‘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.

ALSO READ: An Idea Cannot Be Jailed

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

An Idea Cannot Be Jailed

Old men, however powerful, or, drowned in the heady intoxication of their own glory and greatness, should rethink their relationship with the young, with or without a generation or ideological gap. Especially, those who are dissenters, thinkers, protesters, rebels, contrarians, idealists, dreamers – who don’t agree with ‘their’ idea of the world! And who refuse to succumb, come what may – police atrocities, prisons, draconian laws, huge charge-sheets, concocted charges, fake news, demonization in the sold-out media, and a priori condemnation as ‘anti-nationals and terrorists’.

Why should the old and powerful refuse to learn lessons from history? Power does not hold forever. No greatness is eternal. Time is never a great healer. Immortality is impossible. Prisons and injustice cannot kill ideas or idealism. Perhaps delayed, justice too must arrive, one day. Hope floats. And dreams don’t die so easily, especially in the hearts of the young.

So why are the those hailed as Dear Leader, the Great Helmsman, Prophet, Iron Man or Messiah, with the entire State apparatus and media at their command, therefore, obsessed with the paranoia that some young scholars are their enemies?  Why are they so afraid of their youthful dreams?

The young are not the enemies of an ‘open society’. If the open society is flawed and fragmented, is it their fault if they are choosing to ask questions? Those in power should have the courage to agree and disagree, argue and discuss, establish a dialogue and discourse, accept a paradigm shift; why gag the voices of the young? Why lock them up in prisons? Why condemn and exile those who defy and deny their power and authority? And why should such old men, who have lived their life of power to the full, hate the educated, critical, thinking, young women and men, who are just beginning their adult journeys, with such ferocity and venom?

The young are doing what they should in any open society: Doubt everything! This is a philosophical and political quest! If India is unequal and in-egalitarian, if its secular ethos is being destroyed by a brazen neo-Nazi narrative, and if the State seems so brazenly partisan and one-dimensional, is it wrong to seek answers, while seeking to protect the original principles of the Indian Constitution? Is it a crime to peacefully oppose a communal law like the CAA and defend the secular and pluralist values of the Indian freedom movement?

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Whose portraits were splashed all over Jamia and Shaheen Bagh when mothers, sisters, daughters and students sat on a prolonged sit-in, stoic, non-violent, steadfast, for months, in the freezing winter, like the farmers now for months at the borders of the capital? Did the powerful men in Delhi bother to see those portraits and posters?

They belonged to the freedom movement: Sarojini Naidu, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ashfaqullah Khan, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, among others. So was that a crime, to remember and resurrect these icons yet again, and how was it anti-national?

There is no absolute truth or absolute power. One day, the rigid walls of authority must break or crumble, finally. That is, if humanity wins over inhumanity, wisdom over arrogance, and justice over injustice. Or, as streams of a new consciousness turns everything sublime; the sudden, inevitable arrival of a great moment of history, a revelation, a revolution, a fantastic kaleidoscope turning the  four seasons luminescent with its rainbow colours!

It happens. It is possible. This is an inspiring lesson, from here to eternity. This is because such intense luminescence of stoic resistance is never measured in terms of defeat and victory in history. They burn in the sky like magic realism, meteors, shooting stars, full moon tides – and they never die –  not even in one hundred years of solitude. They are etched in the pages of history.

So what did the graffiti writers write during the spontaneous students’ uprising on the wall of Sorbonne near Paris in May 1968? Or, what did the students of JNU, on their own campus in 1983 and 1989, resurrect from this shared past? The same graffiti on the wall: Society is a carnivorous flower; Give Flowers to the Rebels who Failed; We won’t forget. We won’t forgive. We won’t let them get away. And then they all sang the same songs: All in all, we are just another brick in the wall… The answer is blowin’ in the wind… We are in the same boat brother!

In India, there were other songs too. The various versions of The Internationale, and, of course, the eternal greats: ‘Woh Subah Kabhi to Ayegi’ by Sahir, Tu Zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar by Shailendra, and Hayei Samhalo Dhaan by Salil Chaudhury, among other immortal renditions of revolution and freedom. This was the dream in the insomniac eyes of the young, a new world, a new dawn, a new language of secular, enlightened democracy, a new egalitarian freedom based on total equality and human dignity. 

ALSO READ: ‘Our Songs Give Voice To Farmers Protest’

The human condition must change – that was the dream. Then, now, and in the days to come. In a nation which celebrates this dream. Not clampdown on campuses, young minds and ideas. Not mob-lynchings – not in my name please! Not a Police State. Not a crackdown on peaceful protests and non-violent dissent. Not NRC/CAA, UAPA and jail!

The British hanged the young, including Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Khudiram Bose, among others. They put others in the horrible torture chambers of Andaman’s ‘Kala Paani’, including the adivasi rebels led by Birsa Munda, who fought with their bows and arrows against the guns and cannons of the British, in the hills of Jharkhand in the late 19th century. They killed young Birsa in prison – he was just about 20 – poisoned to death, murdered.

Later, among others, they murdered Master Surya Sen, the leader of the Chittagong armed struggle led by the young; he was so brutally tortured that it is difficult to narrate it. They put freedom fighters in jail for many years. They enacted the Jalianwala massacre!

Did it then stop the young to dream of a new India? Did it stop Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh? Did it crush the dream? Did the young refuse to join the freedom and revolutionary movement because of the fear of death or prison or torture? No.

Rhetoric apart, remembering the Machiavellian metaphor, a government should not only appear to be democratic, it should prove its democratic credentials as an everyday national reality. While we remember how Indian democracy was ravaged during the Emergency, let’s not run away from the horror stories of the contemporary times in India, especially after May 2014. And there are umpteen unhappy examples to prove that.

That is why the bail given to Natasha, Devagana and Asif became a cathartic moment of joy and relief across the nation. That is why the metaphor and reality of ‘Pinjda Tod’ flew on the wings of emancipation, freedom and justice! That is why, Umar Khalid and all those brilliant scholars and peaceful dissenters  in prison were remembered at the gates of Tihar Jail in Delhi, amidst youthful slogans and songs, which celebrated these young idealists and dreamers of India, our future of hope, and reminded the nation, how truly unjust, and revengeful, it all is. 

Natasha said, outside the Tihar Jail, that all the women prisoners laughed when they were told that she and Devangana were branded ‘terrorists’! Indeed, you might agree or disagree with them, but even their hardened opponents know it deep inside their hearts – these young scholars are not ‘terrorists’. They are committed and courageous young intellectuals, dissenters and rebels, and they have a right to peacefully protest, under the Indian Constitution.

Natasha said, talking of the ‘prison inside’, and, perhaps, of the ‘prison outside’: “We should think – what kind of society are we making!”

And Devangana replied, when asked what if they are once again sent back: “Knowing the prison inside now, we are not afraid anymore!”

Surely, prisons cannot kill ideas. Or, the dream of a just, secular and humane society. Truly, that is what the ‘bailed’ freedom of Natasha, Devangana and Asif teach us.