On August 6, after being detained for 25 days in Bihar’s Samastipur jail, social workers Kalyani and Tanmay Nivedita were finally released on bail. Their arrest, along with the arrest of a 22-year-old gang rape complainant from Araria district, had sparked nationwide outrage last month.

On July 10, four days after the complainant had been allegedly raped by four unknown men, Kalyani and Tanmay had accompanied her to the district court where she narrated her story before the magistrate. Since the complainant could not read, she refused to sign a statement written on her behalf unless it was read out to her.

Instead of helping her, the complainant claims the magistrate called her a “crazy, ill-mannered girl” and accused Kalyani and Tanmay of arguing with him when they tried to help the complainant. All three were arrested on charges of preventing government servants from doing their duty, and the social workers were specifically accused of trying to snatch the complainant’s written statement away from court officials. All three have strongly denied these charges.

While the four accused rapists are yet to be identified and arrested, the rape complainant, Tanmay and Kalyani were transported 240 km out of Araria to Samastipur jail. Tanmay, who identifies as a trans man, was also housed in the women’s jail.

The complainant was released on bail on July 18, but Kalyani and Tanmay had to wait much longer. Their bail was cleared on August 4 by the Supreme Court, which described the magisterial order sending them to jail as “impermissible”.

Kalyani and Tanmay are members of the Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a trade union in Araria, and Scroll.in had written about their extensive work for healthcare, gender justice, Dalit rights and youth empowerment in this report.

On August 7, after they were back home in Araria, Kalyani and Tanmay spoke to Scroll.in about their experiences in jail and the widespread abuse of prisoners’ rights that they witnessed inside.

What was your experience in jail like? Were you treated well?
Kalyani: We were treated well. But we have a lot of caste and class privilege, which played a huge role in the way we were treated. We were among the few savarna [upper-caste], literate inmates, and the only middle-class ones. The rest were mostly Dalit or Muslim working-class women. They did not have access to information, had no contact with their families, and could not even get simple things like soap, detergent or underwear sent to them. And we realised that even a handful of detergent, and being able to wear a clean shirt, is so crucial for feeling dignified. We have started seeing privilege in a different way now.

Tanmay: The other inmates were also unaware of the e-mulaqaat [online meeting] system that was started in jails after the Covid-19 lockdown. We knew about it because we had helped many people with their cases earlier, so we were able to go to the jailor, ask for it and speak to our family, friends and lawyers. But the jail had not actively told inmates about it. We tried to inform them about the e-mulaqaat system, but it was still intimidating for them. The forms were in English, and many of their relatives in villages do not have access to smartphones to be able to do an online call with them.

An older photo of Tanmay at work in Araria, Bihar. Photo courtesy: Kamayani Swami

So most of the inmates were not able to communicate with their families?
Kalyani: Right now, because of Covid-19, the Samastipur jail is the designated quarantine jail for all women arrested in 22 districts of Bihar. There were roughly 150-180 women when we were there, and they were supposed to be quarantined for 14 to 21 days before being sent to the jails in their own districts. So most of the inmates were very far from their home districts and had no way to communicate with people at home for weeks together. Many of their relatives did not know which jail they were in. They could not even find out how their children were or whether someone would be able to bring them some detergent, or clothes or money. They could not find out whether they had a lawyer or when they would be able to get bail.

Tanmay: There was also no access to any counsellors, so the mental health of the inmates was in a terrible condition. We would go to sleep with women wailing around us and wake up to the sound of wailing. We went in with a rape survivor whose mental health was already in a bad state because she had been criminalised for simply giving her bayaan [statement].

Since this was a jail [as opposed to a prison], the inmates were all undertrials, not convicts. For an undertrial, nothing is more urgent than getting bail. But for the past three weeks, all courts in Bihar had been shut, so no bail was granted. Some inmates had been in the jail for more than two months. It is a horrible violation of justice.

What were the living conditions in the jail?
Tanmay: The toilets were very dirty. In our ward, which had 18 people, we cleaned the toilet ourselves. But outside the ward, there were just 18 public toilets for 180 people, and they were in a terrible state. The jail would give one packet of sanitary pads to each person, but there were no provisions for their disposal. And many women from villages who are used to cloth pads were not taught how to use or dispose these pads. So toilets were clogged with them.

What did you spend your time doing in jail?
Kalyani: A lot of our time was spent listening to people’s stories about their lives, struggles, what they wanted to do once they got out and the huge amounts of violence many of them had survived before coming jail, both in public and domestic spheres. We documented some of their stories with their consent. We also helped many of them write letters or messages to their relatives. Because we could read and write, we would sometimes get access to newspapers and read the news to inmates. Many of them were worried about floods in their home districts.

Tanmay: We could roam the campus up to 6 pm but after that there would be nothing to do, so we would get together and sing and dance. We shared songs from the feminist movement with them, songs about solidarity between women and resisting patriarchal structures. They were a big hit. The opportunity to share music and poetry with people was fun.

We are grateful for the support we have received from our legal team and the media and all the organisations that banded together to ask for our release. And we are also grateful to our fellow prisoners who created a supportive space for us, through little things like combing each other’s hair or sharing detergent. The solidarity and care-giving between prisoners was very humbling and inspiring. Now we have an insider’s view of a jail and we definitely plan to work on issues like prisoners’ rights and access to justice.