Monday, March 10, 2014

Campaigning for love with love

My Story, Mar '14
By Bappaditya Mukherjee

Epilogue: It was almost 11 am on December 11, 2013! I was headed for an important meeting for Prantakatha, a non-profit organization I am part of, with an ex-top cop of India and was in a cab in Kolkata. A status message appeared on the Facebook news feed: “Rainbow is just a trick of light”. I was numbed. I realized that the Supreme Court of India must have given its verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which ‘criminalizes’ any form of sexual intercourse ‘against the order of nature’. In effect, it means any emotional expression involving same-sex sexual relations is not legal in India.

Even as I tried to absorb the shock, my brain ran a Steve Jobs quote from his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech: “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” I was not sure if I could hold on to my faith, but was sure of the brick part as I could ‘feel’ the pain.

The next thing that came to mind was that in my visit to USA as a state guest in 2012 under their prestigious International Visitors Leadership Programme, I shared with many political and civil liberty leaders the success story of the alternative sexual rights movement in India, and how it all started from my home town Kolkata. With the Supreme Court verdict, more than queer rights, we had lost the image of a progressive, liberal and growing India to the world! In a way, we had lost our pride as liberal Indians!

The melting pot: One point I was absolutely sure of was that the crisis was not for queer people alone. It had a strong connection with our dream of living in and developing a liberal, tolerant, progressive, and above all, a loving India. But where and how was the connection? In December 2012 itself, we as Indians and youth rose to protest against brutal gang rapes and the insensitivity of our society to such violence. In this one year the reported cases of violence against girls and women only increased. Every day I prayed and hoped not to see news of sexual violence in the morning paper. But my prayer failed to yield any result! As the head of a youth-lead movement in Bengal, all through the year, I rescued girls who had been sold into the flesh trade.

According to a UN Women study, in West Bengal alone nearly 18,000 girls get trafficked on an average in a year and 80% of them are 10-12 years old. If and when rescued, these girls start another journey of violence, where they are made to wait indefinitely for justice and repatriation by the courts of law, police, the Border Security Force or Bangladesh Rifles – by the whole system since they do not constitute a ‘vote bank’. I have seen girls dying, families willing to take them back but our system failing to facilitate the process with sensitivity and love.

So the pain I felt because of the Supreme Court decision was something familiar, only the names, places and time were different. As part of a coalition of youth development agencies across the country, when I spoke at a national meeting, I was surprised to experience an absolute echo of my pain and concern in the audience.

The characters or so to say ‘victims’ of violence keep changing form – Dalits, religious minorities, women, people from north-eastern India and yes, also queer people. But there is also a commonality. The reason and justification for violence in the minds of the perpetrators always seems to be that the victims are not ‘like them’! The first few pages of the Indian Constitution, which promise equality to all Indian citizens in spite of their apparent differences, get blurred in my head.

The campaign: As development practitioners from various parts of India, many of us are converging towards an intimate point. It is not difficult to see beyond the economic development rhetoric that has taken centre stage, thanks to the Lok Sabha elections due later this year. All political parties speak about economic growth, buildings, mono rails and foreign trade but hardly any speak about how to ensure less violence in our lives. The vision projected is one of stronger India, while violence continues to shatter our belief in the future.

In this backdrop, on February 14, 2014, ‘Love Stories 2014’ emerged as a campaign with the intention of bringing the discourse back to peace and love. What it also focuses on is the history of love as an emotion in challenging societal norms of inequality. The biggest take-away from love stories in this country, or for that matter worldwide, is the emphasis on equality, and so love stories of any ‘size, shape or texture’ can inspire people fighting inequality in society.

The campaign aims at bringing together 1,000 love stories from different corners of India – stories which narrate a challenge posed to inequality. The campaign expects to find pairs of stories that are similar in their realities. In the process, the campaign aspires to pair up a Dalit story of love with a Muslim one or a queer one, and so on. And that is where the success of the campaign will lie. The converging love stories will help people understand that violence is the absence of love in society, and that only new laws are not enough to stop violence. It is the idea of equality and acceptance of plurality that alone can put a stop to violence. It will also make the fight against violence more specific with the question: “Are you in favour of violence or love?”

‘Love Stories 2014’ will run till January 25, 2015. January 25 is celebrated as Love Letter Day and falls on the eve of Republic Day. On Love Letter Day 2015, the campaign will release a book consisting of the 1,000 love stories collected from across the country. If there are enough video interviews, a DVD version of the book will also be released. These documents will then be circulated widely.

The Kolkata launch of 'Love Stories 2014' at the
Prantakatha office on February 14, 2014
Photo credit: Prantakatha 
The launch: The campaign was launched in four cities simultaneously – Delhi, Kolkata, Dimapur and Lucknow. In Kolkata, a pre-launch happened in partnership with 91.9 Friends FM, a leading radio channel from the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group. The channel ran a two-hour show titled 44 Park Street on February 12, 2014 from 8 to 10 pm. With an unexpected positive response from the listeners, the channel proposed to air a love story every Wednesday from 9 to 10 pm starting March 15, 2014 till the end of the campaign!

On February 14, the ground launch took place with a whole evening at Prantakatha’s office in Kolkata with youth from various backgrounds coming in. Sharing of stories was interspersed with music, poems, food and friendship.

The Delhi launch of the campaign on February 13, 2014.
Photo credit: Prantakatha
In Delhi, the launch was a day earlier on February 13. Our Delhi lead Suman Pal, a junior medico at the Maulana Azad Medical College, reported that the launch involved a small group of friends who came together for the cause. It was an unlikely mix of doctors, economics graduates, design students, psychology students and even a particularly mischievous monkey who took off with one of the bags and ceremoniously unpacked its contents before eyeing the group with contempt at the lack of food in the bag! While the group originally planned to meet for an hour, it turned out to be a three-hour marathon that came to an end only because everyone was getting really late. It was an inspiring session, with everyone coming out of their shells, sharing and discussing their experiences without the fear of being judged.

The Dimapur launch of the campaign on Valentine's Day.
Photo credit: Prantakatha
In Dimapur, Nagaland, the Valentine's Day launch of the event involved a group of young people from Youngs Club. Jenpu Rongmei, Founder and President of Youngs Club reported that the launch was held as part of an initiative called ‘Youth for Change’ and involved sharing of love stories and exchange of gifts, all over coffee and chatting. Stories of people living with HIV intermingled with those of women who faced domestic violence; tribal youth shared their stories along with people living with disabilities and youth from broken families. Across the country, on the same evening, 17 youth gathered at the Yes Foundation’s office in Lucknow for the launch in the city.

The way ahead: The campaign looks forward to generating momentum across the country through both online and off-line events. Most importantly, the campaign now seeks to engage more energizers into the campaign in terms of partners, ambassadors and on-the-ground story collectors. In the next two months, we hope to gain more media publicity so that youth across India and across communities can be brought into the campaign space.

Prantakatha’s partners in this initiative include Sauhard Gujarat; Synergy Sansthan, Madhya Pradesh; Yeh Ek Soch Foundation, Uttar Pradesh; Prantakatha Delhi and Youth Alliance from Delhi; Diksha Foundation, Bihar; Youngs Club, Nagaland; and Sanlaap from West Bengal. Our media partners include Youth Ki Awaz, Gaylaxy, Varta and 91.9 Friends FM Kolkata.

Bappaditya Mukherjee is Founder and Chief Anchor at Prantakatha (Stories of Change from the Margin).

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