A conversation across contexts on the carceral state and struggle for democratic freedoms, marking over one year of the imprisonment of Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal.
Academics, activists, journalists and others from various walks of life came together in an online meeting held on the 13th of June to mark over one year of the arrest of equal citizenship activists and JNU scholars Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal. The conversation organized by Friends of Devangana and Natasha sought to locate the experience of their incarceration and heightened repression in India in a global context of the use of anti-democratic laws and increasing crackdowns on dissent and marginalised communities.
Addressing the meeting, Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the condition of Human Rights Defenders said that she had written to the Indian government expressing concern about the use of counter terror laws against Human Rights Defenders and civil society voices almost a year ago but was yet to receive any response from the State. She also observed that the police seems to have moved in exactly the opposite direction from the directive given by the Supreme Court of India to decongest prisons. The police have continued arrests of political and social activists during a pandemic. Lawlor emphasized the importance of building solidarity networks to support those incarcerated and human rights activism globally.
Shireen Huq, known for her pioneering work in Bangladesh on women’s rights through her organization Naripokkho (established in 1983) and her activism on issues of freedom of expression and association, and enforced disappearances, expressed concern about the rising religious intolerance, bigotry, misogyny and homophobia across the subcontinent. She enumerated various facts about the condition of democracy in Bangladesh, where draconian laws such as the Digital Security Act, 2018 are being used by the state to keep citizens in jail under non-bailable provisions. Huq noted that over the past months Bangladesh has seen 631 attacks on journalists and Human Rights Defenders, 312 unlawful arrests and torture of journalists and over 500 incidents of enforced disappearances, custodial torture, gang rape and extrajudicial killings, in most cases of political opponents of the state.
Eminent feminist historian, activist and filmmaker Uma Chakravarti said that a repressive state in India is being enabled by a judiciary which rubber stamps everything that the government wants. She spoke with anger and anguish over the state of the nation where young people dreaming differently are being put in prison. She pointed to the example of twenty year old Amulya Leona who was arrested for wishing well to the people of all countries in the subcontinent. The panic that such a desire for the wellbeing of all people who share a long history created worried her about the kind of citizenship that has come to be normalised in an atmosphere of fear, jingoistic nationalism, and insecurity. She also highlighted that the Citizenship Amendment Act was not just about the loss of rights but the redefinition of the very nature of citizenship and the country, in a manner which completely contravened the spirit of the freedom struggle into which she was born.
Activist Joshua Virasami, from Black Lives Matter (BLM), UK, used the occasion to share some of the demands of the global BLM, particularly defunding the police and investing in communities. Speaking from day to day experience of working class and racialised communities’ with the carceral system and their confrontation with state repression, Virasami said that abolition (of prisons) is not just about decarceration but also about building a robust system of radical care through mutual aid, community building and response to harm which supplements radical forgiveness. He also highlighted the legitimisation of pervasive policing during the lockdown, criminalization of street protests and incommensurate punishments for protesters over the past year and more in the context of the UK and its conservative leadership.
Activist Tanmay N, who in a twisted turn of events, spent nearly a month in jail last year for accompanying a gang rape survivor to court along with co-activist Kalyani, recalled their own time in a jail in Bihar. The experience, he narrated, was marked by invasive body checks including violative strip searches, poor sanitation and living conditions, lack of information and access to legal aid. Tanmay spoke movingly about the psychic toll of such an existence inside derelict prisons. Even ordinary things like menstrual hygiene become impossible by the casual disregard towards women prisoner’s own ways of addressing their menstrual needs and a prison system that simply refuses to provide humane living conditions to those in captivity.
Inside these dehumanising spaces, Tanmay spoke about how women prisoners recovered a sense of self and beauty through love, care and solidarity that is inherent to those who find themselves inside these institutions. He also drew attention to many languishing in jails whose names are unknown to us, who do not have the privilege of a supportive community outside, and political prisoners such as adivasi activist Hidme Markam and the recently demised Maruti worker Jiya Lal. He said that the pandemic could have been an opportunity for the state to find its humanity, instead it has used this moment as an opportunity unleashing greater violence against ordinary citizens – from the migrant workers to the activists fighting big corporations.
Author, founder and executive director of the Polis Project, Suchitra Vijayan, remarked that while we speak of the resilience and courage of political prisoners, no country should demand such courage of its people. She called the carceral state “a prison beyond the prison” where citizen’s rights are not only curtailed through incarceration but the nation itself is being transformed by the process of refusing rights, the failure of due process, ongoing surveillance, intimidation and censorship. She characterized the present situation in India as that of a dual state where the judiciary is subject to the arbitrary power of the government. She underlined the need to focus on informing public opinion on issues of freedom of expression and state repression despite the crackdown on safe spaces to do so..
