In 2019, Writing To The PM About Saving Our Democracy Is Considered Sedition?

You wake up and discover that it’s still 2019. Which has been a crazy year. And it’s getting crazier (and there is more in store, but later). “I couldn’t channel my inner Rip Van Winkle or even Kumbhakarna to save my sanity,” you sigh to yourself, just about saving your proud coiffure from a fit of situational trichotillomania. Then, just when you think some coffee is going to lift your spirits, you happen to scroll through the newsfeed. More crazies. You’d dunk your noggin into the coffee mug if you could. You put your phone away instead. You exhale into your coffee and imagine it seething. Before long, you are at work, facing your boss, the paunchy armchair nationalist who bossplains the positives of plummeting stock markets and investor confidence to you for the nth time.

About 50 eminences from various walks of life had, late in July 2019, written to the PM, explaining to him the meaning of democracy, how it was being undermined through the use of religious violence and then demanding a positive intervention from him.

When he passionately mentions ‘start-up environment’, you wonder if he needs a shut-up environment. You shuffle uncomfortably in your seat as he waxes lyrical about ‘animal spirits‘. For a second, he reminds you of a certain skinhead Brexiteer. After dear boss is done pounding your mind, you come back to your desk. “Oye“, coos your neighbour, who seems to have been born with that annoying smirk on his face, “Did you hear about the FIR?” “Which one?”, you ask, feeling rather numb. Smirk. “Check your WhatsApp, dude.” You obey the imperative. “Smirky” has sent you a forward. And that’s how you come to know about the FIR.

About 50 eminences from various walks of life had, late in July, written to the PM, explaining to him the meaning of democracy, how it was being undermined through the use of religious violence and then demanding a positive intervention from him. The tone throughout the letter is assertive but thoroughly civil. The letter seeks to base arguments in fact and data. It informs him that Article 19 of the Indian Constitution gives Indian citizens the right to dissent against any dispensation. It notes with regret that “Jai Shri Ram” has been “reduced to a provocative war cry”, which is true if you look at the lynchings and attempted lynchings in the immediate aftermath of the current government’s landslide victory.

The letter’s tone is certainly not accusative in any way, it only demands that the democratically elected government of the country do more to protect its citizens. Signees included names like Partha Chatterjee, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ramachandra Guha, Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen and Anurag Kashyap, thinking people who have, for better or for worse, made us think with their work. This prompted someone in Bihar to file an FIR against them. What are the charges? Those who wrote and signed the letter allegedly “tarnished the image of the country” and “undermined the impressive performance of the Prime Minister”. They have also been accused of “hurting religious sentiments.” Oh, and “sedition!” Each one of these charges is cray-cray enough to make you want to flush yourself down a memory hole.

A group of citizens writing a letter to the chief executive “tarnishes the image” of a democracy? And the fact that influential politicians in the US – a country that has in the past regarded India as a beacon of democracy – are raising their concerns regarding the situation in Kashmir, does not? What are you supposed to write to the PM anyway, open billets-doux? The charge of “hurt religious sentiments” in this case is the death of irony, since the letter itself mentions that “the name of Ram is sacred to many in the majority community of India” and that “it is shocking that so much violence should be perpetrated in the name of religion”. Also, by contending that a harmless letter “undermines” his “impressive performance”, isn’t it being implied that the allegedly undermined performer is way too… fragile? All this is assuming that the letter has even been read by the intended recipient. And since when is writing letters ‘seditious’? Is it possible that cheerleaders, both lumpen and literate, of the ruling ideology, are fearful of education of the masses and independent expression of an individual’s intellectual faculties? Maybe that’s why schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao have failed.

In any sane court in any sane country, the bar for filing an FIR should be much higher than this. If the charge is that your fragile feelings are being regularly hurt by people who don’t even know you exist, then maybe a therapist, and not a police officer, is the right person to go to. But one suspects that ‘hurt feelings’ are just a ruse. No one who has deep faith in their religion feels hurt when their coreligionists call out violence that is being perpetrated in its name, and in their name. No, this move is meant to threaten everyone who has the courage to protest against the excesses and negligence of the government. It is also meant to silence those who call out Hindutva violence and terrorism.

Legal harassment has been used to target quite of few of Hindutva’s most prominent and courageous opponents. Sample what JNU student-activist Shehla Rashid has been put through, for example. Earlier this year, Kashmiri Muslims all over India were being targeted by Hindutva mobs following the Pulwama terror attack. Rashid, herself a Kashmiri, sent out a tweet, alleging that a few Kashmiri female students in Uttarakhand who had been threatened by a violent mob, had locked themselves up in their hostel rooms, unable to get out. Not only did the police summarily reject her statements as a false rumour (rather unconvincingly), it also filed an FIR against her, charging her with “intent to provoke breach of peace”, without providing any evidence of the said breach. Rashid, exasperated, shared images of the FIR on Twitter, adding, “The price you pay for seeking justice under a BJP government”. A few months later, Rashid was charged with sedition for tweeting cases of alleged human rights abuses by the security forces in the Kashmir valley post the bulldozing of Article 370. She managed to get interim bail against what she called “a frivolous FIR” but it is obvious that every attempt is being made to keep her from highlighting the plight of Kashmiri Muslims suffering under the cruel iron grip of Hindutva.

