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Looking Back, I Wonder: Did India Take Its Political Diversity For Granted?

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On 21st January 2021, the United States made history. After more than 250 years of independence, they have a cabinet that represents the diversity of the country. After a long struggle, Joe Biden finally became President.

The oath of office made him the second catholic President of the United States and Kamala Harris – the first woman, first African-American, first African-American woman, first South Asian-American and first South Asian-American woman to take charge as Vice President of the United States of America (USA).

Biden’s cabinet includes the openly gay and former Mayor of Indiana, Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation while a black man named Lloyd Austin had been appointed Secretary of Defence. Biden’s cabinet is set to be the most diverse cabinet in the history of the United States, and the American media and public cannot get over it.

US President Joe Biden.

This excitement, the euphoria and celebration in America got me thinking – Did India ever have such a diversity? If yes, did the Indian public and media appreciate it or showed that level of excitement and celebration that United States is showing right now?

In 2004, Italian-born Indian citizen Sonia Gandhi was all set to become India’s Prime Minister. But, due to pressure from coalition partners and protests from opposition political party leaders, the President of Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi chose Dr Manmohan Singh to become India’s head of government.

His appointment was celebrated. And why? The Oxford and Cambridge educated economist Dr Manmohan Singh led India out of the financial crisis to economic liberalization in the 1990s. His economic policy led India into the 21st century as a promising global power, and no one could refute it.

Adding to this, he became India’s first Sikh Prime Minister. Not only that, Dr Manmohan Singh became the first Prime Minister of India that belonged to a minority religious group. In India, Sikhs are a religious minority with a population of 2.5 percent who are mostly limited to the state of Punjab. After being Prime Minister for 5 years, he got re-elected in the 2009 general elections.

 

India’s first Sikh Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.

Before I go further, I must clarify for the American audience. Just like in the United States, we also have two main parties – BJP and Congress. You can equate BJP with the Republicans and Congress with the Democrats in terms of ideology, but not history. In historical terms, Congress has been India’s Grand Old Party (GOP), and BJP was formed in the 1980s.

Another difference is that we have multiple regional parties that act as checks and balances in our system. Our regional parties also have representation in the Parliament and get a say on who will form the government due to coalition politics. As a result, we have a multi-party system as opposed to the American two-party system.

Under his government, Muslims were represented as well. India had a Muslim Vice-President named Mohd. Hamid Ansari. We had Salman Khurshid, a prominent lawyer, as our Foreign Affairs Minister and had representation from India’s only Muslim-majority state of Kashmir as well. Farooq Abdullah and his son, Omar Abdullah, both became members of his cabinet. In fact, Farooq Abdullah, a Kashmiri Muslim, was also considered for the post of India’s President.

Women were not left behind – Manmohan Singh’s government gave India its first female President, Mrs. Pratibha Patil. The lower house of Parliament for the second time elected a woman leader of Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi.

Meira Kumar became the first woman and first Dalit woman speaker of the Lok Sabha (meaning house of the people). Meira Kumar was not the only oppressed caste representative in Singh’s government, Sushil Kumar Shinde became India’s first Dalit to become Home Minister. But, was the representation in this government limited to religion and gender? No.

Another form of conflict that exists in Indian society and federal structure is between the North and the South. South India always feels neglected when it comes to appointments and representations. But, under Manmohan Singh’s government not only South Indian’s got representation, they also held vote-bank power.

In other words, they were elected representatives holding high positions such P. Chidambaram who became India’s Finance Minister and A.K. Anthony from the state of Kerala who handled Ministry of Defence for 10 years.

But, was everyone represented? While Manmohan Singh’s government was India’s most diverse – it also left behind some groups. The government did not give adequate representation to people of the North-East, neither to the tribal community. While these groups need for representation has been discussed in the Indian media landscape.

Did India take its political diversity for granted? Representational image.

Unlike American politics, India has never discussed in the public domain about representation of LGBTQ community. A recognized minority community under 2011 census, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community is 5 percent of India’s population. Though Manmohan Singh government did not give them representation, it did move a step forward by recognizing them as a minority.

Manmohan Singh’s government’s diversity was never celebrated nor even highlighted. Their work in giving LGBTQ community representation was not even talked about. Today, when I look back and see how the United States is appreciating its political identity, it makes me wonder: Did India take its political diversity for granted?

Did we not appreciate what we have got to offer to the world in terms of pluralist mature democracy? Or were we just careless about unity with diversity, and as of this moment in history – have we thrown it away for a homogenous society?

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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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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