All India Democratic Women’s Association leader and family of Natasha Narwal, Jagmati Sangwan spoke from having just returned from the Tikri border where the farmers’ protest has been continuing and meeting many young farmers who wished to meet and speak with Natasha. Natasha comes from Haryana, a context of deep caste patriarchy which she shares with many young women who are sitting in protest at the border of the capital city. Sangwan spoke of the unique source of hope and defiance that Devangana and Natasha’s activism provides to these young women to determine their own lives and exercise their rights and make choices. She also demanded judicial accountability in times of grief such as that suffered by Natasha and her family recently with the passing of her father, Dr. Mahavir Narwal, for which Natasha was unable to secure bail in time despite his critical condition due to Covid- 19.
Professor at Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex, UK Lyla Mehta who had also taught Devangana during her time in the University of Sussex, spoke of Devangana’s activism during her time in the UK. She highlighted the strong support from IDS and the many professors there who had taught or worked with Devangana, emphasising her stellar academic performance and the commitment and professionalism displayed in her work. Citing a program she had organised against corporate grabbing of adivasi land and her academic engagement around people’s movements and women’s activism, she emphasized how Devangana made an active choice to return to India, turning down more lucrative career options outside of India in order to work for the people in her own country’s context.
Astha Lamba and Shambhawi Vikram from Pinjratod, the women students’ collective that Devangana and Natasha have been associated with, spoke of their activism grounded in women students’ movement aspiring to “create a world in which the need for securitization is rendered empty through our collective strengths and solidarities.” Astha spoke of the increasing vilification of students, especially women, in a situation of graded inequality and conditional freedoms existing as a norm in universities, increasingly restructured to fit market needs. They said that the movement against Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and National Population Register (CAA-NRC-NPR) and the struggles that Devangana and Natasha participated in, are part of the fight by thousands of women who have imagined communities beyond structures of control and gendered norms. Shambhawi emphasized that we should pay heed to the communications that Devangana and Natasha make to us from jail, such as the various petitions they have filed for reforms in prison conditions. She asked that we not let the incarceration of political prisoners take away from the violence that preceded these arrests. The everyday work of seeking bail and meeting needs of the incarcerated must coexist with a larger call to address the violence of Bhima Koregaon and the Delhi progrom, the complicity of the police and the impunity of those who incited hatred and violence.
Family members and friends of Devangana and Natasha also addressed the meeting, speaking of the two incarcerated activists and the significance of solidarity and support networks for families of all wrongly incarcerated political activists and prisoners at large. Devangana’s mother, Dr. Kalpana Deka Kalita concluded the meeting by sending out a message of solidarity to all other political prisoners and their families. Expressing gratitude for the support Devangana and Natasha and their families have received from people, she also spoke of how, through their letters, they have always voiced their concern for the many other prisoners who lack such support or legal assistance. A feminist praxis, said Aakash Narwal, brother to Natasha, must hold more than its own interest and gently offer support to those seeking their emancipation.
The program included moving messages by poets Sabika Abbas Naqvi, Soibam Haripriya and Akhil Katyal, all also friends of Devangana and Natasha. Sabika and Haripriya, through their poems, shared how women are structurally oppressed within patriarchal formations like the nation to which the prison is but one appendage. It is for this reason that Devangana and Natasha’s poetic relations to rainbows and moons offers so much solace and encouragement to women outside as well – whether in the cage of a hostel, the arrest of a man’s gaze, or under the watchful eye of the HIndutva state. The program concluded with a recitation by Amir Aziz who recited his popular poem “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayegaa’. The programme also announced an online exhibition of the artwork made by Devangana and Natasha during their time in Tihar jail which is to be launched on the 18th of June, the occasion of Devangana’s second birthday incarcerated.
The full conversation can be accessed here: https://www.facebook.com/releasemyfriends/videos/312528100358416
- Friends of Devangana and Natasha
June 14, 2021
Update: On June 15th, 2021, Delhi High Court Granted Bail To Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal And Asif Iqbal Tanha, who were charged under UAPA in relation to Delhi violence last year. The bench added, “…the right to protest is not outlawed and cannot be termed as a ‘terrorist act’ within the meaning of the UAPA.” https://scroll.in/latest/997559/centre-blurring-line-between-protest-terrorism-what-hc-said-in-delhi-violence-case-bail-order