Professor Amartya Sen says in his latest interview to the New Yorker, “The big thing that we know from John Stuart Mill is that democracy is government by discussion, and, if you make discussion fearful, you are not going to get a democracy, no matter how you count the votes.” Every single time such an act of legal terrorism is committed, or a peaceful protester or dissenter is labelled an anti-national, or invective like “sickular”, “presstitute”, “urban Naxal” etc. is hurled at intellectuals, journalists and informed, engaged citizens, or an attempt is made on the life of a dissenter, it is meant to shut down discussion and thereby democratic processes.

But there is another point to be noted here. Both the FIRs against the 49 distinguished personalities and the one against Shehla Rashid accusing her of sedition, were filed by lawyers. While the regressive elements in society have always had more than their fair share of legal support, in the last few years that support has visibly become more vicious. And it has been downright violent when these lawyers have been Hindutva agents. Not only did some thug-lawyers brutally beat up another JNU student activist Kanhaiya Kumar in front of the police, they even boasted about doing so.

Since the time when one of the lawyers who defended the barbarians who raped and murdered a 23-year-old paramedical student in 2012 told us that he would “honour-kill” his daughter if she were raped, we have regressed (further) to a stage where lawyers actively seek to prevent chargesheets against people accused of rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl from being filed, simply because the perpetrators were Hindu and the victim a Muslim. The brave lawyer who represented the grieving family, a Kashmiri Pandit, was labeled an “anti-national” and threatened with both death and rape, with no Hindutva lawyer coming out to defend her. In what kind of country is threatening an alleged anti-national with rape seen as a nationalist act?

Probably the kind where marital rape is still not a crime, and where a rape victim is more likely to be arrested herself than get her rapist convicted. It is also the kind of country where a man trained in the law, thinks it is okay to murder his own daughter simply because she chose to be with someone other than the dowry-shark her dear father handpicked for her. It is quite scary that men (and sometimes they have female accomplices) like these have infiltrated the legal profession, and are feeling increasingly emboldened. Some of these people will become judges in the future.

We already know that the current CJI was credibly accused of sexual harassment, who, it would seem, used all of his influence to dismiss the case against himself. It is also concerning those lawyers who represent human decency, besides political opponents, are increasingly being targeted by the ruling dispensation. Legal ethics seem to be dying a slow death. As are debating traditions and morality. What was that noise about civility again? And all of this is not even considering the fact that Indian courts are cesspools of corruption, apart from chronically overburdened. We are witnessing the rise of the ‘advocatus horribilis’.

In other news, the PM has written an op-ed in the New York Times, supposedly to celebrate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. At least he is believed to have written it. Although who wroterashtradrohi” (traitor) on a poster of Gandhi – seen as the Father of our nation till the moment POTUS decided that that needed to change – is anybody’s guess. They even stole his ashes for good measure. Back to the aforementioned op-ed piece, where New Father flogs the value system of Old Father to a mostly unsuspecting (and probably even confused reading NYT’s op-eds on Kashmir, in case anyone gives a damn) readership that is in any case more occupied with what flavour ‘wisdom’ fritters Bari Weiss (she of the “Intellectual Dark Web” fame) or Bret Stephens (he of the umm.. “Free Speech!” fame) is going to cook up for them next.

The piece starts with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” We know that India treats its tourists and pilgrims well, if they pay well (you know what ‘paying well’ means, right? Right??). And if they are white (if you disregard harassment that white women might have to face, whether or not they are tourists) rather than black (unless you are a famous black tourist, like MLK Jr.). The reference to MLK Jr. in the article has reduced his musings on Gandhi, his methods and India to triteness. The article mentions “Gandhian methods”, about which MLK Jr. had this to say:

I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a non-violent campaign…. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.

His naïveté with regard to the effectiveness of non-violence as tool to resist oppression is expressed in the fact that he felt that “there is relatively little crime” in India, and that this was a “concrete manifestation of the wonderful spiritual quality of the Indian people”, thus seemingly succumbing to the biases of Western Orientalist and Theosophist commentators of the past. And this image of Indians, to an extent, persists in the West even today. This makes it easy for Hindutva, the ideology that literally killed Gandhi, to take credit for his “methods” internationally while cocking a snook at the same domestically. He further goes on to say:

True non-violent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

MLK Jr. might have told us that non-violence is a mature human response to oppression, which is based on the recognition that violence from those in power is an immature response to their own insecurities. The PM might want his “mandir wahin banayenge” acolytes, anti-national hunters and army of vexatious litigators to read MLK Jr. The Hindutva lawyers discussed earlier might also want to reflect on the fact that Gandhi was also a lawyer.

The PM also writes this: “We, as inheritors of the earth, are responsible for its well-being, including that of the flora and fauna with whom we share our planet.” It would be nice if he could convince people in his own government against the idea of wiping out forests for “development”.

Those wheezing sounds you hear? That’s me trying to breathe Delhi’s unbreathable air from hundreds of miles away. It is infused less with oxygen and carbon dioxide, and more of hypocrisy and ‘nationalist spirit’ (not to be confused with ‘teen spirit‘, which might provoke anti-national tendencies, like protesting). Don’t forget those green crackers on your way out to Diwali. And yes, it’s still 2019.

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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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