church and tried to reverse the English Reformation that her father King Henry VIII started, her successor Queen Elizabeth I in turn reversed Mary’s state policy and sided with Protestantism. The Safavid dynasty making Shi’a Islam the official state religion in the early sixteenth century and aggressively proselytizing on its behalf made Iran the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country it continues to be today. In these countries and times, the common man residing in them had a natural tendency to gravitate towards a certain school of thought or religious order, even though reformers like Martin Luther and Raja Rammohan Roy would arise every once in a while.

That is no longer the case anymore in our world today.

We live in a world that is increasingly democratic, and rightly so. Free will, dialogue and reason hold sway. No one can unilaterally impose a certain edict or idea on the masses and follow through with its enforcement using state power. There is a certain distancing of politics and religion, and (again) rightly so. I personally believe that journeys of faith and spirituality are personal exercises, and state need have minimal role in them. And the reason for that is simple: the equality of every individual in the capacity to seek the truth in faith, spirituality or any other ideas and realities for himself/herself. The use of statecraft and political clout to impose any construct on this front betrays a sense of arrogance and a belief that the state knows what is best for its citizens. To those who believe in this new manifestation of Divine Rights, I ask: what is the state but the complete whole of its citizens and their invested belief in it? And to each citizen is given a right to seek the truths of life and existence. If even one person does not believe in the more accepted beliefs of a certain country or people, they should be allowed to actively pursue the same. That is what the Vedic faith, at one point, envisioned with its Darsanas of philosophy, and that is what modern democracy envisions in its vision today. There are, however, instances in history when these conceptions of realities clash, and it is these that define what makes mankind this effective and powerful; what makes mankind what it is today: a tendency to consult and converse using language to resolve differences of belief and experiences.

Faith And Politics In India

India emerged into the modern age in 1947, struck by divisions and religious tension. The subcontinent had been carved out into two countries by the British Empire in what turned out to be an encumbering swansong of theirs, for the administrators and people of both the countries for years to come. Not one, not two, but hundreds of religions and sects and classes and castes came together in a cauldron of humanity to churn out a modern day amrit (elixir): a certain unity in diversity. Where earlier many of these would be facing off in battlegrounds for warfare and in daily lives, they were led to live together under the refuge of the (Indian) Constitution. Given the truth in the evolution of most human constructs, including myths, the Constitution was given a chance to evolve  as well by enabling the Supreme Court and the judicial system to interpret the Constitution, besides giving the politicians the capability of creating laws and amendments to them. If dinosaurs died due to being unable to adapt to changing conditions, India was designed to be no dinosaur in the face of changing socio-economic and political conditions. There was a healthy possibility of not only making new laws and ideas and constructs by dialogue and discussion but to also look at existing ones using new perspectives and points of view. That, in itself, was not as much a challenge necessarily as an opportunity, of sorts. An opportunity for an ancient country to reawaken with renewed spirit and devoid of baggages that needlessly encumbered its flight into greater heights.

The first tremors that shook that belief came soon after the country was born. The Partition led to a rise of religious polarisation and ingrained disdain for some of these ideas. Gandhi is a champion of peace and the Indian Independence movement, but for the people who killed him, he was the champion of those whom they deemed their enemies, given the slaughter and mayhem that took place in that period. Dualities became polarities: the ingrained dualities in the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb became polarities  (of religion, caste, class and creed); the ingrained duality in the synthesis of a Hindustani culture (including the language Hindustani) soon turned into a clash of languages and the polarities therein. The other-ing of entities and realities, of constructs and ideas, threatened to tear asunder the beautiful dream of India that its builders had envisioned. Except it could not. It could not because the tussle of ideas was, much like the criss-cross of a net, a strong safety mechanism for a falling dream. In the very clash of ideas lay the surest way that India could never be torn apart till each of its people had a say. India could never fall till all the polarities still comprised a certain multiplicity. Since Dharma is the multiplicity of existences and realities, this Constitution gave us a truly Dharmic way of running our country. However, as in ancient epics, every construct of righteousness and order faces elements of chaos and disharmony.

