Images of the anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar and the revolutionary Bhagat Singh adorned a poster on a wall of a small library in Balmiki Chaupal, in Ghaso Khurd, a village in Haryana’s Jind district. The portraits flanked the library’s name and moto, “Pragatishil Pustakalya: Yuva Soch, Yuva Josh”—Progressive library: The youth’s thinking, the youth’s energy. The library had books for casual reading, including titles such as, “Indian Art and Culture” and “Some Topics in World History.” But the chairs in the room were scattered; the tables, dusty. The library had been shut for days, since its founder, 37-year-old Neelam Azad, left Ghaso Khurd in December.
Within the village, Azad is renowned for her activism and social work, which has helped people from marginalised communities. When I alighted at the Ghaso Khurd railway station, I asked a young man for directions to her house. “Walk on the road in front of you for about half a kilometer, then ask anyone where her house is,” he replied. The man claimed to not be from the village but, over our short exchange, mentioned, “I had heard of her name before.”
Outside the village, however, Azad is known as one of the six individuals arrested and booked under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for a security breach in the new parliament building on 13 December 2023. Two of the arrestees had thrown smoke bombs in the parliament and raised slogans purportedly to draw attention to issues such as inflation, joblessness and the situation in Manipur. When the police detained Azad, who reportedly threw smoke bombs outside the building, she shouted, “Tanashahi nahi chalegi”—dictatorship will not be tolerated—“Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” and “Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat.”
“Our Neelam is not a terrorist, she is a patriot,” Phool Singh, a 70-year-old I met soon after entering the village, told me. “She has always raised issues that poor labourers of the area face. She hasn’t done anything wrong. If anyone is in the wrong, it is the Modi government as inflation and unemployment exists because of them.”
That day, I met Ram Niwas, Azad’s younger brother. He told me that his sister was educated, and had been an activist and social worker for about four years. While her original last name was Devi, because of her activism she has come to be known as Neelam Azad.
Niwas told me that his family had no prior knowledge of the events of 13 December. Azad had told her family that she was going to Hisar when she left the house on 11 December. Their elder brother, Kuldeep, saw the news of her involvement in the security breach on TV and broke the news to the rest of the family.
Niwas told me about his family as he took me to their home. They were a part of the Kumhar community, a backward caste group. Their father is a confectioner, while Niwas and Kuldeep are milkmen. The family, barring Kuldeep, lives in a two-storey house.
The house looked ordinary. Two rooms were located on its first floor, one of which was Azad’s. A wall in Azad’s room had photos of Bhagat Singh, BR Ambedkar and the former president APJ Abdul Kalam next to a world map. After her arrest, the police raided her home twice and confiscated many books, diaries and other documents from this room, according to her family.
In the next room, Azad’s 57-year-old mother Saraswati Devi was sitting on a cot. “She was the smartest of all my children,” Devi told me. She said Azad has pursued a bachelor of arts, bachelors and masters of education, and a masters of philosophy. She also cleared the Central Teacher Eligibility Test and the National Eligibility Test. “Even after studying so much, she did not get a job,” Devi added. Azad also appeared for the examination to join the Indian Civil Services thrice but could not clear it, her family told me. Her mother said that in 2015, Azad suffered a spinal injury when she fell from the stairs in her house. She remained bedridden for three years but did not give up on her education.
“I just want to say that my daughter has not done anything wrong,” Devi said. “Nor did she have any wrong intentions. If their intentions were wrong, they would have carried some dangerous weapons. Neelam was sloganeering there. Is it a crime to raise slogans?” She said that the government is also at fault in this incident. “If she had a job, why would she do this? At the parliament, she highlighted the issue of unemployment.”
Referring to Azad’s social work, Devi said she used to earlier ask her daughter to not get embroiled in other people’s issues, and get married instead. But Azad told her mother that she did not feel like getting married. “Secondly, ma,” Devi told me her daughter would say, “the people whose issues I speak about are not strangers. They are people of our village, our country. This is my duty.” Devi said she heard people praise her daughter. Someone would say, “I got a job in MNREGA because of your daughter,” or “Your daughter got my job card made.” This made her happy and she stopped discouraging Azad’s social work.
Niwas mentioned that the position of their father, Kor Singh, is complex. “He was not very happy with Neelam’s activities,” Niwas said. “Neelam also never backed down. Then we accepted this friction as a part of our routine.” But now, Niwas said, “He is upset with what the media and upper caste people are saying about this matter.”