Has The Definition Of Secularism Changed In Today’s India?

For Representative Purpose

I decided to write this article after I argued with an ex-classmate who very blatantly refused to acknowledge, let alone accept, the fact that there has been a sudden rise in racism, communalism, and oppression of the minority communities in India in the past five years. According to him, it is people like me who are responsible for causing tension in the country. Those who are responsible for mob lynchings have nothing to do with it! 

Does having a friend belonging to a minority community or someone who practices a different religion makes you secular? The answer is no! Not as long as you fail to see their oppression or refuse to accept that there exist issues like racism, communalism, and oppression, and to have blind faith that the hate crimes based on religion cannot be perpetrated in India because India is a secular state. For such people, it’s not the Black people who were oppressed, but It’s the whites who face racism in South Africa.

The term ‘Hindu’ culture, in my opinion, has become synonymous with ‘Indian’ culture, and it only reflects how inclusive people are of different cultures and traditions which India is home to. Indian culture does not solely represent Hindu culture, but it is a combination of diverse religions, cultures, and traditions. Racism and oppression in India, I have seen, also extends to the people from the Northeastern and southern regions of the country as well. Racism in India is not only deeply rooted in religion, caste, and gender but is also based on having the ‘wrong’ skin color.

The term ‘secularism’ was introduced to the Preamble of India’s Constitution in 1976. The Preamble asserted to the Constitution that India is a secular nation. But what does it mean? In a general sense, it implies that the State will impart equal treatment to Indian citizens irrespective of their religion. Secularism in India also implies that the State and religion will not exist together. However, in my opinion, religion has been the agenda of state policies for the last few years.

People are not even aware of what secularism in a state implies. Secularism is a term that is often confused with atheism, that people don’t follow any particular religion but are accepting of every religion. True, secularism was introduced to ensure that the State will impart equal treatment to individuals of every religion, but that does not make a secular individual non-religious.

However, my question wasn’t what makes India secular, but what is it that makes an individual secular? Does living in a secular nation ensure that every individual is secular? Having said that, how many people are aware that Article 15 of the Constitution of India “prohibits discrimination based on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth.”?

Coming back to the original question, some people put forward an argument that because they socialize with people who follow and have faith in a religion different from themselves makes them secular. I, until quite recently, wasn’t aware that socializing makes you secular!

Credit: Getty Images

I strongly feel that anyone who is secular does not dismiss the existence of oppression just because they haven’t witnessed it firsthand. Even when presented with facts and that too from credible sources, I feel that pseudo-secularists reject it claiming its ‘fake news,’ when they fail to see the actual ‘fake news’ being disseminated which favors a certain political party and its ideology. I think it is not too difficult to look for facts and information on the internet.

Secularism and democracy go hand in hand, right? 

More than 90 cases have been reported of mob lynchings in India since 2015. Data shows how Muslims form the major chunk of those who have been targeted by cow vigilantes. Hardly any action is ever taken, and in fact, perpetrators are praised. People of the minority communities in those areas who would have witnessed such lynchings still live in fear. So, there must be a reason why people nowadays are living in fear when it hasn’t been so for so many years, right?

Also read: Mob Lynchings: The Death Of ‘Sabka Vishwas’ In Modi’s India 

If there are people who still believe that there has been no increase in the hate crimes based on religion, and who outright refuse to accept racism as an issue in India and pass it off as fake news, I cannot be friends with them. I have seen how there still exist people who think it is all right to oppress people who are different from themselves, based on religion, caste, sexuality.

I’m Muslim, and Muslims are in the minority in India, and when I and others like me speak up against racism, hate crimes, religious intolerance, it is not to vilify any individual practicing a different religion from ours because not everyone believes in the oppression of the minorities! We do so to support the oppressed.

Secularism in India has lost its meaning and is threatened. I think it’s about time to stop pretending that there is no racism in India. The rising racism in India is a serious problem that needs permanent fixing.

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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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