During the year they spent in jail, news filtering in from the world beyond the high walls buoyed the spirits of 32-year-old Natasha Narwal and other activists arrested for allegedly playing a role in the violence that broke out in North East Delhi in February 2020.
“One would always hear of the love people are showing us and that helped us survive the time in prison,” said Narwal, who received a warm reception from friends and colleagues as she left Tihar jail on Thursday night along with Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha after being granted bail by the Delhi High Court. “Now that we got to see the support outside the jail when we came out, it strengthened our resolve to continue to fight for democratic and constitutional rights in this country.”
Narwal, Kalita, 32, and Tanha, 25, were among several activists who had participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. They maintained that the legislation discriminated against Muslims and could be used to harass the community. The police alleged that they were part of a conspiracy to organise the February violence and charged them under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
While Tanha is a student at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Narwal and Kalita are PhD students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. They were arrested in May 2020.
In its bail order, the court declared that “in an anxiety to suppress dissent, the state has blurred the line between right to protest and terrorist activity”. If such an attitude persists, it would be a “sad day for democracy”, the court said.
On Friday, Kalita said that she still found it unbelievable that she was out of jail, given the dramatic proceedings of the previous few days. Despite being granted bail on Tuesday, the three were not released immediately: the Delhi Police said it would take six days to verify their addresses. It took another court order to get the activists released immediately.
“We were warned that even after bail there might be ways to keep us inside, so we had prepared for the long haul – the UAPA is a tricky law so you never know how long exactly they’d keep us for,” Kalita said. “It has only been one day outside but I’m still in shock.”
Both Kalita and Narwal described the challenges of being imprisoned. “It was difficult to live through the violence of incarceration every single day - it dehumanises you and makes you bereft of any rights and liberties,” said Narwal. “We were part of a movement for citizenship and through incarceration, our own citizenship was taken away.”
Added Kalita: “The most difficult time, though, was when Covid-19 entered the women’s jail and various facilities were discontinued to stop the spread. We knew the pandemic was raging outside and there was nothing we could do, not even contact our loved ones.”
On May 9, Narwal’s father, Mahavir Narwal died from to Covid-19. She was granted interim bail for three weeks to perform his last rites after which she returned to jail and, Kalita said, had to deal with the “difficulty of grieving a loved one while locked up”.
Despite this, Narwal said that the activists – with strong family support and constant media attention on their case – were better placed to deal with the situation than many other prisoners. “Many others who are in jail are people whose cases are still under trial and they spend years in here with no resources and no help,” said Narwal. “Most of them are from marginalised communities, and every day is a struggle against the system for them.”
Narwal and Kalita said that they did not think the state could adequately compensate them for their hardships over the last year. But, they found hope in the Delhi High Court judgement giving them bail. “The court rightfully upheld our right to protest and articulated the boundaries between protest and terrorist activities,” Narwal said. “The judgement should serve as a reminder to all of us of what is happening in the country and how these laws are being used as weapons against voices of dissent.”
Now that they are out of jail, the two said that they would fight for the rights of other activists who have been arrested in the Delhi violence case. Among them is student Gulfisha Fatima, whose plea before the Delhi High Court to be released was adjourned on Friday. Kalita said that since the authorities rushed her and Narwal out of the jail while sending the other detainees to their barracks, they were unable to even hug Fatima goodbye.
Narwal said that she was also hoping to resume her PhD research about the historical development of higher education spaces for women in Delhi University. “After living through the worst, I feel it is important to now continue with my education and finish what I started,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’ll continue to fight to let the voices of democracy and dissent prevail.”
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