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Openly Mocking Dyslexia In A University Space Confirms Modi Isn’t Interested In Education

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The Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew searing criticism from the opposition, for an alleged veiled jibe at his political rival, Rahul Gandhi, during the recent ‘Smart India Hackathon’, where he was addressing students through video conferencing at IIT Kharagpur.

When an engineering student from Dehradun brought up her idea to help tap into the creative genius of students with dyslexia, the Prime Minister interjected and asked if the proposal would work for children aged 40-50 years too. As the hall erupted in laughter, the questioner replied in the affirmative, to which the PM remarked that the mothers of such children would be happy.

India has been infamous for its attitude and approach towards mental health, and other impediments of a complex nature, including dyslexia. Around 18% of India’s primary schoolers are reported to be suffering from dyslexia, although the actual numbers may scale up much higher, owing to lack of awareness and sensitization in rural areas and various small towns across the country. Even today, a child’s issues with reading and writing are interpreted in terms of his unwillingness and phobia towards studies.

Graphic: geralt/

After the fiasco that took place at Smart India Hackathon, several opposition leaders, academicians and disability rights groups launched a scathing attack on the Prime Minister, asking him to apologize for his insensitive remark, which was an insult to everyone suffering from dyslexia or trying to overcome the same. Former Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, tweeted that it was shameful to take political potshots in the name of dyslexic people. Communist leader, Sitaram Yechury, also remarked that it was shameful and distressing for the PM to make fun of dyslexic people.

As Peter Griffin rightly says, our vocabulary over the years has become recurring and replete with insulting jibes, related to the physical or mental impairment of people. A person not being able to listen properly in the very first instance is met with the remark of, “are you deaf?”

Friends not being able to comprehend a situation are often insinuated as “mentally retarded.” Likewise, a person with a visual impairment or wearing spectacles is often treated as “blind.” Whatever is not normal, or violates existing norms, is often treated as a jibe or a weapon to insult.

What Mr. Modi is probably forgetting is, that many who created history have been dyslexic early on in their lives. Lee Yuan Kew, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Abhishek Bachchan and many others went on to champion their respective spheres. The jibe taken in the name of dyslexic people not only downplays the achievements of theirs but also undermines their struggles and collective efforts to overcome the same.

A few days ago, opposers of the Nehru-Gandhi family alleged that Priyanka Gandhi was suffering from a bipolar disorder. In another instance, even Congress President Rahul Gandhi rhetorically asked if Narendra Modi was schizophrenic. The need for such personal, distasteful jibes arises from our long-standing tradition of and mental health.

Any individual who deviates from the standing ideal of ‘normal’ is thought of incapable to compete in any sphere of life. This further encourages people to believe that differently-abled individuals have no rightful place in the democratically elected offices of power.

Apart from what Mr. Modi did, there is another looming question of the students of one of the most premier institutes in the country laughing the remark off. It sets a brutal optic of Indian students in front of national as well as international diaspora in the matters of basic human decency and empathy.

Historically, while student movements have been one of the leading factors in dislodging the imperialist British empire from India, the evolution seventy years later isn’t what one might aim it to be. Keep aside protest, the students joined in and laughed at the veiled remark.

With no response yet from Mr. Modi or the BJP yet, the matter may be assumed to be done away with. However, this sets the stage for what many claim is taking the differently-abled people’s struggle back by fifty years. An unofficial validation of the long-standing stigma by none other than the Prime Minister himself is not only unbecoming of his position but also denigrates the status of the dyslexic and the differently-abled.

At a time when the youth is constantly striving to make the world a better place and do away with toxic traits of traditional norms, it is time that the Indian students who fit themselves into the conventional idea of ‘intelligence’ follow suit. At the end of the day, the government and the people at its helm must be held accountable.

The culture of questioning and dissent should not die out in the process of political gains and systematic silencing. Disability rights groups must be given a push to the forefront and gain support from the rather dormant public. Only then shall we able to give rise to an egalitarian society in real than just in theory.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images; Government of Kenya/Wikimedia Commons.
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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, 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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