Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita should have been working on their research projects, perhaps getting a few steps closer to writing their doctoral dissertations by now. Instead they have written letters showcasing the strength it needs to survive in jail, from jail. Where they have been lodged for speaking at meetings in solidarity with those protesting to safeguard their rights as Indian citizens.
“It is women’s defiance and collectivity that helped one survive ‘outside’, it is the same that is crucial to surviving ‘inside’, in jail. There are so many life stories, a new world, a different world, pushing you constantly to think, there is so much to absorb, so much pain, so much despair, yet moments of joy, of singing, of surviving,” wrote Devangana.
“How long will or can the moon be caged, hum dekhenge..” penned Natasha.
The letters were shared by their fellow activists from the Pinjra Tod collective, and are examples of strength Devangana and Natasha have continued to show during their long incarceration. The words will also give other young activists, especially women activists “further strength and courage to continue the struggle outside, and that the resistance against the attack on democratic rights will continue” stated Pinjratod members who organised an online public meeting marking six months since Devangana and Natasha have been in jail.
Natasha and Devangana’s families too shared their thoughts at the meeting. Mahavir Narwal said he had much to learn from his daughter, “She is in fact not feeling jailed, she is feeling she is like all other people. Those outside are also suffering, just like those in jails. Nobody in my family is demoralised or intimidated. We are all part of your resistance,” he said, adding that resistance was “not just to get them out of jail but to save all good ideas, truth”. Hemchandra Kalita said this was not just about Natasha and Devangana, “but for the cause of democracy and the sake of the Constitution… Every minority should be protected but every minority is being arrested.”
“Six months in prison for dreaming of freedom?” was the appropriate title of the public meeting organised on November 19 by Pinjra Tod. Participants including several students, activists, teachers and eminent citizens gathered in solidarity with Devangana and Natasha, and were united in their call for the release of all arrested anti CAA-NRC-NPR protestors, and condemned the “growing abuses to democratic rights in the country”.
President of PUCL Rajasthan, Kavita Shrivastava, recalled how Natasha and Devangana’s “assertion of democratic rights have been criminalised by slapping the UAPA law on them”. She said “the present government fears ideas, and particularly the ideas of women. The use of violence and draconian laws, particularly UAPA to silence dissenting voices has now become commonplace in India.” Shrivastava called for an “alliance against the UAPA law, and the need to connect the families of those arrested in the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests.”
Senior journalist Pamela Phillipose, shared spoke the history of Pinjra Tod collective and illustrated its continuity between the political articulation against discriminatory hostel regulations, to speaking out against sexual violence, to participating in the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR mass movement. She stressed on “that those speaking about justice and equality within the Constitution, and peacefully upholding the preamble, have been charged with anti-terror laws.”
Historian Uma Chakravarty recalled the similarities of the arrests of activists being carried out now to that of Snehalata Reddy, the only woman political prisoner to have died in incarceration during the Emergency, “I am reminded of the arrests during that time, conforming to the adage whereby there was no vakil, no daleel and no appeal. So you just rotted in jail like she did, occasionally getting released under one law and then re-arrested under another, as we see now.” She asked, “Is this the India we brought in on August 15, 1947, the country so many people went to jail innumerable times for?”. She added that women like Gulfisha, Ishrat, Safoora, Natasha and Devangana, were an inspiration in the way they are fighting for justice. Poet Akhil Katyal read out some of his words written in solidarity with those arrested, “These days the sun climbs so slowly, even the fallen seeds throw long shadows, above them the hours spread like locusts, like hunger, like an illness refusing to relent, a government uses this convenience to make some arrests.”
“There are many who are still in jail, line Varavara Rao, Fr Stan of Jharkhand, the student activists should be released, all political prisoners should all be released. We must talk about what we can do in the future. Putting them in jail is not a new tactic. They have just intensified it” said Dalit activist and singer Sambhaji Bhagat, adding the plan is to bring a Hindu rashtra, a Bharahmin rashtra, the plan is not hidden. He asked for the urgency for people’s mass movements to overcome the present situation in the country. He hailed Devangana and Natasha as young activists, “who answer and ask different questions, and who should be leading democratic struggles in the country” and called for alliances “between all democratic forces in the country to uphold the Constitution”.
Devangana Kalita, is an MPhil student at JNU’s Centre for Women’s Studies is the founding member of Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and alumni from colleges across Delhi that takes up causes like movement against curfew and restrictive timings for women students in hostels and paying guest accommodations. Kalita was arrested on May 23, 2020 in FIR No. 50/2020 registered at the Jafrabad Police Station in relation to the communal violence which had broken out in North East Delhi in February 2020. It was alleged that she mobilized a crowd of a particular community at the protest site near Jafrabad metro station on February 22 and 23 with an intention to instigate a section of people to indulge in rioting that led to loss of lives and destruction of public and private properties. But she was granted bail by the Delhi High Court citing lack of evidence to show that she instigated violence or gave a hate speech. She was also directed to furnish a personal bond of Rs 20,000 and a surety of the like amount. She has also been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in a separate case related to the communal violence, for allegedly being part of a “premeditated conspiracy” in the riots. In all, four cases have been registered against Kalita, including and in relation to the riots and violence in old Delhi’s Daryaganj area during protests against the citizenship laws in December 2019.
On September 17, a Delhi Court granted bail to Pinjra Tod member Natasha Narwal, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who is accused of instigating the riots that took place in the northeast districts of Delhi, news agencies reported. It was the trial court in Karkardooma granted bail to Narwal in a case registered against her under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Narwal has been lodged in Tihar prison as an accused under three FIRs that have been registered against her for allegedly fuelling the riots. On March 23, Narwal was arrested in connection with a case filed against certain Anti-CAA protesters in Jaffrabad. However, she was immediately released on bail. Soon after being released on bail, another FIR was registered against for allegedly instigating the Delhi riots and she has been in judicial custody ever since. Narwal has been accused of various offences under the Indian Penal Code as well as the provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The cases against her and Kalita, are being investigated by the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police.
The PinjraTod meeting may be seen here:
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