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Sovereign, Democratic Republic: The Social Contract That India Never Signed

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It all started with a lawless State of Nature.

Before the kings and their nawabs and the Rajputs and their shahs, people used to live in the natural condition of humankind. They hunted, ate and lived in communities. There were no laws to transgress and no ruler to obey.

But as people started owning private property, they needed protection. They came to an agreement and appointed a ruler who would frame law codes and ensure adherence to these codes. Thus, sophisticated systems were established to impose rules and give punishments. Some obeyed these rules, others hesitated and a few resisted.

This is how human civilisation came into being from its primaeval state, or so says the social-contract theorists of Western philosophy. The question of how people should be governed, or ruled in some cases, have arisen in the minds of political philosophers or thinkers, and politicians (notice how the two are usually exclusive of each other).

Today, as we stand at a milepost in India’s history – with indefinite protests against the law of the State – it might help us to go back to some of these Western philosophers who defined the role of a government. Is there a social contract between the governing and the governed to be called a State? How do the two parties negotiate? Is there scope for a bargain in this social contract?

Thomas Hobbes: Surrendering Of Rights To The Monarch

Thomas Hobbes was concerned with order and governance in Britain in the seventeenth century during the Civil War between those in favour of a Parliament rule and those in favour of the rule of the British Royal. At such a time, it was difficult for scholars to not think about the future of Britain and what a victory of either side might mean for the common man (the future of a woman was meant to be equally bleak either way).

According to Hobbes, prior to the political society that man is a part of (again, not women; they weren’t recognised as citizens, or even humans in some societies), he used to live in the State of Nature, where life was chaotic and led in constant fear. He was brutish and his life was short. In want of order and security, men decided to come together and appoint an authority figure who would be responsible for protecting the life and property of all. But in order to maintain law and order, the people would have to surrender their rights.

What Hobbes was favouring was the rule of an absolute head, a monarch, who would promise to establish a society and protect its members, but at the condition of consented obedience.

But what if the governing authority breaks its promise of protecting people and their property? What if some people are more protected than the other? Does this type of social contract also let people reach another consensus and have the existing authority dethroned? Can there ever be a true consensus?

John Locke: Inalienable Rights Of Man

Writing in the same period as Hobbes, Locke was also concerned with the future of governance in British society. However, his idea of the implied social contract was very different from Hobbes’.

According to Locke, human beings in their natural state were free and lived with goodwill and mutual assistance. This was opposite of the Hobbesian state of nature, which was chaotic and brutal. Locke believed that this liberal state lived under natural laws was an ideal state. Things only went down with the concept of private property.

According to Locke, people came together to form a civil government and abandon the State of Nature only to protect their private property. When it came to giving power to an authority for their own protection, men only surrendered the right to maintain order and enforce laws (women, as one could guess, had no rights in the first place to surrender).

The purpose of the government was then to uphold the three natural and inalienable rights that men decided to retain – i.e. the right to life, property and liberty. Man is born with these rights and they cannot be taken away from the government. However, once the legislation is chosen, people are obliged to accept their decisions.

Locke was proposing a more democratic, participative society instead of Hobbes’ monarchical one: people are not expected to subject to power (though the legislature is made, people are obliged to accept their decisions) in Locke’s liberalism. But what remained the same was the patriarchal and elitist conception of a State.

What about people with no private property? Where did they stand in this political hierarchy? What if the right to one’s liberty is in conflict with that of another? And again, can true consensus ever be reached?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: General Will Of Citizens

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his radical political propositions in 1762 in his book The Social Contract, built upon the Lockean foundation, but his proposition was more radical than Locke’s. For Rousseau, the State of Nature was that of equality and benevolence. This was corrupted by greed, competition and vanity with the invention of private property. So, when the time came for the people to choose a government, instead of giving power to an individual authority to make laws, they gave power to a collectively framed document called General Will, which aimed at the common interest of people.

The difference between Locke’s and Rousseau’s appointment of power was that in the former, people came together to assign power to an individual to frame and implement laws. In the case of Rousseau, the social contract was not an agreement between the governing and the governed, but among citizens. Even the laws, in case of Rousseau, were made by the people.

And so, if the government infringes upon the rights of citizens as written down on the General Will, people don’t just have the right to but are obliged to, revolt and take back the power. Thus, for Rousseau, the rights and interests of a citizens’ collective were at the centre, while for Locke, the natural rights of a man were at the centre. But be it a citizen or a natural man, they both promoted the liberty and dignity of human beings via representative democracy.

What Kind Is India’s Social Contract?

These values can be said to be the foundation of the Indian Constitution as well. Our fundamental rights are Locke’s inalienable rights that ensure the right to life, property and liberty (in addition to education and religion). These rights were written by an assembly that can be said to be representative enough. This led to the convening of the Indian Parliament that is representative enough.

And that is what India has always been: representative enough. The Constituent Assembly, which drafted the Constitution, was fairly represented by members from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, Gorkha communities, non-Anglo-Indian Christians and heads of various princely states. But it is hard to deny that the Assembly was dominated by savarna Hindu men. Thus, a General Will that has been framed by only a particular community of people – albeit with the mention of Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic – is bound to misrepresent the rights of the whole State.

Jawaharlal Nehru and other members taking pledge during the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly of India held on 14 and 15 August 1947. Image credit: Wikipedia

It is the nostalgia of the media and academic narratives that wants us to believe that things were hunky-dory before the election of the face of fascism to the Centre. The Congress party, in its glory days, has been right-wing at worst and centre-right at best. Rohith Vemula died by suicide under the thuggery of the ABVP at the University of Hyderabad. But caste discrimination and dropout percentage of students from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were high even 20 years ago.

Violence at the borders of Assam and Nagaland, racial abuse of Northeast Indians, militarisation of Kashmiris – people have been facing violence at the hands of the State since Independence. The 90s decade is infamous for insurgencies across the Northeast (Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh to name a few).

Scams worth crores of rupees have made news in almost every sector in India even before the entry of the BJP – from the final 2G scam in telecom to the Coalgate scam, AgustaWestland helicopter scam (2013), Commonwealth Games scam (2010) and Bofors (1980s and 90s), among others.

It is also the UPA government under which capitalists such as Reliance, Birla, Adani and Sahara Group raised their empire. They built their capital on top of the sweat and blood of farmers and forest dwellers. This was simultaneous to the challenges that the UPA government was throwing at the farmers from another direction in the form of liberalisation in the 1990s that led to the first agrarian crisis of independent India.

And finally, something that crops up during every General Election and dies out the moment the elections get over – Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been pending since 1996.

What is needed then is for us to stop looking back at how Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic this sone ki chidia was before 2014 and redefine the social contract that citizens signed “at the stroke of midnight” on August 15, 1947.

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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.

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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, 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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