In the capability of the judicial system to interpret the law lay the greatest accomplishment and the greatest weakness of the system. The former, because of the dynamism that could prevail and the inherent resistance to stagnation, and the latter, because of the human beings running the system still being just that: human. Humans with their own ideas and cultures and thoughts. Humans who prioritised and judged matters with as wide a scope as one could  establish using the Constitution and yet as limited a scope as a human judgement could provide. Even as the Supreme Court and the judicial system have done a wonderful job in the country over the years and I have the highest regard and respect for them, there are instances when one wonders whether we need to have a wider consultation between the institutions enshrined in our Constitution, the government, the media and civil society.

The recent Supreme Court judgement on the dissolution of the practice of not allowing women between the ages of 10-50 into the Sabarimala Temple complex has brought to the fore a heated debate. Lord Ayyapan is a much-revered God for millions of devotees, and his temple at Sabarimala has the traditional debarment of menstruating women. Many of you, much like myself, may rise with the cry of seeking equality, but I personally feel that it needs more reflection. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution enshrines equality while Article 25 enshrines the right to practise and propagate religions in India. The recent Supreme Court judgement sided with the former over the latter with a 4-1 ruling. This has met with an outcry by the devotees, who have challenged it. There have been protest marches across the state. One may ask whether we should give importance to such things, given that the highest court of the country has ruled a certain way. That is where the trickiness prevails.

Matters of faith are sometimes beyond reasoning, and as much as we like to be rational individuals, we are indubitably emotional and often irrational beings. Where on one hand I feel that every individual, irrespective of gender or race or caste or class or religion, must have the rights and opportunities to seek the truths of life and faith, I also feel that practices and beliefs of people that have persisted over ages need to be discussed and possibly even reformed but not summarily scrapped mechanically. History shows that women of the aforementioned age-group were generally permitted except for a pilgrimage season, and this had its foundation in the belief that the presiding deity of the temple complex had withdrawn himself from worldly matters and maintained celibacy. You may ask whether a God needs to not-have menstruating women around to maintain his celibacy. Absurd as that question would be, it holds in it the one point that underlies this debate: how the symbols in religious beliefs and the truths therein be negotiated in society.

Much like secular institutions are invested in with a certain set of laws and rules and practises and beliefs, religious or for that matter any other institution may have their own associated elements of practise and belief. If one is letting such institutions be, then one needs to provide for space to the constructs therein, albeit with also the provision and call for looking at these more closely and reforming them if need be. It must not come as an imposition, since certain beliefs, even though they may be the absurdest of beliefs, have deep societal and psychological value to individuals. Summarily disrespecting or disregarding them is equivalent to summarily disregarding and disrespecting the human being affected and thereby humanity as well. A better route is to discuss and debate; to engage in dialogue and consultations; to reform from within; to show them the flaws in certain elements, if there are any, or concede to allowances. That is true democracy. That is the democracy that I would like to see my country move towards. Ayodhya has been another centre of this debate, and I personally feel that consultation and dialogue is the only way forward. There will have to be compromises on both sides since neither history nor culture or faith are the sole properties of any one people. Evolving as they are, so need our institutions and modes of functioning be: equipped with the capacity to be aware of its own nuances, reflect, possible self-correct and evolve.

In Conclusion

We have reached an age that has seen war and peace in ways never seen before. We have reached an age when science and religion have evolved in ways never before either. We live in an age that offers us promises and opportunities. Opportunities to evolve, not necessarily bodily this time (since the human brain apparently has reached its optimum maximum, as per certain studies), but as a people and species. To make secularism meaningful and to invest in the idea that as much as faith and reasoning are private privileges given to all, the culture of consultation is what holds the seed for a world order that is conducive to the growth of the individual and the establishment of Dharma, for in the multiplicity of realities and the truth(s) therein, interpreted as the human conditioning of an individual may allow, lie the true meaning and purpose of existence.

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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.

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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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