Women Activists in India Still Face Detention and Police Intimidation After Anti-CAA Protests

New Delhi — “I never imagined that my identity as a Muslim would make me fear for my life,” said activist Zainab Siddiqui, 31.

Women gather at the Shaheen Bagh in December 2019. (Nikita Jain)

In January 2020, Siddiqui attended a sit-in demonstration at the base of the Ghanta Ghar, a historic clock tower rising above the city of Lucknow, the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The demonstration was held peacefully by hundreds, led by women, in protest against the new Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), an act passed a month before that would make migrants of certain religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship if they entered India on or before December 31, 2014 — an arbitrary date — without a valid passport or documents. Notably, and critically, the CAA excludes Muslims.

The protest, which was inspired by Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh — a women-led anti-CAA protest that began just three days after the act was passed and attended by as many as 100,000 people at one point — was attended by hundreds in Lucknow.

Siddiqui volunteered to help organize event logistics, like managing the media and ensuring there was enough food and water for attendees. The protest was held peacefully until March 2020, when lockdown orders went into effect, and protesters voluntarily ended the sit-in.

However, a few months later, in November 2020, UP police came to Siddiqui’s home on the pretext of questioning her about her involvement in the protest, but later, they told her that they needed to bring her in for interrogation. When she refused, the police violently shoved and dragged her. When Siddiqui’s father and brother intervened, they were arrested on the same accusations. Siddiqui was not arrested.

While Siddiqui’s younger brother was given bail the next day, her father remained in police custody. According to the first information report (FIR) — a document prepared by the police when a victim lodges a complaint of any cognizable offense — filed by UP police and obtained by Women Under Siege, Siddiqui’s father was charged with “promoting enmity between different groups” and committing “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.”

Siddiqui visited Lucknow’s Sarojini Nagar police station several times to request her father’s bail, but to no avail. He wouldn’t be released for another four months.

Station officials did not respond to our request for comment.


With the CAA, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended that it was a noble effort to welcome Hindus who are supposedly oppressed in neighboring Muslim-majority countries. “We passed this bill to help the persecuted,” he exclaimed at a rally soon after the bill was passed.

The act led to widespread outrage, denouncing it as anti-Muslim. Indian states of Assam, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh witnessed protests from the Muslim community, joined by others in solidarity. The protests, which continued until March 2020, at times led to violent confrontations with law enforcement, as well as state-mandated internet blackouts in major cities across UP and deadly riotsin Delhi that the capital city hadn’t seen in decades.

Even under lockdown due to the emerging pandemic, police continued to reprimandthose who participated in the protests.

Delhi violence and aftermath

Siddiqui isn’t the only woman who has been targeted by law enforcement for participating in anti-CAA protests, bearing the full brunt of the security apparatus or facing aggressive intimidation.

In February 2020, India’s capital city erupted in violent clashes between mobs of Hindu supporters of the CAA and anti-CAA protesters, largely Muslims. The riots began the night of February 23 and spread across northeast Delhi over the following four days, killing more than 40 people and injuring hundreds. Muslims were disproportionately targeted for violence and property damage. Video footage captured on social media and investigated by the BBC showed police acting with the mobs.

Rubina Bano, 40, attended a protest on February 24 when violence broke out. She was three months pregnant at the time.

“The police had started using lathi charge (thick wooden sticks) and detained a few young boys no older than 17,” she said. “We tried to speak to the police and ask them to spare the boys. When we started protesting again, the police suddenly started beating us and resorted to tear gas.”

Everyone scattered. While Bano tried to make it to her street, choking on the gas, she said a few policemen, and some men in plain clothes, surrounded her. She was wearing a burqa, which, she believes, made her an easy target.

“While I was trying to process what was happening, they started beating me,” she said. “I fell to the ground and they started beating me again. When I told them I was pregnant, they kicked me hard in the stomach. It was then that someone hit me on the head with a brick and I collapsed.”

Bano eventually gained consciousness and somehow managed to make it back to her street before fainting. “The next thing I knew, I was at the local hospital. My whole body was swollen.” According to hospital records seen by Women Under Siege, Bano’s head was cut open, while her body was covered in bruises.

“What really shook me was the hate they had in their eyes,” she said. “They did not want me or my child to survive.”

Bano’s child, her fourth, is now four months old. Holding her young son, Ibrahim, she calls him a child of revolution. “I do not know how, but he survived.”

Bano has given her statement to the police as part of their investigation into the riots. She has also offered to testify in court, which has created safety issues. In one instance, some months after the riots, several men in plain clothes appeared at her door claiming to be from the police’s crime branch and attempted to arrest her 15-year-old son, who had not attended the protest. However, he was not taken to the police station due to lack of evidence.

“I sometimes get calls from unknown numbers asking for my details,” she said. “There have been a few times when I’ve noticed men following me. One particular day, I had gone to buy vegetables, [and] two men in civil clothes were following me. I changed course and outran them to reach my home.” Bano presumes that the men belong to Delhi police.

In another corner of Delhi, another woman languished in jail for over a year for her participation in the protests.

Natasha Narwal, 32, was jailed in May 2020 under suspicion of instigating violence in the Delhi riots.

Along with another activist, Devangana Kalita, 31, Narwal was initially charged with attacking a police officer. She was granted bail on May 24, 2020, but before she could be released, she was arrested again, this time under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) — a purported anti-terrorism law that has been weaponized by the government to routinely harass and intimidate journalists and activists under the auspices of protecting “the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

Under UAPA, Narwhal was then charged with “murder and attempt to murder,” allegations for which she denies, claiming that the protest, led by women, was democratic — until the mobs arrived.

Speaking to Women Under Siege in April, Narwal’s father, Mahavir Narwal, 70, said he was proud of his daughter. An activist, former scientist, and senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mr. Narwal said that he had always encouraged his children to speak out against what they believed was wrong.

“I am proud of her for doing something she believed in,” said Mr. Narwhal. “She is very disciplined. I am worried about her, but she always puts on a brave face whenever she talks to me,” he told us, sipping his afternoon tea.

On May 9, Mr. Narwal died of complications due to COVID-19. He never saw his daughter released from jail.

Natasha Narwal was granted interim bail by the Delhi High Court on May 10 for three weeks to perform last rites on her father in her hometown in Hisar, in the state of Haryana. In the last moment, she raised her fist bidding him adieu.

“They can only threaten us,” she told Women Under Siege. “They can threaten to incarcerate us, but that only strengthens our resolve to carry on our fight.”

On June 17, Natasha was released from Delhi’s Tihar Jail just hours after a trial court ordered the “immediate release” of Narwal and two student activists — Asif Iqbal Tanha and Devangana Kalita, both of whom were also charged under UAPA — on bail.

Continuing the fight

Standing at the prison gate, the trio raised their fists in the air and yelled, “Dum hai kitna daman mein tere, dekh liya hai, dekhenge. Jagah hai kitni jail mein tere, dekh liya hai, dekhenge.” (“How much oppression can you unleash? We have seen it, we shall see. How much space do your prisons have? We have seen them, we shall see.”)

Her release offers some respite for now, but Narwhal needs her case to be heard in court for a chance at true justice — and freedom from continued harassment and intimidation. Until then, however, she has a long road ahead of her in grieving the loss of her father and processing the year she spent in detention.

Siddiqui has not interacted with the police since, but to this day, she feels insecure, fearing that at any time, they may return to arrest her. “Things have changed for the worse since those protests,” she said, noting the increasingly liberal application of anti-terror laws to quash dissent of any kind. But, more than that, she said, “I grieve for what my father had to go through.”

Meanwhile, Bano remains on a journey toward recovery after the physical trauma she sustained that day.

While the anti-CAA protests have tempered for now, the aftermath of the violence and state repression continues for many. The fight ahead for public debate and political dissent will be a referendum on India’s claim as the world’s largest democracy — and, like the anti-CAA protests, it will be led by women. What happens next will depend on whether they can survive the state’s arsenal against its critics.

This story first appeared on womensmediacenter.com

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