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The Poles That Once Held The J&K Flag Now Stand Empty, And It Saddens Me Immensely

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I had been admiringly watching “that” red rectangular flag, with white plough in the middle and three vertical stripes, flying alongside the tricolour atop Kashmir’s expansive Civil Secretariat building for the three years of my graduation at Sri Pratap College.

Even before that when, as a child, my mother would take me to Lal Chowk for shopping. I continued to see it, the flag of my identity and of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as the three stripes on it symbolise (I won’t say symbolised), many years after that whenever I happened to pass by the building, from which a few hundred paces is located the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir.

I did, as I was coming of age, have my own questions as to why there should be two separate flags on the same building, but I don’t remember asking anyone around me for answers. It was only during my graduation I got to know about its origin and significance. That we enjoyed (here I will go with the past tense because we no more do so now) partial autonomy, had many laws of our own, and above all had our own constitution.

All that ended on August 5 this year.

The decision to strip the state of its autonomy did not sink in until I visited Srinagar on my two-wheeler after almost a month and a half of waiting restlessly. This visit, too, would not have been possible had my sister not told me to buy her oats and green tea wherever I could find them in Srinagar, when I expressed my desire to visit the city to see how things were going outside my small town.

Honestly, I would not have dared to go but the staccato movement of private vehicles on the roads made me decide in its favour. It is not that I was afraid of anything but given the blanket ban on all means of communication, I was reluctant to go, knowing if I were to get late, my parents, especially my mother, would die of worry.

On normal days (which are a rarity in my part of the world), when I returned home a bit late, despite informing my family over the phone of my whereabouts and when I would return, I would spot my mother standing against a pillar on the veranda looking in the direction of the road from where I would arrive. Sometimes, she would tell me that she was waiting for me and that I should be home earlier next time and sometimes she simply wouldn’t say anything.

It was Sunday and after lunch around 2, I left for the city. I rode slightly faster than a coachman could make his horse do after repeated whipping on its back. It was deliberate attempt to see what had changed in this period of time.

A scene from Srinagar. Civilian life has been dotted with the presence of armed forces for decades in the valley, serving as a pressing reminder that the state is under constant siege. (Photo: Kashmir Global/Flickr)

Although I could spot heavy movement of private vehicles, fuel stations were deserted. They would only open in the morning or in the evening. But, luckily, one could find petrol, which I needed for my two-wheeler outside the fuel stations sold at ₹100 a litre in plastic mineral water and fizzy drink bottles, mostly by small children.

The shops were shut and as you moved close to the city, the deployment of security forces seemed to increase. Instead of taking the straight road to Srinagar, I took a right turn at Parimpora, left behind SKIMS Bemina hospital and then, a certain distance away took left and reached Rambagh. While riding from home, it occurred to me that I would see my friend who lived there (Rambagh) and could also buy oats and green tea for my sister.

I entered a chemist’s shop, the only shop open at that time and to tell my sister later that I tried to see if I could buy the items from him. He did not have it but, and meanwhile, I also changed my mind to see my friend. I knew he won’t come to know that I was just outside his home and I did not bother to drop by, unless I informed him or when the communications services were restored.

I continued on the Rambagh bund towards Rajbagh, crossed Zero Bridge and took to the left towards Lal Chowk. My next stop would be Press Enclave, as I had some friends in the journalist fraternity who studied with me and were now working with different media organisations.

However, I did not go directly to Press Enclave, which was a minute’s ride from where I had stopped and where, to my amazement, I found vendors who had set up their stalls and people stopping by. This was a positive sign to my eyes which had not seen these many civilians going about their day-to-day activities in many, many days.

So, out of curiosity and to show my family later the signs of life returning to normalcy and which would mean that I could soon travel to Delhi (I have been working intermittently as a journalist and content writer for three years in Delhi) and above all, escape the life which is no life in any sense, I started clicking a few pictures of the not-so-conspicuous flea market locally called the Sunday Market.

I had only clicked a few pictures before a city police vehicle stopped by and two armed cops got down from it. They looked at me for a few seconds, snatched my phone and told me to follow their vehicle to the nearby police station. I did the same and parked my motorcycle inside the premises of the police station.

I followed the cops but soon lost sight of the officer who was given my cell phone after confiscation. I told the cop, who I spotted outside the officer’s room and who I knew took the phone from me, to allow me to speak to the officer, but he did not, saying that he was busy with his senior. I tried to convince him that it was okay with me to talk to him with his senior around him. However, it did not go down well with him so he told me scornfully to sit on the bench, which lay in the corridor, and wait.

Meanwhile, other cops, some uniformed and some in civvies kept coming and going about the corridor. One of them, when he heard from his colleagues the cause of my being there, said, “You shouldn’t have clicked pictures, especially given the present circumstances in the Valley. It is suspicious.”

I told him plainly that I had no ulterior motive and that it was only out of curiosity and I just wanted to show them to my family so that they too, know that things were getting better. “It is not acceptable,” he concluded.

“I am a journalist too but am not working as of now with any organisation. And I can’t send these pictures to anybody in the absence of the internet. It was, as I said, just to show my family,” I said as soon as he finished his last sentence. This brief interaction with the cop, however, frightened me and, as a result, I started to imagine the worst things.

I was now thinking, what if they didn’t give my phone back and kept me in the lockup? How would my family come to know about my detention?

Fortunately, I saw the officer going into his room and I also saw my cell phone with him. I requested a cop manning the door to tell him that I wanted to speak to him. He did the same and I was allowed inside. I stopped in the doorway and again sought the officer’s permission to enter. He nodded and then I was standing before his desk.

He asked me to enter the security pin of my phone, which I did, and straight he went to the photo gallery where he saw the pictures I had just clicked and those already in it.

“Why aren’t there more pictures of you?” he asked still looking at the screen. “The other photos you see are of my younger brother and other family members. I don’t like clicking my photos much,” I answered solemnly.

I kept repeating what I had shared with the cops outside and told him that I had no evil design. The young officer offered me the seat and told me to sit. He checked folder after folder, even the trash bin of the gallery, a feature unknown to me until then. When he was convinced that there was nothing suspicious in the phone, he deleted the pictures of the flea market and told me not to do it again. I thanked him and left. Outside, I waved at the cops and thanked all of them. This time, they responded with smiles.

I did not stop at Press Enclave but found a video journalist at Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) capturing the traffic movement in his camera. I did not know him, so I went on. As I reached the Civil Secretariat, I witnessed the lonely Indian flag atop it and the flagpole, which earlier bore the state flag, stood faceless.

It was quite visible from the road outside. I did not stop there, fearing I might be asked again as to why I pulled over. It was a sad scene, just like everything else unfolding in the rest of the state.

It is entirely a different story of how my family reacted when I reached home and narrated my ordeal. But, by then, I had already joined the flagpole in its sadness and plunged even deeper in memories of it being in offices and on official cars, side by side with the tricolour.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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