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“A Tangled Republic”: What’s Stopping India From Evolving As A Democracy?

More from Sunil Kumar

Ideas drive a nation. Dreams lead to innovation and strategic planning. Vision defines the aspirations of people. The life and breath of a nation draw its strength from a vibrant economy, a bustling environment of opportunities, a cascading graph of human achievements in areas of mental and physical strain, a robust governance model, and flourishing meadows of public opinion.

India, on the eve of January 26, 1950, through a momentous act of adopting the Constitution of India, turned a new leaf upon the sands of history and time. India truly, in a legal sense, was now a sovereign republic, or, in other words, the purveyor of its own destiny.

Representational image.

The Preamble of the Constitution reflected the ideals and ethos of the new republic in the comity of nations. Ideals of justice, equality, and fraternity were extolled as the guiding virtues for governance, and crafting the path of development and progress.

Inclusivity In The Midst Of Diversity

One of the greatest challenges of forging the nation into one whole has been to bring about an accord among competing claims of diverse communities. Affirmative action, envisaged to ensure equality in public employment, through some of the constitutional provisions like Article 15 and 17, directly set out to uproot the curse of caste and class discrimination, by throwing open temples and public places to all citizens of India, and making the disease of ‘untouchability’ punishable by law.

At the same time, Article 21 was designed keeping in sharp focus the prescient understanding of Justice Felix Frankfurter of the United States of America, who advised B.N.Rau, the advisor to the Constituent Assembly of India, to avoid the ‘due process’ clause requirement which insisted upon a stringent check on the untrammelled powers of the state.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Indian Constitution. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978) the expansive understanding of ‘due process’ was interpreted to mean a “just, fair, and reasonable” procedure to be in place. Famously, in this case, the passport of the petitioner was impounded and she sought to know the grounds of same, as no substantial reasons were furnished. The journey of several other constitutional provisions over the period of the last seventy-one years of the republic have been equally interesting.

Ultimately, the idea was to ensure that the three supreme organs of the state, namely, the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature work in harmony with one another. However, on questions of removal of judges, the appointment of judges, and high constitutional functionaries and policy issues, there has been apparent tension on more than one occasion.

The Constituent Assembly, while debating the power of the removal of judges of superior courts, decided that impeachment power should vest with the parliament. Sir N Gopalaswami Ayyangar had observed that such a power should be only used in rarest of rare instances. In his words, “Whatever procedure you prescribe for the removal of Judges for proved misconduct or misbehaviour, that procedure is likely to be used only in the rarest of contingencies and very probably will not be used within my lifetime or even the lifetime of those who are much younger in this House than I am,”.

Dr. B.R.Ambedkar.

To ensure that the voice of the weak doesn’t fizzle out under might of state machinery, Dr.Ambedkar made a case for Article 32 and called it the soul of the Constitution as it provides for a legal recourse to an aggrieved citizen to move superior courts (High Courts and Supreme Court of India) by invoking their writ jurisdiction.

Tangled Republic

India of the twenty-first century is bedevilled with strategic socio-legal problems. We are witnessing a scenario where institutions are seemingly at loggerheads and are struggling to maintain the desired rectitude and dignity envisioned by the Constitution of India.

Broad-based pre-legislative consultation needs solid encouragement and support in India. We are not looking at diverse ways of igniting meaningful public discussions on vital issues like questions on citizenship laws, internal security, and access to justice.

Why should anyone fear repercussions for speaking their mind?

One just needs to look at the anti-CAA-NRC protests to gauge the enormity of the public resentment against the newly carved legislation.

Should not the ‘elected’ gentry reach out to the people and explain to them about the nitty-gritty of the proposed laws before giving it the shape of law which after becoming law remains amenable only to judicial scrutiny on limited grounds? Should we not devise concrete methods of building consensus on a particular law, even before it is passed?

Should the freedom of speech-guarantee, enshrined in the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a), under all circumstances mean ‘popular’ or ‘dominant narrative’ in the political discourse? What is the objective of worshipping democratic ethic, if the state apparatus cannot ensure the free flow of ideas, views and counterviews in the public spaces?

Why should anyone fear repercussions for speaking their mind? Why should ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ be kept hostage to thuggery and the perverse manifestation of social media? Dissent is the essence of any fledgeling democracy.

In the Bhima Koregaon case, Justice DY Chandrachud articulated the need of dissent by observing that “Dissent is a symbol of a vibrant democracy”. It has been observed that, at times, the government machinery makes a mountain out of a mole-hill. Who is speaking ill against the state? When does a speech actually slip into the ‘anti-national‘ mode? Are there any limits to criticism of government-policies or laws? These questions continue to rake up the political cauldron of India. Understandably, there is a need to give a push to informed debates across the cross-section of society.

Insecurity, fear, and chaos should not reign at the heart of a democratic experience. These are the traits well associated with tyranny and nepotism. Democracy, and more importantly, the idea of India as a nation, must bank more and more upon wider public engagement of government (centre and state) with civil society, encouragement of dialogue, and opting for more bolder experiments in democracy as it matures.

Traditionally, India as a democracy has not been a risk-taker. We continue to rely on the ‘first-past-the-post’ system and it is commonly agreed that leaders break bread with commoners or try to connect with public grievances only when elections are around the corner. This trend certainly needs to be put on the backburner.

Options, like having a referendum on contentious issues and addressing the requirements of access to justice need of the marginalised, should be the leitmotif of any legitimate government. In a heightened atmosphere of state surveillance, supporting structures of dialogue, debate, and dissent must pave the way for greater public participation in socio-political affairs of the state.

Should a citizen always need to take to the streets to compel the government to listen? Civil protests may be manifested in multiple ways.

The right to peaceful protest is a Constitutional right.

Worshipping demigods and indulging in hero-worship, without adhering to the Constitutional vision, is not going to take us anywhere. As Oliver Wendell Holmes poignantly put it, “The life of law is not logic but experience.”

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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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