What price vigilance?

Word cloud roughly in the shape of a diamond to highlight the issues talked about in the article below. There is key emphasis on the word ‘vigilance’, which stands out in big point size and red colour in the centre. Other words, all in blue or red colour, include ‘criticism’, ‘diversity’, ‘gender’, ‘health’, ‘law’, ‘legislation’, ‘medication’, ‘mental’, ‘policy’, ‘rules’, ‘sexuality’, ‘standards’, ‘therapy’ and ‘transgender’. Graphic credit: Pawan Dhall

Vartanama, Sep '17
A new media acquaintance wondered what the focus of this issue’s editorial would be. He was sure I would write about journalist Gauri Lankesh's murder. Well, he wasn’t wrong.

But this is not about Gauri Lankesh per se. It’s more about the larger social (media) reaction to her murder. Beyond all protests, newspaper columns and sound bites, it seems that as a society we rarely accord the same stature of courage to soldiers who fight at the ‘borders of the mind’ as those who fight at political borders.

Quote: To anyone who feels that weapons make a point I ask if they are sure about their convictions. To me there’s far more conviction in being vigilant, critical and even risking one’s life like Gauri Lankesh than in being fooled into picking up arms to prove someone else’s point.The tragedy is even greater because give and take of thoughts, ideas and positions can be a strong deterrent to countless lives being lost at political borders. Yet the mindless mayhem goes on unabated.

To anyone who feels that weapons make a point I ask if they are sure about their convictions. To me there’s far more conviction in being vigilant, critical and even risking one’s life like Gauri Lankesh than in being fooled into picking up arms to prove someone else’s point.

* * *

On a note of vigilance on the policy front, the draft of Mental Healthcare Rules 2017 has been published. Kolkata-based disability rights activist and Varta contributor Shampa Sengupta has been quick to point out a number of problem areas in the otherwise comprehensive document. Among them are at least two issues of immediate concern when seen through the gender and sexuality lens.

In the schedule on Minimum Standards for Mental Health Establishments, Standard 3 talks about maintenance of hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation. Point (c) under this standard says: “Number of toilets is not less than in the ratio of 1:5 and bathrooms not less than in the ratio of 1:10.  There shall be separate toilets and bathrooms for male and female inpatients”.

Why don’t India’s laws, judgments and policies ‘speak’ to each other? With transgender people’s concerns receiving increasing judicial, media and social attention, and the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 itself talking about non-discrimination on grounds of gender and sexuality, one would have expected the standard on toilets to factor in transgender people’s concerns – at the draft stage itself.

Perhaps our thinking on gender diversity is at worst absent and at best still an after-thought, a numerical add-on to the gender binary. But this needs to change and the spectrum that gender is must be reflected in all our laws and policies.

Quote: Perhaps our thinking on gender diversity is at worst absent and at best still an after-thought, a numerical add-on to the gender binary. But this needs to change and the spectrum that gender is must be reflected in all our laws and policies.Then again, the section on Minimum Quality Standards for Mental Health Services talks about child mental health services. To quote the second item under this section: “Government shall arrange for early detection of mental health problems among children, and for providing treatments such as counselling, cognitive-behavioural therapy and, if necessary, psychotropic medication to prevent behavioural disorders, anxiety, depression and eating disorders and related risks such as inappropriate sexual behaviour, substance abuse, and violence”.

The question is how is ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ to be defined? Most other terms in this text are likely to have well-established explanations or definitions in more than one source document. But how may various stakeholders in the sphere of mental health interpret ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ among children?

Given the deep-seated social stigma against sex and sexuality, the fear is this expression will subsume any and every kind of sexual intimacy among children, and more so if it is same-sex in nature. And if that happens, could we be looking at more and more young people being subjected to ‘cures’ for homosexuality or bisexuality?

As Shampa Sengupta points out, often the rules under an Act carry more weight with government officials and service providers than the intent of the Act itself. This has also been witnessed in the case of the NALSA verdict on transgender identities and rights, where the Honourable Supreme Court of India’s directives on issues like gender self-identification are under serious threat of being diluted in proposed legislation on transgender rights.

We need clear elaborations of all terms to rule out ambivalence in the Mental Healthcare Rules 2017 document. With this document bearing so much practical significance, why can’t it, in addition to definitions and explanations, include a list of key reference documents that could act as a guide for training curricula for different mental health stakeholders? In the context of gender and sexuality diversity, for instance, it could include definitive documents like the World Psychiatric Association Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity issued as recently as in 2016.

Fortunately, the government has invited feedback on the rules document, the last date for which is October 20, 2017. A few civil society organizations in Kolkata are planning to meet on October 10 to compile inputs for a joint submission of feedback. Please write to us at vartablog@gmail.com or send in comments below if you have any inputs or would like to join the proposed meeting.

Main graphic credit: Pawan Dhall

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Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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