Jawaharlal Nehru University student and Pinjra Tod activist Natasha Narwal , who was released from Tihar Jail on June 17 after more than a year of incarceration in a case pertaining to northeast Delhi riots, says seeing the struggle of other inmates without support systems has humbled her and strengthened the commitment to ensure that such injustice does not go unchallenged.
Excerpts from an email interview:
You have been in jail for more than a year. How does it feel to finally breathe free?
It feels good but still unreal. The joy of seeing our friends and loved ones is tinged with the pain of knowing that so many people continue to be unjustly incarcerated. Our minds also keep going back to the many other inmates and the children we spent so much time with who still remain behind bars. Yet, we were exhilarated to look at the open night sky.
Your release from jail was also not without some last-minute hiccups and alleged attempts by Delhi Police to further delay it. Your comments.
We had prepared ourselves for spending a long time inside, given how one has seen acts like UAPA keeping people inside for a long time and making bail very difficult, so despite the delays this is still unexpected. We are grateful for the Delhi High Court judgment which has been a big step forward for us.
How has one year in jail changed you as a person and an activist?
This past year in jail has brought many lessons that will remain with us for a long time. The love and support that people gave us — both inside and from outside — has been deeply inspiring. At the same time seeing the struggle of other inmates who do not have any strong support systems outside or even proper legal counsel has humbled one and strengthened the commitment to ensure that such violence and injustice is not allowed to go unchallenged. We have also learnt to value our freedom, and freedom in society ever more dearly.
You lost your father to COVID a month ago. Could not even meet him one last time. Your thoughts.
While being wrongfully incarcerated in jail under UAPA was unjust, I saw it as a part of activism. It was still a part of life with consequences that I was ready to face. Losing my father on the other hand was more of a traumatic incident. The limited access to conversation (only daily 5 min calls) and information made it only worse as I had to control the anxiety, nervousness and helplessness. But at the same time I couldn't help but empathise with the other prisoners who had to go through the same or worse situation than me. The injustices that is being continuously done in this whole institution of prison and judicial system reflected back to me.
How has your father influenced you as a person?
He was the kind of person who always strived to make the world a better place. He has always encouraged and motivated me to become the person that I wanted to be. My father never forced me or persuaded me to choose the life of an activist. But he always encouraged my activism. Even in my time in jail, he provided me with support and never made me worry once about the future.
What are your views on a perception of some that we are living in an undeclared emergency and the freedom of speech has never been under threat like it is now.
The rise in state repression is striking. Yet despite the increase in repression, it has not been able to silence voices of struggle which have in fact been gaining in strength from the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement, to the farmer’s agitation and the way people have spoken out against the mismanagement during the pandemic. Such repression is only exposing the fragility of the ruling regime and its anti-people character.
Is the current regime any different from earlier regimes in protecting the right to freedom of speech and protest? How?
Despite us being a democracy most governments we have had have served the interests of socially powerful sections rather than common citizens and repressed the voices of protest. However, this regime is trying to change the very fabric of our society, fanning hatred and pushing people into desperation. Our country and society have seen exceptionally bad times in the past some years; be it with regards to unemployment, caste and communal atrocities, attack on workers’ rights... . These conditions are giving rise to a deep discontent and dissent which this regime is seeking to crush by ever greater repression.
What are your future plans?
We, as a society are witnessing compounding crises — coronavirus pandemic, lack of public healthcare system, structures of support and social security, growing systemic inequalities and a simultaneous crushing of people’s assertions and aspirations. The challenges are immense and the road ahead is not one that can be chartered alone, and therefore, we see our future plans tied to the demands that this historical moment has placed on us all. We hope to participate in building a society that is free of all oppressions and exploitation.