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India Has A Few Lessons To Share On Responding To Systemic Injustice

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The Game Of Labeling And Systemic Injustice

Protesters march at a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Houston, Texas, REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

None of us may be completely immune to the game of labelling. We are creators and recipients of labels. Childhood labels and persistent labelling do have a great impact on us. Politicians use this game of labelling extensively. In the context of present-day India, labels like anti-national are very significant and derogatory. With media and bots in the social media playing to the tunes of propaganda machinery, labelling and thereby destroying the life of enemies is not a difficult ball-game for the powerful.

John Metta, in his amazing piece, says that the people of the powerful community are considered inherently good, whereas goodness is a rarety in the weaker community. The power can be attributed to historical, political, numerical (majority vs minority), cultural, religious reasons, or a combination of them. A dangerous mode of labelling exists in the interaction of the powerful with the weaker communities, which could be described as follows.

  1. When one member of the elite community commits a crime, it is blamed on the individual (For the time being, we forget all attempts to hide or justify).
  2. When one member of the week community commits a crime, it’s labelled on the whole community. (Labels like a terrorist, drug addicts, criminals attributed to some communities are good examples).
  3. When one member of the powerful community has an achievement, it is projected on to the entire community and their collective greatness is praised.
  4. When one member of the weaker community has an achievement, it is projected only to the individual (or at times it is considered as an anomaly).

When the art of labelling can be considered as a mental gymnastic, it is generally accompanied by the systemic counterpart which treats the citizens from both communities differently. This vicious circle of labelling and systemic injustices reaches a tipping point at some moments in history. Except in dictatorial set-ups, the powerful community is forced to take some corrective actions — be it a pain-killer or a surgical procedure of the system.

The anti-racist movement in the US is at one such cross-roads where blacks are demanding systemic changes and accountabilities. The Indian response to systemic injustice can offer some valuable lessons to the blacks of the US, in the midst of their protests.

An Indian Systemic Response

India has a history of caste-system and untouchability/ Representational image.

India has a history of caste-system and untouchability. Untouchability was officially abolished by the national Constitution in 1950. Indian Constitution also declared that all the citizens of India, irrespective of their caste, creed, religion, or language, are equal in the country. The architect of the Indian constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, had initiated a systemic response against the historical wrongs committed against certain sections of the society.

The Indian constitution granted reservations or quota for certain groups of people in government institutions (education and job). When we evaluate the situation after 70 years of reservation, do we call it a success? Though I support reservation, I won’t call it a success by any degree. The aim was to create an equitable society with equal access to the resources and opportunities in the country. While I accept that some form of development has reached many of these people, the result is far from anything desirable.

The reservation system has got involved in another rut as the creamy layer of the erstwhile weaker sections continue to garner the privileges leaving the majority of the poor not reaping the benefits of the system of reservation. I don’t think that the solution is to stop the system of reservation, but a thorough renewal is the need of the hour.

Economic Times wrote, “Quota is politician’s penance for failure to provide good education and jobs.” It is a normal tendency to blame the politician and live as blameless individuals. I would rephrase that quote, “it is Indian society’s penance for the failure to provide equal opportunities”. Tim Wise says about the present American situation, “Some white folks don’t want peace — they just want quiet.”

Probably this is the same desire of the creamy-layer of Indian society as peace involves justice and justice may involve losing some of the unjustly gained privileges.

Lessons From The Indian Model

In the game of majority vs minority on the basis of religion, systemic injustices are starting to display their ugly head.

Two major types of actions are required from the side of the government as a systemic response. The first one is the set of empowerment actions to level the playing-ground which will include the creation of better resources and facilities and increased access to them. The second one is providing a set of incentives (like reservation or quota) until the playing field is levelled.

The reservation system in India was limited to the government sector and thus the beneficiaries are a minority. For me, empowerment actions reaching the majority of the backward community are much more important in the fight for equality than the whole series of reservations.

When India did have empowerment actions making the resources and opportunities accessible to the weaker sections, these actions along with reservation were not sufficient enough to turn the tide of historical wrongs. Thus weaker sections, with some exceptions, continue to remain weak and crises like COVID-19 worsens the situation.

Probably this is a message that the black people of the US should take along as they demand systemic reforms against racism. Sadly, I don’t see India taking this message anytime soon. And we are including a new narrative of majority vs minority on the basis of religion, where the game of labelling has already begun and signs of systemic injustices are starting to display their ugly head.

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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.

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Read more about the campaign here.

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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.

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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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