Interview: Natasha Narwal & Devangana Kalita

When prison itself becomes a site of struggle: Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita talk about their time in Tihar Jail

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Devangana Kalita.

Natasha Narwal.

Interview with Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, students and activists.

Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and activists who were recently freed on bail from Tihar Jail, reflect on their political journey that began with the Pinjra Tod movement and continues to evolve through participation in the many struggles against the egregious policies of the current dispensation. They point to the brutal and unjust criminal justice and prison system that penalises the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of society. They resolve to make prison reforms, not just for political prisoners but for all ordinary prisoners, a part of the agenda in future social movements.

From being founding members of the Pinjra Tod women’s collective on university campuses to being incarcerated for participating in a women-led movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)/National Register of Citizens, you have had quite a journey.

Natasha: We don’t like to refer to ourselves as the founding members. There were a lot of people who came together to create Pinjra Tod. It was a much larger collective of women who started the journey in 2015 from Jamia [Millia Islamia university]. We were in conversation with some students there who wanted to raise issues, specifically of discriminatory hostel timings but also of moral policing and surveillance around women.

Devangana: Jamia has not had a students’ election in a long time, so the democratic space [there] was much more constrained. Especially [because it is a] minority institution, surveillance and attempts at silencing students’ voices were intensified compared with other spaces like DU [Delhi University] or JNU. It was from the Jamia hostel that the conversation began, and people connected with one another [saying] that, yes, this was happening in DU and AUD [Ambedkar University Delhi] also. That’s how the journey started.

It was a gradual process: first connecting on WhatsApp groups to having meetings on Connaught Place lawns to slowly forming a sense of a collective. There was recognition of the fact that women students across the country were facing similar issues. The sense of a broader idea and movement started emerging, and it was simultaneous with the outburst in the students’ movement that we hadn’t seen in a long time. Right after Pinjra Tod started coming together as a space, there was the Occupy UGC [University Grants Commission] movement on the rollback of NET [National Eligibility Test] scholarships. Then, there was the JNU movement, Justice for Rohith Vemula and Najeeb, fee hikes, access to education. The collective was emerging in the context of a larger growth in the students’ movement where you tried to participate, sharpen your politics and learn from that process.

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It is in that journey and realising that the idea of pinjra [cage] in the hostel is [analogous] to all pinjras in society, of caste, class, gender, race, and until all of these pinjras are contested collectively no individual women’s freedom is possible. It is through a participation in other movements that the collective kept evolving. It is in that continuation that one saw our participation in the anti-CAA movement as well. Our struggles are not isolated. In the anti-CAA movement, there was strong participation of the student community. So many women, Muslim women, were coming out on the streets, and as a women’s collective, it was our responsibility to participate and engage in whatever ways possible in this historic movement that we were witnessing.

Did you ever think that you might be arrested one day for this?

Natasha: The arrest was shocking and destabilising in its own way, but it was not completely unexpected. One had seen this pattern and not just under this regime. It’s a fact that whenever people have raised their voices against any kind of oppression, especially women or the marginalised, they do face different kinds of repression, from physical violence to incarceration. As the students’ movement was evolving, we were also seeing increased repression of students and other movements. That we would also have to one day face some consequences was not completely unexpected. And before our own arrest in this case, already a lot of arrests had happened of students and people who had participated in this movement. So there was a sense of imminency that this might happen one day to us. But with all that it was also shocking and destabilising, especially to be arrested under a law like UAPA [the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act]. For many months, we would look at each other in utter disbelief; was it really true that we are inside jail under an anti-terror law, which is also completely absurd in its own way?

In some sense you carried on the Pinjra Tod movement inside prison. You have filed a petition for prison reform.

Devangana: The first few months inside prison were difficult, adjusting to this extremely dehumanising and brutal place. Natasha, me, Gulfisha [Fatima] and, initially, Safoora [Zargar] were also there; being together was a source of great strength. As we met other inmates who are often so unjustly incarcerated under this system, the thought of rebuilding a new collective space came. That space where we love and care for each other, hold each other and slowly realise that just because we are arrested it does not mean that the struggle is over. Only the form of struggle has changed. New questions in this physical pinjra, where you have never seen such big locks and rods in your life, the absurdity and irony would hit you every day. To understand that the prison itself now is a site of struggle. Things you knew and read about, but to see it play out in your everyday lived reality in terms of how brutal and unjust our criminal justice and prison system is, and how the question of prison reform, which maybe hasn’t informed our struggles as intrinsically as it should [have], becomes a question for us now.

