Natasha and Devangana on their year in jail, finding hope in prison, and their activism

29 June 2021
XAVIER GALIANA / AFP / Getty Images
XAVIER GALIANA / AFP / Getty Images

Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita are student activists who were arrested in May 2020 in relation to the communal violence in northeast Delhi in February that year. They are both members of Pinjra Tod, a women’s collective working for women’s rights, and doctoral students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Kalita was arrested in four different first-information reports registered by the Delhi Police, and Narwal was also arrested in three of them. In each FIR, the duo were granted bail with orders that addressed the lack of evidence against them. On 17 June, they were finally released from Delhi’s Tihar Central Jail after securing bail in FIR 59 of 2020, in which they were accused with several other student activists under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The Delhi High Court granted them bail in FIR 59 on 15 June. In the judgment, the bench, comprising the judges Anup Bhambhani and Siddharth Mridul, held that the UAPA can only be invoked in exceptional circumstances. It further stated, “We are constrained to express that it seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”

On 19 June, Nabeela Paniyath, a multimedia editor at The Caravan, spoke to Narwal and Kalita about their year in jail, their journey into activism and their hopes for the future.

Nabeela Paniyath: What was the experience of being incarcerated under the UAPA?
Devangana Kalita: In this regard, one is very thankful to the Delhi High Court. When you talk about what that experience has been, I think that high court order really sets out that experience of the conflation which this case made between the right to protest and terrorism. These kinds of repressive laws, which give extraordinary powers to the state, to the police, they have a long history. They have been happening since the colonial times to suppress dissent—through these forms of extraordinary laws where general principles of justice are kind of overturned.

For instance, usually the principle is that bail is the rule and jail is the exception. But under UAPA what happens is that bail itself becomes an exception, and under this rule, we have seen so many people lose so many years of their lives. The home ministry’s data from 2016 to 2019 tells us that the conviction rate under UAPA is only two percent and during the same period [from 2015] the number of UAPA cases [registered] have increased by 72 percent. We don't know in various jails in India how many such cases exist, how many years, and lives have been lost in these processes.

 NP: What was your experience inside the prison? Could you tell us about the condition of your fellow prisoners?
Natasha Narwal: It was a very difficult experience. But what gave us strength was the kind of support we received from communities on the outside as well as inside. The kind of solidarity we formed, and the kind of love and support and care we received from all other inmates who were incarcerated under various charges. Also from the struggles in history, of so many women who have struggled against oppressive structures of caste, class, gender and oppression, and faced different kinds of repression. So many people have gone to prisons under such laws for raising their voices, for struggling for the rights of marginalised communities, for the attempts to make a more just society. Even those who have not gone to prison itself, but have faced custodial tortures, sexual violence. So drawing inspiration from all those struggles, I think that was something which we really held dear in our experience of this one year in jail.

Nabeela Paniyath is the multimedia editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Pinjra Tod Delhi Violence student protest civil rights Dissent
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