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“The Silence Over Caste-based Atrocities Only Reflects Our Values As A Society”

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Gandhiji, I have no homeland. No untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” This is a very famous reply Dr Ambedkar gave when he met Gandhi for the first time in 1931.

Can we say that this historical reply by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar stands relevant even today?

Representational image.

On June 6, Vikas Jatav, a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Amroha by upper-caste men, allegedly for entering a temple.

In the same week, three men from a Dalit community were beaten, heads shaven and paraded with slippers around their neck in a village in Barauli for allegedly stealing a fan.

In many states during the lockdown, ‘Dalit areas’ have been barricaded, and supplies are not being provided by shops because of the perception that they are not hygienic people.

These incidents are few among the large number of cases that were reported in the last week. Since the nationwide lockdown was announced there has been a manifold increase in caste-based violence.

An evidence-based research organization called EVIDENCE in Tamil Nadu reports that the state has seen a five-fold increase in brutal caste violence.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the video of the brutal murder of a 46-year-old black man by white police officers in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis created a global outrage. On the one hand George Floyd’s murder exposed the existence of racism in one the most powerful nations in the world but at the same time, on the other hand, it also showed the American society’s reaction to it.

The moral consciousness of a society can be assessed by its reaction to such incidents.

A man holding a poster that says stop killing us during protests over George Floyd's death
Hollywood, CA, Monday, June 1, 2020 – Hundreds of protestors march numerous blocks demonstrating against police brutality and the death of George Floyd. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Despite the spread of the Coronavirus and the US being the worst affected, people came out on the streets. The nature of these protests shows that it was not just the Black community but also a large number of white people who also expressed their anger and demanded justice.

His death was put at crossroads because of his own countrymen’s reaction, which created a global outcry against such gross violation of human rights.

There were numerous protests and expressions of solidarity across the world recognizing racial discrimination in America. Indians also expressed their anger over this incident. Our social media feeds were taken over with pictures and posts with #BlackLivesMatter.

However, similar and sometimes even much more harrowing violations of marginalised lives that periodically occur and reoccur in India doesn’t seem to invoke the same anger among Indians, if not more.

Why didn’t the gunning down of Vikas Jatav trigger the same levels of outrage or justice calls, let alone a trending hashtag?

Though the police, in this case, said that the boy was killed because of a monetary dispute and that it has no caste angle. Even if it is, as it may, the audacity of the accused, in this case, to point a gun towards the victim and shoot him stems from the power equation in the social set up prevalent in India.

Such a symbolic act of violence based on caste is not a sudden departure from the normal. It is the most obvious consequence of the systemic violence meted out to the Dalit community. It is the daily reality of most parts of India – urban and rural. Caste violence operates uniquely at different levels and it is so internalized that neither the abuser nor the victim recognizes the violation.

Such acts of barbarism continue with impunity because the larger society chooses to keep mum. We see news of such incidents popping as notifications on our laptop and phone screens, but as often as not, we choose conveniently to ignore it. Most of the times, unseeing is a very conscious political act.

Only if #DalitLivesMatter was considered ‘woke‘ in India, it could have at least struck a conversation on caste atrocities. The silence only reflects our values as a society.

For millennia, this has been the reality of the majority of people from Dalit communities. It is not just the failure of law and order but also our collective apathy as a society.

Over the years, there have been relative changes if not absolute, brought about solely by education. Dalits, who have been denied access to learning for centuries have now gained it through constitutional provisions. But increasing efforts to privatize education and other policies in the current times only seem to put a high wall built of hard bricks in the form of NEET, and other educational reforms, in front of these lives.

Why didn’t the gunning down of Vikas Jatav trigger the same levels of outrage or justice calls, let alone a trending hashtag? Representational image.

According to government data, 71.3% of students from Dalit communities drop out before they matriculate. Nevertheless, it has allowed a minuscule percentage the freedom to change their lives. But, this assertion of freedom and dignity are always prone to violence.

We proudly assert that India is the largest democracy but it is also in this largest democracy that we also witness the breeding of a system unique on its own called ‘caste’ – which is probably the longest surviving social hierarchy in the world.

As Arundhati Roy wrote in The Doctor and the Saint (introduction to Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste): “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

The current migrant crisis is a very evident example of this. Even today, 70% of people from Dalit communities are landless. They live on ‘bodily interest’ whereby they are forced to toil for the landlords across generations to repay impossible debts. After all, isn’t freedom and independence all about who we are and where we are placed on the social pyramid?

The caste system is a very ‘radioactive’ concept. It is omnipresent and yet highly complex. It is radioactive because it is not just about how the upper-castes discriminate the shudras and the Dalits but also how Dalits discriminate and violate sub-castes among Dalits. It is a system where one who has barely learnt to stand finds pleasure in stamping on someone who is stumbling to stand.

In these horrible times, if we could find the energy to express our anger on racism in America, we could surely empathise for the marginalized in our own country. We need to recognize the pain closer to us, in order to make a difference elsewhere.

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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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