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Youth Activism Is A Definitive Part Of Democracy, So Why Is It Being Villainised?

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हो गई है पीर पर्वत-सी पिघलनी चाहिए; इस हिमालय से कोई गंगा निकलनी चाहिए | आज यह दीवार, परदों की तरह हिलने लगी; शर्त थी लेकिन कि ये बुनियाद हिलनी चाहिए | हर सड़क पर, हर गली में, हर नगर, हर गाँव में; हाथ लहराते हुए हर लाश चलनी चाहिए | सिर्फ हंगामा खड़ा करना मेरा मकसद नहीं; मेरी कोशिश है कि ये सूरत बदलनी चाहिए | मेरे सीने में नहीं तो तेरे सीने में सही; हो कहीं भी आग, लेकिन आग जलनी चाहिए |

— दुष्यंत कुमार

This mountain of pain must melt; a Ganga must burst forth from this Himalaya. Today, this wall of apathy is shaking like curtains in a breeze. But its very foundation needs to be overturned. On every road, every lane, every city and every village, the corpse of our conscience must march on, waving hands. It is not my purpose to merely create a ruckus; my intent is to change the situation. If not in my heart, then in your heart; wherever it may be, this fire should remain burning.

— Dushyant Kumar, Translation by Manish Modi

“Dissent. Activism. Protest. Nowadays, the youth doesn’t think. They just act impulsively without understanding and kids can’t see beyond their smartphones. They just want to rebel and create a ruckus. They’re all anti-national.”

This is a common opinion expressed by several in our society when young people say they are activists or every time news about protests blows up; maybe you’ve had this same thought before, too. Activism is often seen as a waste of time, a poorly thought-out fit of anger or a bunch of urban kids holding posters and standing around, when instead, they could be doing something productive and contributing to the GDP.

However, activists, i.e. active citizens, are not only required in order for a nation to remain a constitutional democracy, activism is also a crucial tool to ensure a just, inclusive, diverse and beautiful world for us and future generations, and hence, it is imperative that we understand activism and take it seriously.

What Is Activism?

Activism literally refers to “direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.” Therefore, making policies is a part of activism, as are art, education (when imparted meaningfully and holistically), daily acts of subtle resistance, conversations, the ct of self-reflection, healing, growth and even empathy. Activism is shaped through living experiences and encompasses being active, aware (of yourself and your surroundings), and pushing for social and ecological justice against oppression, violence, exploitation and discrimination.

“To me, activism means putting your wholehearted effort in reviving something good which is lost,” said Ashish Birulee, co-founder of Adivasi Lives Matter and Fridays for Future Jharkhand, from the Ho Adivasi community of Jharkhand

In his pointed article on the right to youth activism, Ashish Kothari (an Indian environmentalist working on social and environmental justice and alternatives; co-founder/member of Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam) addressed how “India’s honourable ‘elders’ are counselling young people to focus on studies, uphold national honour and get into ‘respectable’ jobs. Manu Joseph (Indian journalist and writer) wrote that the youth should ‘quit activism and go make money’ [and] BJP spokesperson Sudesh Yadav said that [youth activists] were only ‘misguided youth’ wanting to search for an ‘easier way to stardom’”. Kothari highlights the patronising nature of such advice, which implies that the youth is a pawn in global conspiracies.

To anyone who feels that youth activism is empty, meaningless or pointless, consider all the youth activists, organisations and unions who are tirelessly compiling Covid resources and assisting with on-ground Covid relief work day and night in the absence of any state support. Last year, many youth groups provided aid and support to the thousands of stranded migrant workers when a national lockdown was announced by PM Modi without any notice.

Note that some of these groups and youths are the same who have been previously branded ‘anti-national’ or threatened with criminal charges. Additionally, the recent success of the Save Mollem Forest campaign resulted in the appointment of a Central Empowered Committee by the Supreme Court that decided that the proposed railway project was destructive for the environment. The transmission line has since been moved to a route that will avoid deforestation and the road widening will be given a go-ahead only once it has a proper Environmental Impact Assessment. And of course, the peaceful anti-CAA/NRC protests are an extraordinary example of youth action to secure basic citizenship rights for ALL citizens of India.

However, time and again, the same narrative is spun around how activism, dissent and protests are anti-national and foreign. This is used to justify the oppression of youth activists and critics, especially those from the communities of Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA), transgender, queer, Muslims and other marginalised people.

I want to strongly reiterate that peaceful criticism of the State’s action and policies is not and should not be equated with hate speech (which is usually fuelled by personal vendetta and/or prejudice) or be deemed anti-national, as has been happening for years, particularly even more so in the past decade.

This creates the false and dangerous notion that the government is the nation and is widely propagated through tokenistic welfare projects, branding, publicity, violent and oppressive ideologies, putting the state and leader on a saviour and cult-of-personality pedestal, and creating a ‘common’ enemy (often minority groups and individuals branded as terrorists or other countries seen as a threat to the idea of ‘India’).

#WithdrawEIA2020 Protests in North East. Image by NewsClick

Additionally, the narrative that dissent and protest are ‘global conspiracies’ or ‘foreign’ to a subcontinent that has seen countless social and ecological movements makes no historical or logical sense. Indian movements have, of course, been influenced by global ideas and movements for decades.

Yet, they have also emerged from indigenous movements that have influenced the global discourse and the course of human history, from religious reformers such as Mahavir Jain and Gautam Buddha, and recent revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, to a myriad of anti-colonial, anti-caste, feminist, human rights and ecological movements. It is great disservice to brand youth activists as foreign-funded or pawns in global conspiracies, and use this to oppress and violently silence us.

