Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita are doctoral students at Jawaharlal Nehru University who were arrested in May 2020 for conspiracy behind the anti-Muslim pogrom that broke out in North-East Delhi in February last year. They are student activists and members of Pinjra Tod, a women’s collective fighting for women’s rights. Narwal was charged with four different first information reports registered by the Delhi police and Kalita was charged with three of them. On 17th June, they were released from Delhi’s Tihar Central Jail after they got bail in FIR 59 of 2020 in which they were accused under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
On 03 July 2020, Maktoob spoke to Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita about their struggle and their year in jail. Excerpts:
Q: It’s been more than 360 days, how does it finally feel to be out of jail?
Devangana – Coming in terms with freedom which I think is contingent in some sense because the challenge in Supreme Court is still ongoing. There are mixed feelings, you feel free and imprisoned at the same time.
It was a painful kind of a relief because the jail administrators did not allow us to say goodbyes to our friends with whom we have spent every hour for the last one year, once you’re out you have no way of communicating with them, you don’t know how long they will be in there so it was really difficult for us to come in terms with our freedom now that we can look at the moon and walk on the streets realizing that our struggle is far from over.
Q: Police said you were part of a wider conspiracy; do you have any regrets about your involvement in last year’s anti-CAA protests?
Natasha – I don’t regret my participation at any point because it is in the continuum of repression on various kinds of movements and democratic voices of dissent, if it wasn’t for this protest it would’ve been something else. We took our arrest as a part of being in the struggle and I don’t think I regret it because of the solidarity that we built during the movement with so many women who would come to us in jail saying that we did nothing wrong. So many women still do Duas (prayers) for us, reassuring us that our struggle was right.
Devangana – More than regret it was actually the inspiration, energy and learning that the movement gave us because it helped us survive inside the prison. The protest was alive inside us because on those really hard days, we would remember the days, the songs that we would sing with our inmates so the most difficult days were survivable because of the movement.
Q: What was your experience in jail? Can you tell me more about the prisoner’s condition in jail?
Devangana – I think we were quite lucky because Gulfisha and Safoora were already there and they helped us to fit into that drastic and dehumanizing environment. At some point, the irony of struggling to break the Pinjra (cage) and then being literally put inside the Pinjra would strike us. It was difficult to witness the brutality inside the prison and the fact that we were together has helped us survive inside, we talked for hours, held each other’s hands and hold each other in the most difficult of times made us realized that the struggle is not over just the form of struggle has changed.
Once you adjust to the place, you realize that prison is itself a sight of struggle because the kind of injustices you fight outside exists in much more intensified and worst form inside. Prisons are the places where most marginalized communities find themselves in outrageous numbers. The literacy rate in women prison was abysmal. But the initiatives were taken and petitions were filed to the high court regarding the real issues but the pandemic created serious challenges, for months you couldn’t talk to your lawyers, the mulakat (meetings), contact with your family and the basic facilities were suspended. It’s really horrifying because if you get infected, you’re put in an isolation cell with no contact whatsoever and when you are battling with disease alone, it becomes much more difficult and depressing.
Q: Did you at any time feel to give up?
Natasha – There was that initial feeling that we will here for a long time but being there with so many other women inmates with no legal representatives, no social support from the family, was extremely a humbling and learning experience. They had to work all day at low wages just so they could survive with dignity and I guess their faces of love and laughter inside that dehumanizing place, the relationships that we built had what made us feel not to give up.
Q: can you tell us more about the activities that you did inside the prison?
Natasha – on some days we would sing together, we had reading sessions of Sultana’s dream ( feminist stories written by Bengali writer and political activist, Begum Rokeya), an illustrated book sent to us by our friend. So we read about Savitribai Phule, Jhansi ki Rani, Fatima sheikh, we shared historical stories of women and the struggles that they had to go through against caste oppression. Some days I used to work in the library and women came there eager to read and learn with us. On international women’s day, we requested the administration to mark the date and have a little programme so we put together a play enacting the roles of Jhansi ki rani, Jhalkaribari, Fatima sheikh. The inspiring stories, the poetries and the songs had what made our lives a little less difficult in the prison.
