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We were always hopeful that justice will prevail through judicial system, the rising voices of protest: Devangana Kalita

Student activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita outside the Tihar jail in New Delhi after their release on June 17, 2021.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Jawaharlal Nehru University student and Pinjra Tod activist Devangana Kalita, who was recently released on bail after being arrested for her alleged role in the Delhi riots and charged under the UAPA, talks to The Hindu on freedom, life inside the Tihar jail among other things.

It has been over a year since you were charged and in jail. How does it feel to finally be free?

It’s definitely a relief to be free, not just for Natasha and me, but for all our friends and families who have been supporting us for the last one year. It’s yet to settle in and it’s still overwhelming to even look at a bustling street after a year of being locked in.

There are many still inside, for crimes they do not even know or never committed, like our friend and jailmate Gulfisha incarcerated for over a year under the same charges as us. In their continued incarceration, our bail doesn't feel like freedom.

Between the Delhi High Court granting you bail and your release there was almost a 36-hour gap. What was going on in your mind at that time? Your comments on the delay?

Those 36 hours were stressful but we had anticipated that if we got bail, securing release would not be easy. We were glad to learn that the High Court had granted us bail, considering what the UAPA covers cannot be arbitrary and vague. As it is an extraordinarily stringent law, the ambit of what it covers should be read narrowly.

Also read: Repression has not silenced voices of struggle, says Natasha Narwal

 

The next day we had heard that the verification had not been completed and that the police had filed an application in the Supreme Court challenging the order. We didn’t know what this meant and had no idea what to expect. Knowing how difficult it is to get bail for a UAPA undertrial, we were prepared for a long time in prison. The suddenness of the release also did not allow us the chance to say goodbye to our fellow inmates properly which made it an emotionally painful experience.

UAPA charges were slapped against you and the others. In the past year, were there moments of uncertainty and helplessness? Or were you confident of winning this battle?

Historically one has seen how laws like the UAPA have been used to keep dissenting voices and people from marginalised communities inside for prolonged periods without bail. The process itself becomes a punishment, even before a trial takes place. Given this, we had prepared ourselves for a long haul inside, trying our best to cope day-to-day with the looming question: “when will this end?”

Also read: The fight will go on, say released students

 

There were many moments of uncertainty and helplessness, especially given the general anxiety and insecurity caused by the pandemic, fearing for the health of our loved ones who we could barely access and could not care for inside and outside prison. Yet, we were also always hopeful that sooner or later justice will prevail through the judicial system and through the rising voices of protest challenging the repressive measures by the state.

What was your experience like inside Tihar and how has it impacted you?

Jail is systematically made into a dehumanising experience. Authorities have absolute power over life and movement and use that power arbitrarily to deny inmates basic freedoms. This over and above the lack of infrastructure inside. It’s maybe too soon to say exactly how it has impacted me personally, but there are so many things that I saw and experienced that I will never be able to forget.

We witnessed first hand how our jails are filled with the most vulnerable people in our society, mostly working class, Dalit and Muslim communities. It was also deeply impressed on us how jail is but a microcosm of the power dynamics that operate in society as a whole, with people’s vulnerabilities outside only getting intensified inside. Often, lack of support on the outside and the challenges of navigating an opaque legal aid system with very scant resources extend and intensify the punishment meted out by the legal system. Basic rights like bail are hard to secure, even in cases of ‘petty crimes’. But it was also a lesson in hope. Despite the enforced isolation, we found a source of great strength and community in the other inmates and the children inside. This sense of community has instilled in us an ever-stronger resolve to struggle against the deeply entrenched inequality and injustice in society.

Supreme Court won’t intervene in High Court order granting bail to 3 student activists

 

We tried to raise some of these issues through a writ petition for access to certain essential facilities in jail such as vaccinations for COVID-19 and access to proper mental healthcare, greater connectivity with families without conditions such as prepaid numbers which exclude many from accessing these rights, frequent and longer calls with families, access to libraries, academic resources and better opportunities and infrastructure for pursuing education for inmates and children etc. Various such issues along with the basic question of why so many undertrials languish in jail with an extremely overburdened government legal aid system need to be raised much more strongly in society.

There are several scholars and activists who are still behind bars with similar charges. Your comments on it and how do you perceive the government’s action?

It is a terrible reality that today people who are, in fact, speaking up and working to make our country and society more just, equal and free of oppression are being incarcerated and labelled as anti-national, especially those from marginalised communities or in solidarity. This says a lot about the direction in which our society is being pushed, as well as the insecurity of the government. Instead of engaging in productive conversations with citizens, the government wants to silence their voices through brute force, fear and incarceration.

At the same time, the repression on activists and scholars are just the tip of a massive iceberg, where wrongful incarcerations and long jail terms for undertrials have become a rule rather than an exception. 70% of inmates in India are undertrials, that too particularly from the most vulnerable communities. It’s telling that it’s the scholars and activists who have stood against oppression and for the rights of marginalised communities who are put behind bars. These struggles are linked and the government’s action seems to be to ensure that this status quo remains.

What next for Devangana Kalita?

It’s probably too early to say but we hope to carry on the struggle to build an equal, just and free society and continuing participation in struggles for democratic rights and equal citizenship, to break down the many ‘pinjras’ that cage us as women and everyone on lines of caste, class and various oppressive social structures. I also look forward to spending some time with my friends and family who too have had a hard time this past year, and finishing my M.Phil.


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 8:16:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/devangana-kalita-interview-we-were-always-hopeful-that-justice-will-prevail-through-judicial-system-the-rising-voices-of-protest/article34863475.ece

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