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Opinion: How Congress Might Have Spearheaded Communal Politics In India

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The news of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s death was conveyed to the world by the 2 pm news bulletin of AIR on 27th May 1964. His will released to the public on 3 June 1964 stated that his ashes be: “scattered over the fields where the peasants of India toil so that they might mingle with the dust and soil of India and become an indistinguishable part of India.”

Nehru was successful in steering India away from authoritarianism and communalism during his 17-year rule.

 For the seventeen years that Nehru was Prime Minister, he had been successful in keeping the fabric of India’s unity intact under his leadership without hopping onto the bandwagon of authoritarian post-colonial societies. However, with his death, India was plunged into the darkness; also known as the ‘After Nehru’ era.

After Nehru Era

Identity politics is the politics of opportunism. Partition— indeed was the highest stage of it but with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, identity politics lost its legitimacy and faded into the background for some time. That being said, it never disappeared completely and cropped up at the first sign of distress.

Congress has time and again dipped its toes in communal politics for the sake of the ballot. Once the reactionary and the leftist forces in the opposition were arrested after the imposition of the Emergency, it was Sanjay Gandhi who emerged as a leader of the Youth Congress and took on the reins during the Emergency.

Sanjay was a pro-Hindutva ideologue and Muslims had to endure the worst of his bigotry enforced in the form of ‘family planning’ and a development agenda, which bulldozed many slums. Maneka Gandhi too assisted him in managing the day to day business of the government during the emergency.

The 80s And 90s

This period in Indian history provides a template for the populist right-wing politics of the 80s and the 90s, and both the Congress and the opposition parties appropriated this sort of politics. The congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in the general elections of 1984, won 49.10% seats, the largest margin to date. Having said that, some historians have cited Rajiv Gandhi’s victory in 1984 as Indira Gandhi’s return to politics for a fourth term. 

The reason for this are many and varied— many of the votes were cast out of sympathy due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and it is not mere speculation to say that Congress benefited in the elections from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. In November 1984, Muslim massacres were also taking place in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The Ram Janmabhoomi campaign was helped by Sanjay Gandhi’s appeasement of Hindutva idealogues.

Rajiv Gandhi is accused of communalizing Indian politics because he reversed the supreme court judgement in the Shah Bano case, appeasing conservative Muslims, who were angered by the decision of the court, through a constitutional amendment. Contrarily, he also appeased Hindutva ideologues, by opening gates of the disputed Babri mosque, which had been locked in 1949.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had been running an incessant campaign since 1983 for the liberation of the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi (Birthplace of Ram)’ by demolishing the Babri mosque, and even when BJP leaders had assured in the Parliament that the mosque would not be demolished, in 1990 they went onto organising the Ram Rath Yatra— led by L. K. Advani, to rally support for the construction of a Ram Mandir, at the place of the Babri mosque.

The Influence Of Identity Politics

Identity politics in the eighties and the nineties was influential to an extent, that its presence was felt even in the women’s movement of the ’80s. It defined the nature of the women’s movement in India, as the leadership of the movement used religious symbols and imagery for widespread appeal among the masses— for e.g. Kali was projected as a symbol of female power.

The Assam Accord of 1985 signed, in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi between the leaders of the Assam Movement, represented by AASU (All Assam Students Union)— a right-wing group and the government of India, was an agreement that allowed the deportation of any Bangladeshi immigrants who had entered Assam after March 25, 1971. Even when Indira Gandhi’s administration had already accepted the estimated ten million refugees who had left Bangladesh and entered Indian territory during the Bangladesh liberation war.

While some of these refugees went back, some had stayed on. The leaders of the Assam movement agreed to accept immigrants, who had entered Assam prior to 1966, as full-fledged citizens and were ready to give them the right to vote, while those who entered India between 1966 and 1971, would not be allowed the right to vote but would be allowed to stay on, while those who entered India after 1971, would be deported.

The Growing Strength Of The Ram Mandir Issue

In November 1989, Janata Dal under V.P. Singh’s leadership formed an alliance with the BJP to form a government at the centre. The BJP had gone up from 2 seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989, by growing its strength on the Ram Mandir issue. The V.P. Singh administration completely failed to handle the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the valley. J&K was under the governor’s rule at the time of this exodus and a name that frequently arises infamously with regards to this issue is that of Jagmohan, who later joined hands with the BJP. 

LK Advani was one of the Hindutva ideologues that spearheaded the movement.

During Jagmohan’s time as governor, militancy peaked in Kashmir. The government also acted complacently in rehabilitating the Pandits after the exodus. Instead of resettling them, they let those who had been targeted, perish in refugee camps in Jammu. Following this migration, the BJP drew up a list of 55 temples ‘destroyed’ in Kashmir, and on the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in a rally organised outside it, Lal Krishna Advani in a provocative speech was quoted saying: Everyone wants to defend Babri Masjid, none of them has spoken a word of criticism about the 55 temples destroyed in Kashmir.

While communal politics in India grew and spiralled out of hand because parties saw the chance of victory in the usage of a right-wing populist agenda, the centrists faltered on many levels, by granting concessions to fundamentalists, at different periods of time, on both sides, resulting in a chain reaction in India politics, whose repercussions are being felt by us, even today.

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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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