'All governments have used repressive laws to quash dissent'

Updated: 09 August, 2020 07:58 IST | P Vatsalya | Mumbai

Friends and well wishers of Pinjra Tod members Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, who have been behind bars for over 70 days, wait for justice

Kalita is an MPhil student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)
Kalita is an MPhil student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

I noticed Devangana and Natasha even before I knew them. They had a kind of presence that set them apart. They were always talking to women and leading protests," shared a member of Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and alumni of colleges from across Delhi.

Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, human rights defenders with Pinjra Tod, were arrested on May 23 by the Delhi Police, in connection with the protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in North East Delhi.

They are currently lodged at Delhi's Tihar jail alongside several other student activists.

Natasha Narwal (left); Narwal and Devangana Kalita have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and various sections of IPC
Natasha Narwal (left); Narwal and Devangana Kalita have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and various sections of IPC

Kalita and Narwal, say friends, were committed to progressive politics and democratic values. "Devangana is the most vivacious person in the room. Natasha, on the other hand, is as calm as the sea. She keeps her cool even in the most trying times," said the member, who wished to remain anonymous.

She believes that they have been wrongfully arrested and hopes that justice will prevail. "It has been difficult for all of us at Pinjra Tod, but we take solace in the fact that both of them are together in confinement. We know that they, of all people, haven't lost hope and knowing that gives us strength. The truth will set them free."

Not only are Kalita and Narwal comrades in prison, they have also been living together as flatmates for around five years.

Their fellow flatmate, Vikram Aditya, is an associate at Bengaluru's Centre for Law and Policy Research. Aditya said that all three of them led political lives and that their personal space was also treated as a political one. "What that means is that the various things that people take for granted, like feelings, were routinely subjected to intellectual critique. We grappled with questions of friendship, domestic labour, who does the care work, what does it involve, while living together." For instance, the flatmates decided against hiring a domestic help, given that it's antithetical to the values they hold dear.

Aditya feels that by criminalising Kalita and Narwal, the state is "criminalising solidarity".

"As Hindu women who were present when Muslim women were raising their voices against a law that unjustly affects them, they demonstrated that a horizontal relationship between women is possible."

Kalita and Narwal had participated in peaceful protests against the CAA at the sit-in at Jaffrabad in January. They were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a week after their arrest in May.

"Both UPA and NDA governments have used repressive laws to quash dissent, the only difference being that the UPA tried to maintain a façade of being liberal and secular. The current government makes no such claims," said Aditya.

The research associate sees all struggles as being interconnected.

A research scholar from JNU and a close friend of Kalita and Narwal said that many people have voiced their support for the duo. "Their work has received legal recognition from statutory bodies such as the Delhi Commission for Women, which took notice of a range of hostel-related issues only after they and other like-minded people intervened," he explained. "I am sad and angry to see them languish in jail," he added.

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First Published: 09 August, 2020 07:31 IST

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