‘Devangana’s Arrest Was A Message To Activists, Their Families’

Andre Ling (38), husband of student activist Devangana Kalita, says it was terrifying to see his wife being targeted by an entire state machinery. He feels this episode is only the beginning of a long battle ahead.

I am an international development consultant working at the intersection of development and humanitarian work, particularly in conflict affected areas. Devangana (Kalita) and I met in 2008 in Rajasthan at an NGO where I was working and Devangana had gone to do an internship. We have been together since then, though we only got married in 2014.

For me, having Devangana back is like recovering a part of myself without which I could not properly function. I suspect it is the same for many others in whose life she has played a part. But we are still waiting to see what comes next, with further hearings in the Supreme Court, and ultimately the trial. In addition to that, there are so many other people locked up under similar charges who have not yet been released. In a sense then, this battle is just beginning. There is still a very long way to go.

I find it appalling that something as serious as the UAPA has been used so frivolously (as observed in the High Court’s bail order). It sends a terrifying message to the public, to all those who have grievances resulting from state policies, to those who believe in democracy, and to all those who dream of a more inclusive, free and just society.

The crackdown on dissent is part of a global wave of repression and authoritarianism that comes at a time when our economic and political systems are in a crisis. Dissent and protest are forms of collective public expression. It’s about people asking to be listened to; to have their concerns taken seriously. It strikes me as the abdication of a government’s responsibility to not listen to its people. The extent that governments will go to, to fabricate cases against democratic protesters, is chilling.

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Seeing one’s friend or family member get arrested, with the full backing of the state machinery, is obviously terrifying. Just the emotional pain of seeing someone you share your dreams, your life with, taken away and locked behind bars makes it difficult to think or act. It sends a message that no one is safe to speak their mind or stand up for what they believe in; it made everyone afraid for their own safety and that of their friends.

Parents wouldn’t want their children to be associated with political activism. I am sure that this was the intention behind the wave of arrests – and to some extent it was successful. But when something as powerful as the truth is bottled up for too long, it starts to fester and searches for outlets. I don’t think it can be subdued for very long.

Devangana, Natasha (Narwal) and Asif Iqbal’s democratic spirit continued to radiate within jail, and spilled out into the public domain, through letters to friends and families. The fearlessness that they have shown is an inspiration to others.

The experience in jail has left a big impression on Devangana. The time spent in isolation, the uncertainty – “will this ever end?”, hardships, and the friendships forged in the jail… and the many stories shared. I was always in awe of how she managed to compose herself, to continue sending out messages of love and strength to friends and families, to file – along with Natasha – a writ petition for prison reform securing COVID vaccines for inmates, increasing the frequency and duration of contact with family members, to name just a couple of items.

I don’t think her time in jail – up close with the most dehumanising face of the state – has reduced her determination or grit at all. Rather it has expanded her perspective and given her new energy and focus for the years ahead.

I tried to be there for her and show up in whatever ways I could. At the beginning that meant following her from one police station to the next, as she went through interrogation; bringing changes of clothes and home-cooked food when it was allowed. I tried to match her seemingly endless positivity on phone calls and video calls, to make sure that she got whatever could be arranged for her in terms of books, stationery, clothing and her MPhil registration. There was quite a lot of running around to be done. I had support from friends, family and of course her lawyers, who have been outstanding in their commitment.

I believe when the truth is on your side but the state is not, you have to be brave, for in the long-run it’s worth it. There is a well-oiled machine that will try to frighten you, or force you into silence. But fear fuels injustice. Of course, everyone has their own vulnerabilities, so you just have to do whatever you can from your own social location and never give up.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

‘Courage Of Narwal-Kalita Gives Anti-CAA Activists Hope’

Salman Ahmad, 30, an advocate at Lucknow Civil Court, says he was amazed at the spirit of Pinjra Tod activists on their release from jail. Khan sees similar resolve in anti-CAA women activists of Lucknow

I am so happy that finally Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha have been released on bail. It was an uphill fight, but I am glad they have come out of jail for now. I am just mesmerised at the courage these people have shown, especially the women.

The moment I saw the news clip of Natasha Narwal laughing after just coming out of jail and not deterred one bit, I was like: Inki himmat me koi kami nahi aayi; chehre pe ab bhi hansi barkarar hai. Aisa lag raha hai ye to Sarkar ko chidha rahi hain (She looks spirited; her smile/laughter is intact and it seems as if she is cocking a snook at the government that they couldn’t break her spirit even in jail.

I have seen similar steely resolve in the women of Lucknow; the women who spearheaded the anti-CAA and anti-NRC movement at Ghantaghar. I had been following the news about CAA-NRC right from the beginning and have been involved with its Lucknow chapter, so to speak, right since its inception.

