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Bengal Blockade: The State Is Trapped Within Its Past, Present And Future

1977, Jyoti Basu leads the Left Front which decimates the Congress and forms the government in the nerve centre of India, Bengal. Fast forward to 2011, Mamata ‘Didi’ Banerjee clears out the Red Brigade and paints the existing evils in Blue and White. West Bengal has since been stuck in this state of despair and it seems that the days of the Iron Lady are soon to end. But what approaches the land may be no different than the rest who ruled, may as well be worse. Bengal, since the time of Independence, has been one of the most visible states in India. The land which once gave birth to revolutionaries still breathes the same air. Dissatisfaction remains in the hearts of the people. Bengal does not reminisce its bloody red past, she wants to break free from the cage of blue it’s stuck in and certainly will not let the orange fire spread into its future. Bengal is trapped in a blockade.

Mamata Banerjee came into power riding on the very sentiment that Bengal needed a change from the atrocious Left front which probably delivered more deaths than the promises it made. She took over a Bengal with high numbers of unemployment, no industries, high political crimes, an autocratic administration and unimaginable corruption. But TMC’s promise to make change was never really implemented, they were the same disease with a different name. The politics in Bengal is different from other regions of the country, it’s dangerous, volatile and the stakes are much higher.

A large part of Bengal’s seat of power depends on cadre politics, the source may also be linked back to the era of the Reds. Whoever controls the unions, pretty much controls Bengal. Violence is nothing new in Bengal, but that does not mean that the populace agrees to it. Bengalis are people who prefer an intellectual debate than a fist fight and naturally, acts of political parties are often looked at with disgust in the state. The CPI(M) used its ground men to maintain power with violence, but it was not always so. The party’s tallest leader and patriarch, Jyoti Basu, portrayed the image of the typical Bengali bhadralok (gentleman). Bengalis, naturally being pulled towards learned influential people, considered him to be the patron of Bengal and rightly so, he had a charisma that people looked up to. Probably the strongest opposition leader in India at that time, Jyoti Basu had a socialist ideology and a pro-people agenda.

But his party ended up to be nothing but orthodox, authoritative and most importantly a shelter to capitalist pigs pretending to be communists. His socialist policies were implemented but it never brought prosperity into the state, it just drove away industries and corporations instead of empowering operations. Union strikes became a major problem for companies, hence driving them out of the region. Bengal which once was at par with key regions in India like Bombay and Delhi, fell behind. His party then resorted to excessive violence through the unions to maintain power. The Syndicate, the real estate underworld in Kolkata, was born during its reign. High unemployment led to increased crime rates, especially the Maoist extremists, which almost went to an uncontrollable magnitude. Bureaucracy was at its worse, municipalities and local bodies became the symbol of inefficiency. The people of Bengal woke up to this reality 34 years later. Dejected with the trust being broken, they needed change and that came as the former Congress leader and activist, Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata won the majority in the legislative assembly in 2011, leaving the Left with nothing. Neither did they ever recover from their defeat nor did they ever accept their defeat to a woman. The old, conservative leaders of the CPI(M) were now history. TMC made several changes after coming into power, at least that is what the people believed.

With their ‘Biswa Bangla’ movement and progressive economic reforms, Bengal looked like it was back on track. The state which people thought was dead, was showing significant proof of life. But the real issues were yet to come.

The TMC knew they could defeat the Left only by its own ways, and so it did. It took control of the cadres, unions and the low-income population and what followed was a nightmare. Trinamool became entangled in multiple cases of corruption and massive scandals. Many of its top leaders like Madan Mitra were sent to prison for bribery and corruption. They even essentially inherited the Syndicate. The economic state hardly recovered, industries still did not come in to the extent that West Bengal could make significant progress, even after implementation of government policies. The Trinamool became just like the Communist Party in terms of an autocratic administration.

Critics of the government were prosecuted, media channels became puppets in their hands. In 2019, Bhobishotter Bhoot, a Bengali political satire movie criticising the ruling party, was forcibly taken out of theatres by TMC. A Supreme Court ruling against the party exposed its disregard for freedom of speech. Violence spread all throughout the state during elections. In recent events, Doctors protested the uncontrolled violence on medical trainees in Kolkata. Mamata Banerjee still cannot control the issue as massive dissent is felt everywhere, especially in TMC’s stronghold, Kolkata. Support pours in from all parts of India and Didi is left with no cards to play.

Bengal in its dark times has never failed to rise in revolt. Kolkata has always been known for its widespread protest against injustice no matter where it is. Whether it’s about destructive government policies of the state or a rape case in Delhi or even a war in Vietnam, Bengalis have always spoken up. With the TMC’s actions, Bengal will not tolerate. The people have learned their lesson, they will not remain ignorant anymore. Hence, the administration’s actions got the better of it. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the far-right party of India, the staunchest ideological rival of the socialists and the party at the helm in New Delhi, has probably become Bengal’s new choice.

In the 2019 General Elections, the BJP made huge inroads into Bengal, winning major constituencies in Western and North Bengal. This feat is something that has not been achieved by BJP since the time of its establishment. Many may feel that with the problems of the TMC and CPI(M), this ideological shift was necessary. But that’s not the case in West Bengal. Bengalis have never approved of capitalism, until now and hence many do not understand its effects especially with a party like BJP. The BJP has been known to deliver only to specific corporations which when brought into Bengal will definitely bring in money but then it will limit economic growth beyond that due to the party’s priorities. Regional organisations and industries will be on the backfoot.

But the problem with the BJP in Bengal is larger than just the economic aspect. Bharatiya Janata Party has yet again taken up the baton of cadres and violence from its predecessors. Inter-party violence will increase drastically. Moreover, the party has a communal touch to it since the beginning. In Bengal, a huge part of the population belongs to the Muslim community who shall become a weaker section of the society if the BJP comes in. With disparity among economic and racial sections, insecurity will grab hold of the state and soon violence will be on the rise. Communities which have lived in harmony in the state will start to break down delivering a problem that Bengal has never faced before, division.

In the past, when almost the entire nation had come to standstill due to communal violence as a result of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Babri Masjid demolition, Bengal had shown a different picture. Riots were controlled and the reason has always been the mentality of the people of the state. Unity among races has been one of the strongest points that people in Bengal are proud of and probably the only thing that they can hold on to. With the advent of BJP in Bengal, they may solve a few problems the state faces but will also give rise to a larger issue to deal with.

Bengali culture is something that is slowly dying in the game of politics. Debates and arguments have been replaced by violence and guns. It’s leaders misrepresent how Bengal truly is, peace-loving, intellectual and just. The region remains in a perennial state of oppression and mismanagement, and the situation does not seem to get better. Its people have always spoken up against evil, always fought with an indomitable will, never failing to raise its voice in protest. And it will continue to do so in the future until Bengal finds its true self. No matter who comes and who goes, no one can silence Bengal. BENGAL is a Revolution.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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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