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A Raging Voice: Remembering Premchand Amid Brewing Communalism

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Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci identified two types of intellectuals: traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are autonomous of the economic structure, and Gramsci argues that even though they are independent of social hierarchy, they somehow legitimise the ruling group. On the other hand, organic intellectuals are the ones who are born out of social structures and usually want to eradicate the existing inequalities in social and political spaces.

Born on 31st July, 1880, in a Kayastha family, Munshi Premchand grew up to be one of the most prolific writers in Hindustani literature, writing about the struggles of women and people from lower castes. Alluding to Gramsci’s categorisation, Premchand is somewhat of a traditional intellectual. His upper-caste position has led many of his readers and critics to question his understanding of the pain of the downtrodden in Indian society.

Even though his birth caste legitimises the caste system, the choice he made with his privilege is what set him apart and made him the voice of the backward and marginalised communities of the country. His writings were scathing indictments to the unequal and inhuman social landscape of India. He constructed his characters incisively and asked questions morally.

With a collection of astutely tailored books and short stories constantly posing challenging inquiries to the world around us, Godaan (1936) is considered Premchand’s best work and easily one of the most poignant pieces of Indian literature. Godaan means the gift of a cow. The story lays bare the haunting exploitation within Indian peasantry that goes on to reflect on the capitalistic taxation of the have-nots.

Kafan (1936) is another of Premchand’s major works where he depicts two alcoholic Dalit protagonists. The debauched and irresponsible portrayal of these Dalit men has earned Premchand a lot of criticism. However, the devil is in the detail as Premchand built these characters to be a representation of the alienating experience of the downtrodden, their repetitive subjugation in the system, and the utter desperation in their struggle to live.

A still from the movie Sadgati, based on Premchand’s story.

“Out there in the field, jackals and kites, dogs and crows were picking at Dukhi’s body. This was the reward for the whole life of devotion, service and faith,” reads the last line of Sadgati. This is another short story treading on themes of untouchability and class discrimination. Sadgati means a good death, which is an ironic title through which Premchand satirises the prejudiced norms in Hindu society.

The clever use of ironies exposes the deep entrenchment of casteist practice of the master and devotion of the servitor. All this once again displays Premchand’s literary mastery and sincere understanding of the tangibility of the caste system. Premchand’s vociferousness for the rightfulness of women doesn’t come across anywhere better than in Thakur Ka Kuan (Thakur’s Well). It’s a short story portraying a revolutionary Dalit woman named Gangi, who fetches water for her ailing husband from the landlord’s well. Set in a social structure where being a Dalit and a woman work against her, the boldness of her character is not be romanticised, but protected and learned from.

Incidents like beating up and destroying the crops of a Dalit couple in Madhya Pradesh, the body of a Dalit woman being taken off a funeral pyre in Agra because the cremation site was not to be used by that community lay bare that the caste system has been weaved into Indian society. It may have been criminalised on paper, but the grassroots brutality of Dalits reveals the systematic and structural violence that cannot simply be done away with by a single stroke of pen. It requires, among other things, persistent activism, regular unlearning and united resistance to each and every form of minority slaughter.

Even communalism has grown by leaps and bounds and has become the order of the day. Events such as the enactment of the CAA-NRC Act, the Delhi pogrom, revocation of Article 370 and the communalisation of a pandemic are some of the events that have disfigured the secular fabric of India. These events are horrific but not isolated; communalism has raised its head with every thought process, every perception and diminutive instances of inaction.

Premchand teaches us to be communally tolerant, resist the marginalisation of the marginalised, and rid ourselves of indifference towards injustice. Hence, on the occasion of Munshi Premchand’s 140th birthday (31st July, 2020), we must not only celebrate his work, but also use his vision and voice as a prism to glance at the realities of 21st century independent India. His writings were way ahead of his times and have unfortunate relevance even to this day, as the same issues continue to plague our social order.

Factors such as religion, caste and gender are still so profoundly ingrained in our society that their manifestations go on to show that maybe discrimination is no longer a part of our society but it is the society. Thus, for some, Premchand is just another writer, but for others, he’s a guiding manual.

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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.

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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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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