Lawyer community holds protests against Citizenship Act in Lucknow

I myself was a part of the CAA- NRC protests and have helped a lot of people in getting timely bail when they faced similar police harassment. In fact, the police filed two-three FIRs against me as well but I was undeterred. Even my whole family and the families of friends and colleagues registered their protest. We know these are momentous times and anything can be used against anyone who shows the courage to question the government.

Women don’t speak up in the beginning or fight unnecessarily, so if the women are out in the streets and unafraid to go to jail for what they consider right, just and truthful, the government should sit up and take notice. When women put things at stake, it means they are ready to give it their all.

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We can see through the divide and rule policy of the government, but I believe it’s not going to work. Because this time the people also know that they have to take a stand. During January-February last year, many of us took an accommodation near the protest site and did all that was possible in aiding other supporters and we wouldn’t even go home for many days at a stretch. Even at the cost of our own personal safety we have visited police stations after police stations to show our support in the release of common people. As an advocate it is my duty to see that the law is not misused.

CAA-NRC provisions have touched a raw nerve and people have realised that their very existence is at stake. It is the people of India who are holding it together with love, otherwise look at what hatred between communities and a breakdown in communication did to Myanmar. I wouldn’t say that there was no mistrust between communities before this government came in; it was there, but it was a side thing. But with this government it is the main agenda. Many people holding top position in important institutions have been known to have biased views regarding things.

Anti-CAA protest in Lucknow

I hope things get better soon and the government understands the concerns of the people and not just try to put those asking questions in jail. We need to talk to each other. The powers that are need to take people into consideration.

Nasreen Javed Lucknow Social Activist

‘Police FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break The Spirit Of Dissent’

Nasreen Javed, 32, from Lucknow says the unfair methods used by a repressive state, like police FIRs and arrests, cannot crush the spirit of dissent in Indian democracy

Lucknow Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ke liye jani jati hai. Yani yahan log ek doosre ki izzat karte hain, ek doosre ka sath dete hain (Lucknow is known for its inclusive culture and people here respect, support and take stands for each other). The government has tried its level best to break this cohesiveness, but they haven’t managed to so far. Nor have they managed nor will they succeed in breaking the spirit of young activists like Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Asif Iqbal Tanha, my fellow protestors or me.

The government had perhaps thought that if they arrest or unnecessarily hound youngsters, they might rot in jail for the rest of their lives, but the collective soul of India is far greater than the hatred that is brewing in it right now.

I have always raised my voice against injustice and untruth, but with CAA- NRC protests, I ensured that my voice is heard loud and clear and it doesn’t slow down. I was one among the group of 11 women who started the CAA protest at Ghantaghar in Lucknow and participated for 66 days in a row. With a three-month old adopted daughter in tow I braved it all. I have nearly eight to ten FIRs against me, all for taking a stand during the CAA- NRC protests. But I am not scared. I am not doing anything wrong.

Nasreen Javed with fellow protestors in Lucknow

Police acted in heartless manner to break our last year’s protests. Our blankets were taken away extreme cold; our food wasn’t allowed to reach the protest sites; they would pour cold water on the bonfires. I still remember an amber reaching my hijab and singing it when cold water was poured on the fire to put it out. But they cannot pour cold water over our spirit and dampen it.

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Even if I have to go to the jail for this cause I am not scared. Sach ki takat alag hoti hai, uska jazba hi alag hota hai (Being on the side of truth lends you a different kind of courage). Perhaps we have the same courage, same spirit that our freedom fighters had during the Freedom Struggle. We are freedom fighters.

The police have been unrelenting in trying to find ways to break our spirit, but so far we have also managed to hold on. As Natasha Narwal said, having strong family support gives you the courage to carry on with your fight for truth. There were times when the police would wake my in-laws in the dead of the night and ask them to bring me to the police station (while I was at the protest site) or they would be arrested. Why hassle old people?

Anti-CAA protestors hold indefinite fast in Lucknow

I go to the court for hearing every 15 days and even with the fear of Covid-19 lurking everywhere I am standing strong. A life that has meaning in it is worthwhile. Thank God my family understands why I feel so strongly about CAA-NRC. It is about ‘exclusion’ while our Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb and even India at large is about ‘inclusion’.

We are raised in a way that we are taught to include. I wonder what’s going on in the minds of our leaders. They were subtly/indirectly saying that persecuted people from other countries, from communities other than Muslims would be granted citizenship. But can the government also ensure that their living standard would become better? What about the living standards of the people already settled here? Dialogue is the need of the hour.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh