On July 10, a young woman in Araria, Bihar, refused to sign a statement written on her behalf after she finished narrating to a magistrate how she had been raped by a group of men a few days ago. She said she could not read. She asked the judge to allow the statement to be read out to her, before she signed it.
Less than 30 minutes later, the 22-year-old rape complainant found herself being arrested, along with two social workers who had accompanied her to the court to help and support her. The judge, she claimed, had called her a “pagal, badtameez ladki” – a crazy, ill-mannered girl – accused her and the social workers of arguing with him, and ordered their arrest.
The four men accused of raping the 22-year-old woman have not yet been identified or arrested. But the complainant and her companions – Tanmay Nivedita and Kalyani – were sent 240 km away from Araria to a jail in Samastipur, and charged with non-bailable offences like disrupting court proceedings and preventing public servants from doing their duty.
On July 18, after their arrest drew nationwide criticism, the rape complainant was finally granted bail and released from jail. But Tanmay and Kalyani, who have been charged with the same offences, are still in jail, more than 20 days since their arrest.
Both the social workers are members of Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a labour union working on a variety of workers’ rights and social justice issues in northern Bihar. In Araria and neighbouring districts, Tanmay and Kalyani are known for their efforts to mobilise marginalised communities, nurture youth leaders, empower women and improve healthcare.
Since the Patna High Court is partly closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown, they will have to wait at least till August 6 before their bail pleas are heard. As they remain stuck in jail, Scroll.in spoke to their colleagues and friends about who they are, what grassroots-level work they do and how they are continuing their activism in jail.
Tanmay: A favourite among youth leaders
Kalyani and Tanmay are not only colleagues but also roommates, sharing a house in Araria with three other members of the Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan. Both activists have studied and worked in large cities before they moved to Araria to focus on grassroots work.
Tanmay, 30, grew up in Kerala, studied ecology and sociology in the United States and has been involved with social organisations for the past ten years. In Mumbai, he worked to empower children of sex workers as a part of the organisation Kranti. In Delhi, he worked with the non-profit Nirantar, where he helped create curriculums on gender and sexuality for youth in rural North India.
In 2014, while he was doing a master’s degree in development studies from Delhi’s Ambedkar University, Tanmay visited Araria as part of a group of youth activists who conducted a workshop on gender and mobility with rural women. The experience of the workshop, organised in association with Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, prompted Tanmay to revisit Araria several times over the next two years. In 2016, he decided to join JJSS and move there.
“Tanmay is mainly a youth karyakarta [activist]. His forte is working with young people and women and building leaders among them,” said Kamayani Swami, one of the founding members of the JJSS union. “He does not speak for the people he works with, but stands with them and helps them articulate what they want to say.”
As the coordinator of the union’s internship programme, Swami claims Tanmay has enabled several young interns to take on leadership positions within their communities and guide other interns. He also led an initiative to raise awareness about Bhimrao Ambedkar and his work among youth, particular those from Dalit communities.
“He is a huge favourite among people because he is a cultural person, and uses music, songs and painting in his work,” said Sohini, a close friend and JJSS member who has known Tanmay for 10 years, since they became members of the same queer collective in Mumbai. Like many JJSS members who prefer not to be identified by their caste-based surnames, Sohini goes by her first name.
Tanmay identifies as a trans man, which often makes working in rural communities a challenge. “Everywhere he goes, people first call him ‘didi’, and he tells them to call him ‘bhaiya’ instead,” said Abhimanyu, Tanmay’s colleague at JJSS. “Being a woman is difficult in these areas, but being a trans man is very different. And Tanmay dealt with it in a very inspiring way.”
In March, just before the nationwide lockdown to contain Covid-19 was enforced, Tanmay had organised a workshop about the Constitution with children of sanitation workers, and led them in taking an oath towards the principles of the Preamble. “It is ironic that he is now in jail and his own Constitutional freedoms have been taken away,” said Swami.
Kalyani: A popular health activist
Kalyani, 28, joined the JJSS union in Araria two years ago. Even though she has degrees in maths and international relations from Delhi University, her focus as an activist with prominent organisations in the city was on health and research. In Araria too, her work largely involves handling the union’s health programme.
“The public health system in these areas is quite broken, and Kalyani’s mission is to make it function better,” said Sohini. “There are few public health centres around and widespread belief in superstitions and witchcraft, so women suffer the most. Kalyani trains them in scientific health processes, particularly Dalit women.”
In Araria’s hospitals, Kalyani is well known as the social worker who helps people access the services they need, often liaising with administrative officials and ambulances services. “But her focus was not just on health – she would also create spaces for women to talk about issues of domestic violence or caste-based discrimination,” said Kamayani Swami.
Last year, Kalyani spearheaded JJSS’s initiative to publish Jan Khabar, a bimonthly newspaper highlighting local news relevant to the lives of people in and around Araria. “We publish around 2,500 copies now, and she makes sure they are distributed in every village,” said Abhimanyu.
After the Covid-19 lockdown began, Kalyani started making educational videos to help returning migrant workers, with low levels of literacy, understand how to get rations or apply for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. “She also created an app to register migrant workers and coordinate access to services for them, but she was arrested soon afterwards, so the app never took off,” said Abhimanyu.
What they are doing in jail
Kalyani was the first person that the 22-year-old complainant contacted after four unknown men raped her in a desolate forested area on the night of July 6. The woman was a domestic worker at the home of the JJSS activists, and after the incident, they provided her with shelter, emotional support and guidance through the process of filing a police complaint.
At the district court on July 10, Kalyani and Tanmay accompanied her to the district court, but were not allowed inside the magistrate’s chamber while she was giving her statement to magistrate Mustafa Shahi.
In an interview with Article-14, the complainant claims she provided her oral testimony, but was hesitant to sign on the written version without understanding it. She asked for “Kalyani didi” to be allowed to help her with reading the statement, but claims Shahi scolded her and frightened her into signing the paper. Later, when Kalyani and Tanmay attempted to speak to the magistrate about it, Shahi allegedly reprimanded them for entering his chambers without permission, did not give them a chance to speak, and eventually called on several court staff and police officials to arrest all three of them.
Court officials later accused Tanmay and Kalyani of trying to snatch and tear up the complainant’s written statement, a charge that the she claims is false.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions in Samastipur jail, Tanmay and Kalyani’s colleagues, family members and lawyers have had very few opportunities to meet or speak with them. Since her release, the complainant has pointed out that the conditions in the jail are unhygienic, with unclean toilets and poor food quality.
Whenever they have had a chance to speak to their colleagues, Sohini claims Tanmay and Kalyani have been largely concerned with the status of their work projects. “Tanmay has advised me on how to engage with various trans-masculine people he has been counselling, and how to keep running our summer course on caste and labour for young people,” she said. “Kalyani has asked me to keep up the health work now that Covid-19 and floods are so rampant in our parts.”
They have also kept up their activism while in jail. “I am told they are documenting the stories of women prisoners, planning work on prison reforms, taking classes with the women and have even initiated a safai abhiyan [cleanliness drive] there,” said Sohini.
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