On 17 June, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, walked out of Tihar jail, wearing big smiles, and immediately raised slogans of freedom and called for the release of other activists who had led the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The image of the two Indian women, exuding cheer, confidence and courage, in the face of state repression and a draconian anti-terror law, will be forever etched in the nation’s memory. In that moment, it was the country’s young women who seemed poised to take its human rights movement into the future.
Kalita and Narwal were accused of using the anti-CAA movement as a front for planning the Delhi riots, and charged under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, the UAPA. On 15 June, the Delhi High Court granted them bail, ruling that the Delhi Police has no prima facie against them under the UAPA, the police investigation was poor and inadequate, and that dissent was not terrorism.
The media cannot get enough of Kalita and Narwal, 32-year -old MPhil-PhD students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who, in 2015, helped start Pinjra Tod (break the cage), a women’s collective demanding gender equality across college campuses. After they were released on 17 June, the duo has contended with a marathon of interviews. And while it has been exhausting to reply to the same questions over and over again, they believe it is important for them to break the silence as aggressively as the manner in which it was imposed on them in May 2020. Narwal lost her father, Mahavir Narwal, to Covid-19 while she was in prison.
In this conversation, Kalita and Narwal spoke about the intense pain of leaving behind Gulfisha Fatima, their friend and a co-accused in FIR 59/2020, the “complicated” emotions tied to their newfound freedom, and their future struggles.
As Kalita put it, with a global pandemic afoot, they had stepped into a “dystopian reality” far grimmer than what existed when they entered Tihar.
This is your third day of interviews. Why have you decided to speak with the media immediately after your release and so extensively?
Devangana: How we were imprisoned and the kind of charges that were slapped on us was also an attempt to silence us. After one year filled with attempts to silence us, this is a message to the powers that be that we won’t be silenced. We had to leave a very dear friend and jailmate behind (Gulfisha Fatima), and there are many people still languishing in jail. It is important that we speak.
Natasha: There was a sense of speaking our truth. There is a desire to let people know what has happened in this one year; what kind of a case this is, and what kind of charges were put on us. There was a sense of trying to reach out to everyone.
After one year filled with attempts to silence us, this is a message to the powers that be that we won’t be silenced.
Earlier this year, Safoora Zargar told me how painful it was for her to leave the three of you in Tihar jail. You have had to do the same with Gulfisha.
Devangana: It was particularly difficult because the rehaee (release) was the most absurd rehaee that we have seen in Tihar Jail. Apparently, there were orders that the rehaee should be peaceful. I don’t know what the administration was expecting that we would do. Usually, the lock up happens around 7:00 pm, but at around 5:30 pm, they locked everyone up in their wards and barracks. We made so many friends. Everyone had to scream goodbyes from locked doors. We couldn’t even hug Gulfisha properly in a moment of calm. All the jail staff was like, ‘jao, jao, jao.’ (Go, go, go). It was a very painful departure.
Natasha: The break seems so sudden. The last two days, we’ve also been feeling so disoriented.
Everyone had to scream goodbyes from locked doors. We couldn’t even hug Gulfisha properly in a moment of calm.
Devangana: We used to listen to the radio in jail. It was mostly All India Radio (AIR). So, we switched on the radio and thought, hopefully Gulfisha is also listening to this right now. It is really hard to leave people behind, people who experienced this intense pain with you. And all the children we met in jail. In fact, my first dream after coming back was about the children.
Natasha: We connect with all those things that we thought had become obsolete — writing and receiving letters. So many people still listen to the radio. There would be so many requests for songs from remote parts of the country. It was a reconnection with a lot of things that we thought we had left behind long ago.
Devangana: Jail is so dehumanising, and so brutalising, the only thing you have for survival is one another. Your barrack mates, your ward mates, people with whom you cry together, you comb and braid your hair together, you sing together.
Natasha: There are so many relationships and memories that we are carrying with us and it is difficult to believe that when we wake up in the morning, the first feeling is of not seeing those faces. The separation is difficult.
Jail is so dehumanising, and so brutalising, the only thing you have for survival is one another.
There are 15 people charged in FIR 59. The student activists have received considerable attention in the media. Others, from more different backgrounds, have not.
