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BJP’s Larger-Than-Life Image Or LDF’s Grassroots Work: What Will Kerala Voters Choose?

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The Kerala Assembly Election is due on April 6 and its outcome is expected to be in stark contrast to that of the 2019 Lok Sabha election — which was an unholy alliance for unruly politicking by the BJP and Congress against the backdrop of the Supreme Court judgment of September 28, 2018, on entry of women into the Sabarimala Ayyappan temple.

The judgment of a five-member Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra in a 4-1 majority struck down provisions of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which banned women between the age 10 and 50 from the temple. Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman on the bench, had a dissenting view.

The judgment was grist to the sinister-propaganda-mill of the protestors that even in “God’s own country”, God is not safe and conjured up by the highly parochial patriarchal bogey of Kerala men that celibacy and sexuality of Ayyappan at Sabarimala will be violated by the entry of nubile women (between 10 and 50 years of age). These protestors prodded their women to take to the streets en masse.

Women protesting against the Supreme Court judgment that allowed women to enter the Sabarimala temple.

As is well-known, even in the traditionally matrilineal and matriarchal Kerala society, women, as elsewhere in India, remain “docile bodies”.  The protestors overlooked the fact that the Maalikappuram temple, located at the right side of the Sabarimala main temple, is dedicated to Maalikappurathamma, who was waiting to get married by Ayyappan. This mumbo-jumbo makes the folklore about Ayyappan’s eternal celibacy and abstinence from sexuality gross, a fraud on the believers, and an affront to women as a gender category.

The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Pinarayi Vijayan had no option other than to enforce the judgment. That made Sabarimala a battlefront of pro-sex and anti-sex Ayyappans. In the Mandala kalam (season of 41 days pilgrimage) in the months of December and January, all those who trek to Sabarimala are known as a fraternity of Swamis, and those who have trekked more times are addressed as guruswamies.

In the mania of the so-called devotees, the iconic Ayyappan who was embedded in the social psyche of the people underwent a tectonic shift from the hall of fame to the hall of shame, from which, if at all, only “their lordships” of the apex court could save him. However, given the judiciary’s pedantic and lackadaisical grinding like god’s mill, the how and when of the Court saving the devotees looked like a Churchillian riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Pursuant to the plethora of petitions and review petitions, the apex court constituted a larger bench of seven judges on November 14, 2019, and was later expanded to a nine-judge bench on January 13, 2020. As of now, the matter is in limbo, but the question remains: how will this play out in the Assembly Election on April 6?

That should take the readers to my article ‘Kerala’s development paradox’, published in the papers on May 13, 2018. For continuity, coherence and a broader understanding of what I had mentioned in the article as the “Kerala phenomenon”, readers might have to revisit that link as the concept cannot be explained in the limited space of this piece.

In April 2017, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government celebrated the 60th anniversary of the State’s Legislative Assembly. The centrality of the first communist government in the celebration was very important, for it was the first democratically elected communist government anywhere and it was this government that had laid the foundation for modern Kerala. In its turbulent existence of nearly 28 months, the LDF government tried to reshape Kerala’s social patterns, centring on land and society, among other things.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan

When the first communist ministry was formed, Vijayan, like many other children, was a victim of ‘capability deprivation‘ in the sense in which Amartya Sen has used the term: no food, no clothes, no books and so on. His caste was at the bottom of the shudra-varna of the four-fold varna classification of Hindus and he was treated as an “untouchable” by the three varnas above the shudras. He might have been made to sit outside his classroom or segregated along with other boys like him.

Vijayan thus learned the art of living in the school of hard knocks, which he effectively used in various ways for social good and well-being. He is now in the last week as the Chief Minister of the state, and given the exuberance in the LDF and the anxious voters of Kerala — the bulk of whom are educated and unemployed youth ready to do any bidding for the LDF — then he will most likely be back in power after the April 6 election.

Communism is more of an anathema today than it was in the Nehruvian era 50 years ago. The self-seeking politicians are busy pulling the country back to an archaic, illusory and imaginary Ram Rajya (by its very meaning, autocratic and theocratic), and shifting that small slice of secular India from Delhi to the blood-stained and highly communalised Ayodhya. The LDF’s future is bound to be more turbulent; in keeping with the diktats of Modi, the party will be busy engaging the vital central agencies and arraigning itself through false and fabricated cases. And the LDF team is fighting a ‘no-lose battle’.

While the Centre’s Goebbelsian propaganda and political chicanery against the LDF will continue, the state party has much to cheer as its youth is politically and socially more sensitive than Modi and Shah’s, who are moving about the country roaring in their Gujarati-Hindi, which most people won’t understand, whereas the politically committed and clear-headed Vijayan’s stern retorts have already dwarfed the former.

Before concluding, Modi and the BJP have much to learn from the exemplary style of governance by the LDF. These include how Kerala fought the heaviest deluge in nearly a century with youth, workers and fisherfolk working in tandem with an inspiring administration; how the government managed the Nipah virus outbreak and then the Covid-19 virus outbreak. Apart from these, the state government took care of the livelihood needs of thousands of workers from other states whom the Kerala media repeatedly addressed as “guest workers” – a usage that Kerala Chief Electoral Officer Teeka Ram Meena appreciated on TV channels. Even the UN, WHO and other media outlets called Kerala’s work exemplary.

One final point, as Modi blabbers from a glass house with a larger-than-life image made out by his spin-doctors, presumably at the State’s expense, with hardly any press briefing over the past six years, here is a proletarian CM who conducts press briefings every day while his colleagues, particularly Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja, attends assiduously to Kerala’s health-related issues. The whole world watches her with awe and sections of the media commend her with various international accolades. Comparing the work of Vijayan, Shailaja and their team, readers might say ‘Shame on you Modi, shame on you Shah.’

About the author: P Radhakrishnan is a former professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies. He can be reached at prk1949@gmail.com.

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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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