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In The Times Of UAPA, Where Do We Stand On Civil Liberties?

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I have been guilty of being a fence-sitter for a long while now, like many of you who were too disturbed with the perils of the present pandemic to offer their objective commentary on socio-political issues plaguing our country.

India’s migrant workers faced a long walk home amid the coronavirus lockdown.
As per the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office, over 26 lakh migrant workers are still stranded across the country. Picture: Reuters

But all this while when I was busy navigating my way as an educator adjusting to the new normal, I couldn’t help but marvel at the selective silence of our collective conscience. One that fervently supports #BlackLivesMatter across their social channels to call out the Trump administration, but resorts to a scrupulous memory of convenience when the times call for some internal reflection.

Today is no special day. With 1,10,960 active cases till date, we are still striving to flatten the curve as we enter Unlock 1. As per the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office, over 26 lakh migrant workers are still stranded across the country. And according to our court of laws, we are but relying on metaphors instead of clear evidence while granting justice.

“When you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind to have carried the spark a bit too far and spread the fire.” reads a line from an order passed today by Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana of the Patiala House Court as he denied bail to a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, in a case regarding her participation in anti-CAA protests in Delhi.

The woman, Safoora Zargar, was charged under India’s anti-terrorism law, the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and has been in jail now for over a month without the prospect of bail. This, despite her pregnant condition and the heightened risk of being exposed to the coronavirus in Delhi’s overcrowded prison system.

In what would be an extreme display of unequal treatment, Manish Sirohi was charged only under the Arms Act, even though he was arrested during the riots and found in possession of illegal arms. On May 6, the same Delhi court granted him bail, citing the risk to him of contracting COVID-19:

‘Therefore, keeping in view the above facts and circumstances and also the fact that spread of COVID-19 pandemic is on high rise and there is always a risk of the applicant being infected with the said virus in case he is left to be confined in jail, the applicant is admitted to bail on furnishing a personal bond of Rs 25,000/- with one surety of the like amount to satisfaction of the Court of Ld, CMM/Ld. ACCMM/Ld. MM on duty as per the roster prepared by the Ld. District & Sessions Judge, PHC, New Delhi.”

As Advocate-on-record in the Supreme Court and author of The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India, Chitranshul Sinha explains,

“Safoora Zargar has been accused under Chapter IV of terrorist activities but the bail court has not found any prima facie evidence against her for that. The only prima facie evidence that according to the court exists is for ‘chakka jam’ which at best would fall under Chapter III and therefore there’s no bar on the grant of bail under Section 43D(5) of UAPA. Therefore the denial of bail on this ground is untenable and unconscionable.”

The complication in Zargar’s case, and in an increasing number of high-profile cases involving protests and dissent, is the invocation of the UAPA. Never before were the fault lines of our social fabric so clearly visible as they are today. We are once again reminded of how this isn’t the first time that the law has been used as a tool to consolidate the power of the state and curb civic liberties. Even Uncle Sam has been guilty of invoking the draconian Espionage Act on numerous whistleblowers, time and again! (Yes, I’m referring to all that concerned Edward Snowden.)

Safoora at a protest
Safoora Zargar was charged under India’s anti-terrorism law, the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and has been in jail now for over a month without the prospect of bail.

What is alarming to note is that this might definitely not be the last one either. Where on one the hand, the helm of our political leadership reeks of individuals accused of inciting hate with their despicable tweets and hate speeches, scores of journalists, students, and minorities have been bearing the brunt of dissent all around the world. I am no one to take sides and pass judgment on whether what these individuals have done was right or wrong, but by no means should they be denied a chance to seek free and fair trial for their offenses.

The medieval thinker, Dante once quoted, “The greatest horrors of Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

Hence, I am but attempting to advocate for my side of the story. One that lies at the core of guaranteed discourse through respectful dialogue. By no means do I intend to draw a binary between the outcomes of centuries of racial injustice in the west against the Blacks and the recent hijack of civil liberties of our minorities, as they protested against a discriminatory law.

What I am trying to convey here is a common narrative that is guilty of plaguing democratic freedoms and our constitutional guarantees of liberty. In Zargar’s case quoted above, if the court’s own findings on prima facie evidence show one thing, but then get magically stretched to somehow cover a more serious offense, then we as citizens of this country need to be very scared about what it means for our civil liberties, as any legitimate action can be construed as an offense against the nation on a whim.

There are many forms of government in which that may be possible, but constitutional democracies are not one of them.

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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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