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(Opinion) ‘No One Gets To Walk Away’: India’s Subtle Art Of Suppressing Dissent

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The Subtle Art                

Suppressing dissent is the trademark of an authoritarian and intolerant government. Under such a government, holding an opposing opinion on subjects related to nationalism and religion can invite wrath of the government through every power available under them. Radical nationalists have always tried to enforce their own version of political and religious history by spreading misinformation, misrepresenting facts and breaking dissent to divide the social fabric in society.

Freedom of expression, one of the basic fundamental rights, is the biggest threat to a communal government. Media channels, NGOs, intellectuals and social activists who dare to raise their voices against the authoritarian government are silenced by the misuse of laws and regulations.

A political party getting a full majority mandate in an election does not mean that the rest who did not vote for them are to remain silent. Dissent against policies and functioning against the government is never anti-national. Holding an opposition view against the Prime Minister or government does not make anyone anti-national. The right to hold dissent is the biggest and strongest right the Constitution has provided to this nation. No democracy is possible with the existence of dissent.

As long as a person or organisation does not break any law or strive to break peace in society, they have the right to have different opinions than every other citizen of the country.

Criticism is what keeps a democratic government on its toes. Criticism of the judiciary, executive, administrative and armed forces cannot be put under the radar of ‘anti-national’. It is the right and moral duty of every citizen to question, oppose, verify and demand accountability from their ruling government. Expressing dissent against the government and its prominent leaders can never be the same as working against the nation.

A Visible Pattern

Very often, in the disguise of national interest, the government and its functioning authorities have been trying to silence any kind of dissent against themselves and their policies. So, it came as no surprise when, after amending the citizenship laws in the country, PM Modi accused the opposition and its leaders of speaking the language of Pakistan. Pro-government TV media channels took it as their responsibility to paint any protest against the government as ‘anti-national’ or ‘Pakistan supporters. During protests against the Citizen Amendment Law, the government warned media outlets from reporting any kind of “public discontent” or “anything that promotes anti-national sentiments”.

Targeting the mainstream media and announcing warnings in Parliament sessions are not meant to be taken lightly. The ruling government has often announced threats or even persecuted those who have spoken against the government’s policies. Social activists have been held in detention centres under the National Security Act to prevent them from organising any protests. Critics of the government and its working have been charged with sedition, criminal defamation and even terrorism.

The government has made sure to use every card on its deck to suppress dissent against itself. Financial authorities have been used to investigate critics and media houses, and also preventive measures such as barring activists from travelling abroad to inform international outlets.

india jail protest

Charges of sedition on social activists have become more common than petty theft. In October 2019, the Bihar Police filed a case of sedition against 49 people, including many well-known Bollywood personalities, for writing an open letter to the democratically-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing concerns over the striking increase in hate crime and mob-lynching against minority communities.

The case was shut down only after widespread condemnation against the actions of the Bihar Police. In an investigation. Scroll found that over 10,000 members belonging to Adivasi Community in Jharkhand have been charged with sedition for disturbing public order.

Placing Foot On Journalism

Media outlets that have not yet sold their spine to the government are under constant pressure to self-censor themselves and not step on any toes in the government. The government has used criminal defamation and social media trolls to target journalists. In June 2019, the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested three journalists on the charge of criminal defamation for posting a video of a woman claiming to be in love with an already-much-loved Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

A journalist in Telangana was slapped with criminal charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for critical writings against the State and Central Governments. These are not just isolated incidents. Charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition are commonly used to suppress any form of dissent. In August, an independent media-house put forth a complaint of “a complete subversion of media freedom” as its founders were barred by immigration authorities for travelling abroad on grounds of a total hoax and baseless corruption case.

The Government of India has involved itself in extreme actions against activists who discuss Human Rights abuses by the government at international forums. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is often used by the governments to curb the foreign funding of civil societies that are critical towards the government. Quite deservingly, India dropped to a bad place in the World Press Freedom Index by earning Rank 142 in a list of 180 countries. The National Crime Records Bureau statistics from the year 2014-2016 showed that there were a total of 179 arrests made on the charges of sedition, but no charge sheet was filed in 70% of the total cases till the end of 2016.

The rate of conviction in the cases of sedition is extremely low, but it’s the process itself, which can take years in court, that is the punishment. The Indian Judiciary has repeatedly held up that the right to dissent and criticise are necessary elements of Freedom of Speech and Expression. This right is an ‘enabler’ of other rights such as economic, social justice, political and cultural rights. The arbitrary use of criminal laws for curbing freedom of expression would create a chilling effect and lead to other human rights violations.

The chilling effect has already made its grip in India. The price of dissent is very high in India, from being charged as anti-national on the prime time news shows, criminal defamation cases, to being accused of terrorism and social media trolling. Authorities should realise that criticism is a good first step. Criticism can save the authorities an embarrassment at a later stage. The government needs to realise that criticism can bring corrective measures to the system and improve the state of rights for all.

Note: The article is an excerpt from the book No one gets to walk away: Media, Politics, Religion and more by the same author. 

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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 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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