‘There were days of absolute despair’


Devangana Kalita tells Prasanna D Zore/ how she spent time in Tihar jail by teaching children of fellow inmates; how, for lack of legal aid, mothers continue to languish in jail long after their bail has been accepted; how she would cry with Natasha Narwal and Gulfisha Fatima; and how despite all the cases slapped against her she would not think twice before joining another anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest if there were one to be organised today.

Any moment, any day inside the jail that made you regret what you did, your activism?

I wouldn’t say there was any moment which made me regret what I did because in some sense it (the prison term) only strengthened me.

It was like you realised there was a struggle outside and now your struggle is to survive, live in prison, to retain your feelings, your humanity, and collectively continue doing inside what you were doing outside.

Obviously, I’m not saying it was all easy; there were days of absolute despair. There were days when you were crying and holding each other, especially because of the uncertainty which holds in a UAPA case; it could be five years, it could be 10 years but you took it together, you took it slow and there’s definitely no regret I would say.

Tihar Jail officials allowed the three of you to stay together.

The thing is they didn’t want to keep us in different cells because they thought we may bhadkao (incite) prison inmates about their rights as prisoners, and so (the jail authorities might have thought it) better to confine them together in one ward (laughs).

It was basically a children’s ward and there were four-five other inmates along with the three of us. But these four-five people would keep changing because people would go out on bail and things like that.

So, how many inmates did you convert into activists?

(Laughs) There were long conversations. They (now) know many of our (Pinjra Tod movement) songs. They know about Savitribai (Phule, social reformer who became the first woman teacher in India) and Fatima Shaikh (social reformer and colleague of Savitribai Phule).

These friendships, whenever some of them come out, and some of them have come out on interim bail, would continue to flourish outside prison too.

While you and Natasha were charged under the draconian UAPA, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who gave the Delhi police an ultimatum in February 2020, three days after which riots broke out in Delhi, roams free.
What does it say about our criminal justice system?

Since we are accused in a sub judice case, I cannot comment on this.

Leave alone draconian laws like UAPA, we met inmates who were in jail even for petty crimes like thefts for long after their prison term was over. They would stay in prison for eight-nine months more than their prison term because the criminal justice system is so overburdened.

Even in their cases ‘bail is the rule’ rule is not followed and they continue to languish in prison.

Our jails are overcrowded because this norm doesn’t really exist in the real world.

As we were in a children’s ward, we would see mothers who had got bail still languishing in jail just because they didn’t have local sureties.

To even have Internet access to court Web sites in the legal aid room, so that people can at least access orders related to their own case easily, we had to approach the Delhi high court.

These small, small, things are part of our prison reform plea.

While Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha, to cite three recent cases, are out on bail, there are hundreds of other activists still languishing in jail.
Would you be fighting for the cause now?

The fact that this legal battle that lies ahead would as much be about our bail being upheld or rejected as much as it will be about the scope of this (UAPA) Act. Can it really be used in cases like ours?

Could you describe a day in jail?

We were famous for sleeping in late in jail till about 9-9.30 am (laughs) and then you would wake up. You would clean your barrack, clean your bathroom, and then go for chai.

Our barrack was a children’s ward so children would come and wake us up, we would play with them, sketch, paint, teach them.

And since you are in the barracks a lot of inmates would need applications written to the jail authorities so that they can make phone calls.

We would spend lot of time writing applications, helping them read and understand their chargesheets, court orders, or writing letters for people which they would then send home.

So, anything from writing applications to love letters which they would want to send people outside (laughs).

Once you got adjusted to prison life, in that context, it was quite funny. The three of us would joke like how can we not have time in jail? For the whole day, all of us would constantly be doing something or the other.

We would write diaries, sketch, paint and listen to the radio a lot; in the barracks we had a TV which played All India Radio.

It was tough initially, but once you got to know people better some of the difficulties were taken care of.

Given a chance, would you still participate in anti-CAA protests if they were to be held today?

Yeah, definitely. It’s not just only about anti-CAA protests, but about democratic and peaceful struggles that people are fighting against the system, governments.

One thing about the anti-CAA struggle was that it raised the question of citizenship, like, who is an Indian citizen, what are her/his rights.

Then there are issues related to farmers’ struggle, about how and who can and cannot migrate to their villages during the pandemic, about availability of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.

Participation in larger democratic and peaceful protests is definitely going to continue because you have seen the worst now being in prison. That also provides you certain strength.

What would be your message for activists like you protesting for various causes that they hold dear?

It is because of activism that has existed through historic times that activists like us draw their inspiration. I won’t say that I had some extraordinary courage deep inside me. It is actually the history of collective struggles which activists, minority groups, marginalised communities have fought across history, which gives you this courage (to stand up to injustice).

You don’t see yourself as an exception, but you see yourself in continuity with what has been happening in the past; you feel you are part of larger struggles across the world.

Our friends used to send us prison memoirs of Egyptian feminists, or from Palestine, South Africa. When you read those histories you strengthen your broken courage gradually.

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