Natasha: That is something we have noticed and we have been sensitive to. Narratives get built around certain people who come from certain social locations, but there are so many stories beyond that. It’s not just that our story is a strong story. As you mentioned, in the same FIR, there are people whose names are not even known. So that is really a cause of reflection for all of us. Why does that happen? And how do those stories, which might even be more painful and poignant, come out.
Devangana: Something that we have encountered in interviews is people saying, ‘Oh, do they look like terrorists to you. There are only students.’ But the question is who looks like a terrorist. If I was wearing a particular kind of clothing, would you have then said the same thing? What if I was not a student, but a factory worker and part of this case.
Natasha: There is also a question of individualising your struggle. People say, ‘Look at these women, they are so brave, they have faced all this.’ But I would ask people to rethink. It is not about individual or exceptional courage. What we have gone through is unjust and painful and requires a lot of strength to deal with, but that strength also comes from various kinds of collective struggles. Throughout history, people have faced and led these struggles and faced immense consequences. You derive strength from the collective struggle. These are people you may have never met, but you still know that you are not alone in this.
In the same FIR, there are people whose names are not even known. So that is really a cause of reflection for all of us.
How does it feel to be out? Is it a more complicated emotion than happiness?
Natasha: It is very complicated. We are grappling with it. It’s almost like when we were uprooted from our lives outside, and put into prison, we were suddenly uprooted from the life we had built inside and put outside. Just the pain of leaving people behind, not knowing when we will see them, it is just too much. It feels like freedom is incomplete.
Devangana: There is something about prison that makes you form these really deep friendships. When we were in the barracks, the three of us would like staring at the night sky, which of course, you can’t do in prison, but from our barrack window, we would keep waiting for the moon that would appear at specific hours.
Natasha: We would stick to the window for hours, just waiting for the moon, and everyone else would be thinking, ‘They are so crazy, they are mad, what are they doing.’
Devangana: Now, when you stare at the moon, you have this illusion that some of the bars are still there. You wonder if Gul is still looking out.
Natasha: Things feel incomplete.
It’s almost like when we were uprooted from our lives outside, and put into prison, we were suddenly uprooted from the life we had built inside and put outside.
In the virtual hearings in Amitabh Rawat’s court, I could see the three of you sitting together. There was a lot of smiling and chatting going on.
Natasha: Even we were embarrassed because we knew we had to look serious but sometimes it wouldn’t happen.
Devangana: Sometimes, everything was just so absurd.
Natasha: We would just be making fun of ourselves. It was just so absurd. We developed a lot of warmth and comfort with each other. It was one of the most basic things that helped us survive.
The day you were arrested. How was it?
Devangana: One thing that was very important was that Natasha and I were together. I think that made it easier than say for Gulfisha who had to go through it alone. But it was a very disorienting and destabilising experience. Partly because it didn’t end after a day or two. There was one arrest after another. We got arrested in one case, we got bail the next day. We got arrested in another case, then we got arrested in another case. At one point, we thought how many cases are they going to arrest us in? In fact, after we stepped out of the women’s jail, there were two officers holding some folders. And we thought, ‘OMG…’
We were in PC (police custody) for two weeks, day-night, day-night, it was gruelling. When we went to jail, it was during the pandemic, so we were not put in a barrack with other people. We were alone in a cell for 15 days. Even the food would be given from under the gate. It was devastating.
Natasha: It was destabilising but it was not completely unexpected. One had been seeing a pattern. Like I said earlier, history is full of people who have paid a price for demanding democratic rights and speaking out against oppression. But in our case, it was not an abstract notion, but a concrete reality where many people had already been arrested, put behind bars and these charges had been invoked. It became a new form of struggle. It was the continuation of the struggle.
It became a new form of struggle. It was the continuation of the struggle.
Was there ever a feeling, ‘My life is over?’
Natasha: We were prepared for a much much longer period in jail. One has seen how these laws are used, and what it means for people to be inside under such laws, and how it takes away so many years from one’s life. People languishing in jail, with the trial not even starting. And the conviction rate is so low (2.2%). You’ve lost 10-15 years of your life. We knew it would be a long haul. But the ‘life is over’ feeling was not there. We took it as another form of struggle. Now, we have to build our life around this and we did. We learnt new forms of struggle inside prison, for very very basic things that one would take for granted — to be able to make a phone call, to have adequate quantities of food, to have enough sanitary pads, having access to legal representation, or even just understanding what your case means, the sections, what are the documents you are constantly made to put your thumb impressions on. Your life completely becomes about that. Life took a new form, but there was never a feeling that it was over.
