As Voices Rise In Solidarity Now More Than Ever, What Can Our Colleges Expect From 2019?

It is a cold December afternoon. All the roads to the Press Club of India are choked with cars, an unusual sight in this part of Delhi. The traffic policemen managing the traffic say the Bhutanese head of the state is on an official visit to India. Meanwhile, snarling its way through the congestion, an old tourist bus pulls outside the club on Raisina Road. Dozens of students emerge from it. “The conference has started, please rush inside,” someone among the event managers requests them in a commanding voice.

Inside, the small open-air space is filled with chairs for reporters and participants. A large printed board behind the makeshift stage announces Young India Speaks, while several photographs and posters hang from thin threads on walls all around. The current JNUSU president welcomes everyone and announces the long list of official participants of the press conference. The president of TISS Students’ Union is here, as is the AMUSU president. Someone or the other is representing Pinjra Tod, FTII, Periyar-Ambedkar Study Circle, MANUU, Panjab University SU, SFS, BHU, Allahabad University, CYSS, and the list is long.

But wait, why have all these representatives assembled here on this particular day in the last week of December 2018? Is the date even important?

The answer to the former question is long, and yes, the date is all the more important.

A poster at the conference, reading, “The commercialisation and saffronisation of education must be overthrown! Stop the attack on campus democracies and the freedom of expression!” (Photo: Young India Adhikar Manch via Facebook)

“It all started with Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle ban and FTII row,” Sai Balaji, JNUSU president, reads aloud from his notes.

In summer 2015, a year after BJP formed the government at the center, FTII students went on an indefinite strike and boycott all the academic work, calling for an end to the “fascist” move of appointing Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman. The strike which lasted for at least four months, called for a transparent process for the selection of FTII body. The same month as the FTII protests started, IIT Madras banned Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle on its campus, calling it anti-Hindu. In response, IIT-B, IIT-D, JNU, Jadavpur University, all came up with their own versions of APSC.

In October and November of the same year, students sat on a sustained protest outside UGC offices near ITO in Delhi, against the October 7 decision of its statutory body to scrap all fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students who had not cleared NET.

At that time, almost everyone thought that student protests against administrations and state policies are nothing new, and all this is part of the same trend.

Just one month into 2016, and JNU was all over the news. Suddenly all the prime time news shows and newspaper front pages were interested in student politics and campus culture. A larger debate on Nationalism itself ensued.

2015 and 2016 also saw the slow and steady rise of Pinjra Tod, “an autonomous collective effort to ensure secure, affordable, and discrimination-free accomodation for women students” at one end, and “a feminist movement against patriarchy and its age-old discriminatory culture” at the other end.

2017, similarly, saw many small and large protests by students against administrative policies, against fee hikes, against state policies on higher education, and in favour of academic freedom.

By the end of 2017, it was clear that the student-led protests in different campuses across India were converging on at least four broad points: they were against privatisation of higher education and demanded affordable and accessible education and more scholarships; they were against the administrations of individual colleges and universities and called for an end to government motivated appointments; they were against discriminatory rules and wanted regulations without any gender bias; they were against the crackdown on freedom of expression and aimed for greater academic freedom.

2018, then, saw all the more student protests. However, something else noteworthy happened in the year as well: students won a lot of victories. Even though by now, as we stand at the last day of 2018, it is clear that the administrations are not able to take the students for granted and almost any absurd rule the students protest against is either repealed or scraped, there is one particular issue where the students find themselves almost helpless, and it is the ‘privatisation’ of education, or anything related to funding higher education. This is probably so because the funding needs to be sanctioned at the highest echelons of power, and frankly, at the face of it, far from being interested in funding the higher education of Indian citizens, those in power actually ‘want’ the institutions to raise their own funds and the students to borrow more loans.

It is exactly at this moment that we return to the press conference of December 28 2018, titled Young India Speaks.

The participants of the press conference vowed to constitute Young India National Coordination Committee and travel throughout India in January 2019, before taking out a rally from Red Fort to Parliament on February 7. The committee is making four major demands: all the vacant governmental jobs to be filled which are estimated to be 24 lac; 10% of the budget to be kept for education; an end to discriminatory rules and effective anti-sexual harassment cells; and ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expressions on campuses.

From where these four major demands arise becomes clear if one takes a look at all that has been happening in the past three to four years, a culmination of which the campuses witnessed this year. With parliamentary elections just around the corner, then, the end of this year becomes a crucial moment in time.

For the conveners of Young India Speaks, it is a time when the present government can and most probably will listen to their demands. Even though some of the participants did overtly support an end to the BJP rule, most of them were concerned with their demands being met, irrespective of who is in power. The timing, then, is merely a pressure-point. Similarly, the signs of convergence of so many and varying political organisations, students’ unions, and students’ movements, were apparent for quite sometime now.

However, there is a flipside to the story. Many students allege that the coordination committee is a misappropriation of all the struggles fought by the students over all these years for what is essentially a political gimmick, a way to lend support to the parties opposing BJP in 2019 elections. Accordingly, no matter whether BJP wins or loses these elections, the coordination committee will have no purpose to serve and all the diverse students’ movements will have lost their purpose as well.

Even though it is impossible to say whether Young India will actually speak and whether the coordination committee will be able to pressurize the government to give in to its demands before elections, what is clear is that it is impossible to say what the year for the students of higher education in India will look like after elections. All the roads for now, it seems, lead to elections of 2019, and that includes fighting the last battle for an accessible higher education.

Featured image source: Young India Adhikar Manch/Facebook.
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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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