Q: How the period in jail changed you and your activism?
Natasha – It’s very hard to grapple with the new reality but the thing that had stayed with us was the introduction to the life in prison that we had not talked about in the life of our activism. The questions of how does prison functions and how to make it more survivable need our attention.
Devangana – The criminal justice system is itself so brutal, there are people under common criminal charges whose trials aren’t over for 8-9 years with no legal representatives. The legal aid system is so overburdened because in our one year we have seen women who got bail but are still languishing in jail. After all, they had no contacts or money to pay for the bail bonds. These are questions that we need to talk about. The thing that has changed our perspective is that it is possible to survive in the most difficult circumstances.
Q: Did you know that your battle was going to be this long?
Devangana – Actually it was much shorter than what we have expected. After all, three of our cases was an exception because people charged under UAPA have been there for decades and are languishing inside the prison and even as we celebrate that the judiciary has upheld these constitutional and democratic rights, we have to remember those who are still there and whose battles are much longer and ongoing.
Q: You mentioned in the letters that prison is just an extension of injustice and oppression that exists in the outside world, can you elaborate on the social grounds of the people in prison?
Natasha – As Devangana had said that we imagined the prison as a fearful place and that the repression is much more intensified and takes your autonomy away but I feel that we need to build connections between these struggles because struggles here are different from what we have fought outside. It is deeply connected and it is like an extended and intensified form of all those structures of oppression that one has been fighting against.
Devangana – Also it was difficult to see the children inside there. They have never been outside and they use to ask us that “aasman kahan se nikalta hai?” (Where does the sky come from?) And they use to ask when they couldn’t see the moon, “kya chaand ki rihai ho gayi?” (Is the moon released from jail?). It was hard to see that prison life was the only life they had lived.
Q: The Delhi High Court called your arrests wrongful and illegal. Do you feel that the State owes you something?
Natasha – I don’t think we can measure it some sort of compensation or what it owes to us or others who are incarcerated under unjust charges but we need to account for it collectively and remember who is still fighting inside.
Devangana – Particularly in this pandemic the state just owes us the answers to a lot of things. They owe answers to the people to whom the state couldn’t provide the medical facilities, so it’s not just us but also the collective people, including those who had to leave their cities built on their labour.
Q: Until you both were arrested, Pinjra Tod never campaigned for political prisoners and their focus was on tenants and pandemic. What is your comment on it?
Devangana – Earlier when the arrests have happened, Pinjra Tod had been part of a collective struggle but now that we have lived through the prison, the questions become much sharper and it’s not just happened with our case, it has been happening for a long time under previous governments as well. Maybe the Pinjra Tod had not campaigned for it singularly but it has always been the part of the struggle.
Q: Why do feminist groups still restrain to campaign for Gulfisha and Ishrat Jahan?
Natasha – I don’t think it is like that because there have been groups who are campaigning like on the arrest anniversary of Gulfisha some feminist groups and individuals came together to show solidarity but I think what happens is that it does not get enough media attention and also it is not circulated as needs to be.
Q: Do you have a message for people who are opposing your views?
Natasha – First of all, we won’t be scared because we had gone through the worst in a way. The future that we are really dark right now and more and more people are suffering and being marginalized from these policies and I would say that with more engagement we can build a sense of understanding that we are struggling together for people’s rights and right now, our right to live.
Devangana – This is something which we have seen in ongoing farmers protest which has almost completed one year, huge constituencies of people who voted for this government are beginning to question and facing the repression and we would hear from friends that people who called us terrorists are ones participating in the protests now.
Q: You were branded terrorists, put in jail, how do you maintain your strength?
Natasha – It’s the same thing that once you’re part of struggles against oppressive structure and regimes it is not unexpected and what makes it survivable is not individual courage but the courage and strength you derive from being part of collective struggles.