Life took a new form, but there was never a feeling that it was over.
Devangana: Once you enter prison, you meet people who have survived prison as undertrials or with long sentences. Not just in terror cases. In other cases as well. Eight or nine years and their trials are not over. Women have given birth inside prison. They are bringing up their children inside prison. There are women who work inside to send wages to their families outside, really meagre wages.
Natasha: When you meet women like that, it’s immensely humbling.
Devangana: They don’t even have a good legal representation. And then you think, these women who have become our friends are surviving in devastating circumstances. We are in a much better situation.
Natasha: We have proper legal representation. We have so much support. We don’t have to worry about every day survival. Whatever we would need, our families would send.
Devangana: We could not give up. And the prison itself should become a site for struggle for prison reform.
Prison itself should become a site for struggle for prison reform.
Eight or nine years is a frightening time to contemplate for oneself.
Natasha: Of course, it is not easy at all. There were nights of extreme helplessness and desperation and sadness. But the strength to survive just comes from inside. It comes from all these other women who we met inside prison and all the people in history who have struggled against oppression. One of the things that we derived our strength from was the farmers’ movement. And it was good to know that people are still carrying on their struggles. And, there was so much love and support from outside. It was all that which helped us reconcile this reality.
Devangana: Even small things like reading a book become really profound in jail. When Gulfisha was in the isolation cell, someone had sent Nelson Mandela’s biography to her and that really helped her survive. Our friends would send us prison memoirs, we read the prison memoirs of the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi. You feel a connection to history and you would draw inspiration from it. People survive this and people survive it in much worse circumstances.
Natasha: Jail was the continuation of the struggle. There was a resolve. They wanted us to be devastated. They want us to feel, ‘OMG, our lives are over. What had happened. What have we done?’ They wanted to make us doubt ourselves. To not have those things get to you, was also part of the struggle.
You feel a connection to history and you would draw inspiration from it.
What about Pinjra Tod?
Devangana: We don’t see the struggle against the CAA-NRC as exceptional but in continuance of what movement Pinjra Tod has meant for us and continues to mean for us. You are part of a student movement but you extend your solidarity to a lot of other movements going on at the time. But even when Pinjra Tod began, we were seeing a repression of student movements, which culminated in the brutal violence we saw at Jamia (Millia Islamia University) on 15 December (2020). To get arrested for participating in a political movement was not entirely unexpected.
Natasha: It is a struggle for everyone who is interested in protecting democracy, constitutional rights. It is not a struggle for someone else and we are just there. It is an intrinsic struggle. Even inside prison, we thought, ‘You have put us in this brutal place, but you will never be able to take away our smile, our laughter and our song.’
Devangana: We would sing our protest songs to our inmates who really loved them.
Natasha: They would say, ‘Woh wala gaana sunao, woh wala gaana sunao.’ (Sing that song).
You lost your father while in prison.
Natasha: It is difficult to describe what I went through. I do not have words for that. But what really helped me gather myself was that I had people around. I had Devangana, Gulfisha and other inmates who literally held me through those days. And after that I could be with my family. That was also an exception. So many other inmates also went through a similar phase which we don’t even know about and they did not even get the opportunity to be with their families at such a time of grief.
I had Devangana, Gulfisha and other inmates who literally held me through those days.
What plans now?
Natasha: When we think of the future, we see it as a dark phase, not only for us, but for so many people because of the pandemic. It has further eroded the right to life and livelihood. So many students who are struggling for education, will be further marginalised in the system of online classes and exams. We will have to think about all that collectively.
Devangana: We are coming back to a more dystopian reality after a year in jail. The last 24-48 hours have been quite crazy. So, firstly to have some calm time to just sit and hug my friends and family. To make up for the intense separation. To slowly grapple with this new reality and continue to struggle. We have to figure out what new shape and form the struggle to ‘break the cage’ takes.
This article first appeared on indiaaheadnews.com