I say this in context of the numerous attacks on fellow youth activists; some of the recent ones even led to their death (in the case of Rohith Vemula) and many others to imprisonment, harassment, false charges, etc. This trend can be observed in the peaceful anti-CAA protesters with the State’s treatment with Gulfisha, Safoora, Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jahan, Sharjeel Usmani, Chandan Kumar. Young environmental activists including Disha Ravi, Shantanu Muluk, Nikita Jacob and Shubham Chaudhuri were arrested in the ‘toolkit’ case during the farmers’ protest; Adivasi activists Hidme Markam and young labour activists Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar are amongst numerous others who have been unlawfully targeted, harassed and/or arrested during Adivasi rights protests.

I also write against the backdrop of the second wave of the Covid pandemic, in which citizens and youths have been left to fend for themselves, many of whom have risen to show immense courage, compassion and solidarity. On the other hand, many of those who should be responsible were busy organising rallies and disastrous melas, misreporting Covid case numbers, helping corporates boost their business, and squabbling over party and religious lines.

Any democratic institution must have the capacity to receive, understand and work with criticism from its people, especially thinkers, activists and those marginalised by mainstream society. It must guarantee space for dissent and criticism, along with well-written and executed laws to uphold participatory democracy.

The government must work with, and not against, people from diverse demographics who have an intellectual and/or grounded understanding of people, policies, the country and its history to ensure a safer, more democratic and more participative nation. In fact, the Constitution of India explicitly calls upon citizens to “promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities” and “protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.” Heeding this constitutional call enjoins upon us youth to be activists when we see these principles being violated.

As individuals and collectives, we have a large part to play in ensuring environmental and social justice. Even if the laws in India were thorough, inclusive and just, we would still need activism and community awareness to ensure that the laws were actually implemented. It is a privilege to be apolitical, and similarly, it is a privilege to choose not to be active, whether overtly or through everyday acts of resistance and awareness.

Considering the pandemic, massive political and social upheavals, large-scale ecological damage, and threats to our democracy, we must note that we do not have the luxury to be apolitical and inactive. We must be active through self-education, and reflection on our assumptions, political biases and blind-spots. We should be aware of current affairs, have conversations with family, friends and those not from social groups. We must volunteer our time towards socio-political causes and most importantly, be open to alternate discourses and opinions.

Unfortunately, in India, there are very few avenues for people to comment on and influence policy-making in a constructive manner. These avenues need to be created through dissent, active bottom-up engagement, and a guaranteed safe-space for such engagement and dissent. Most of our laws have been heavily top-down and there has been very little room for citizens, especially youth, to raise concerns and suggest alternatives.

While earlier, we used to have laws for participatory democracy, these laws have now been either removed or neglected by authorities. And neither are new laws are being brought in or enforced to uphold the right to dissent and freedom of speech. The laws currently being passed by the Parliament are being done arbitrarily and by violating legislative processes.

Our judiciary system has also remained moot on or dismissed crucial issues pertaining to unlawful arrests, basic rights, environmental degradation, corporate atrocities and more. Additionally, there is a growing issue of lack of government jobs, further reducing the possible avenues available to youth to engage with policies and systemic issues.

In such a situation, dissent has played a key role, be it in the form of on-ground protests (as we see now with the farmers’ protest and earlier with CAA/NRC) or online (as we saw with protests against EIA 2020). Democracy shifts the power to people, so why should the youth then not exercise this power in responsible ways?

Activism and dissent are some of the most powerful tools citizens have (and not just those who have complete citizenship as recognised by the state, but even those who are informal citizens or effectively not treated as citizens and often denied basic rights) to express their views.

At a time when the nation is drowning under the second wave of Covid-19 and lack of governance, the youth are suffering due to rising unemployment, farmers are protesting against the corporatisation of agriculture, and labour unions are suffering due to weakened labour laws. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones across the country, caste and patriarchy are still pervasive and oppressive features of society, numerous indigenous and local communities are being displaced, our environment is being ruthlessly destroyed, and democratic values are being erased.

Activism, which is actively addressing all these issues, needs to stop being portrayed as an elitist, meaningless fight between the ‘senseless and globally motivated’ left and the ‘traditional and virtuous’ right.

This article is not to say that youth activism movements in India are perfect, all-inclusive or always correct. The term ‘youth’ itself, when coupled with activism, is largely co-opted by the upper-class and upper-caste youth who have the social and political capital to make their voices heard. There is a lot more that all of us need to learn and come to terms with – patience, active listening, stepping away from the spotlight, recognising privilege, and understanding and learning at a deeper level before advocating for issues, sustaining movements, resolving our own internal conflicts and inequalities, and feeling discomfort.

However, it is shameful that the youth is asked to turn their faces away from institutional and historical oppression that has been so deeply entrenched in our society and ecology just so that the status quo can continue and the system can be left undisturbed and unquestioned. We have a right to raise our voices against injustice, for basic rights, and for our future. We refuse to sit behind the wall of apathy. We call out, yet again, to those in power and to those who still remain apathetic, to wake up, get up and work with us.

About the author: Anjali Dalmia is a social and environmental activist, co-founder of Yugma Network and The Project Amara, and a member of National Alliance of People’s Movements. You can reach out to her via Linktree and LinkedIn.

All opinions in this piece are personal. I want to highlight that this article was written from the perspective of a privileged upper-middle-class, upper-caste, non-binary queer woman, and therefore, is not all encompassing and does not aim to speak for individuals and activists from MAPA, DBA, Trans, Muslim and other marginalised communities. Please email me at anjalidalmia@gmail.com or leave a comment below if you feel that something has been left out, has been inadequately or wrongly represented or if you would like to share your own opinion. 

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  1. Tanmay Singh

    Well said, Anjali! Youth activism cannot be branded as anti-national or promoting hate speech in baseless attempts to quash constructive dissent.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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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