The fact is that it is mostly the most marginalised, Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and people with very low literacy rates [who are] inside prison, which even the NCRB [National Crime Records Bureau] data show. Particularly in the women’s jails, very little efforts [are made] for education. Someone who has spent 10 or 15 years inside [may] not [have] got basic literacy even though education is supposed to be an integral part of the prison system. Lives around you are completely ravished by this system in incomprehensible ways. Many inmates don’t understand the sections they are booked under. Someone might come in for a petty theft case; their conviction might be for two months, but they spend eight months in prison. When we got bail, the fact that we were not released for two days was such a big issue, but the fact is there are many people in jail who after getting bail languish in prison for years because they don’t have Delhi sureties. Basically, if you don’t have Delhi-based sureties, it is close to impossible for you to get out of prison even when you get bail. There were so many things like this you were constantly encountering. In prison, it is really small things that come to matter.

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It is one thing to be in prison in quote unquote ordinary times and another to be in prison during a pandemic when some basic things like mulaqat [meeting between prisoners and friends/family] are closed for months at a stretch. We were lucky we had good legal representation and could speak to our lawyers, but for months you have no contact with the outside world. People might come in and not remember any phone number of their family members, and it will be a long process to somehow acquire some phone number. Structures of pinjras which exist outside take an unimaginably brutal form inside prison. To see all of that is to realise that there are many questions that you can continue working for here. After six months of being in prison and writing many petitions to the jail administration, they did respond to some of the things, but there were many unaddressed questions after which we decided to file this writ in the Delhi High Court. Because of corona, mulaqats are stopped, but there are also other issues. Earlier, there used to be court productions. If you are facing any difficulty or abuse inside prison, at least in the courtroom you might muster up some courage to tell the judge. Even there, it’s difficult sometimes because people know they will have to return to jail afterwards. But right now when productions are happening over VC [videoconferencing] where the assistant superintendent or deputy superintendent is sitting right behind you, it is impossible for people to tell the judges any of these things. For us, very sharply, questions [arise about] what this kind of brutal incarceration, which the prison system enforces, does to everyone who finds themselves in these prisons, not just in cases like ours, which are quote unquote referred to as political prisoners.

Natasha: It is not as if theoretically one did not know about these things, but to witness them every day was completely…. I don’t have words to describe it. There are so many [people] who don’t have basic literacy and no access to even understand what is happening. I used to work in the legal aid room. If someone’s next court production date is coming, they would think that maybe that is their bail hearing and they will get out after that. What is a charge sheet, how to get access to the charge sheet…. When applications were filed through the legal aid system, there would be no response for months together. Every day, five people would come and ask what happened to their application. And we just had no response to give to them because there was none. One of the biggest questions we all need to think about is what the prison system does to people’s lives. With that, the state and the administration get so much power over people’s lives with complete impunity. No matter what is happening to you in prison, there is no system of holding anyone accountable for that.

Did you witness any violence in jail?

Natasha: There is this punishment system in jail where if you argue with the staff or ask them why they are doing something, they threaten you by saying they will punish you and charge you with misbehaviour, and you will never be able to get out. That is why people don’t say anything back to them, ever. We were slightly privileged as we had good legal support and media attention, so we could say these things, but the rest of the people did not have an option at all.

We witnessed violence inside, not directly [against] us… in the first month itself when we were still in isolation, there was this very brutal incident of violence inside jail [against] African inmates. They were holding a peaceful protest. Due to the pandemic, a lot of people had got interim bail, but because they are foreign nationals and they can’t provide Delhi addresses or sureties, they were not allowed interim bail. That’s why they were holding a protest, saying: “We are also human, our lives also matter.” We could not witness it with our own eyes because we were in isolation, but the stories we heard about that later were chilling. Male policemen were called in and they were beating people so brutally that people had their hands broken and there was blood everywhere. After that, everything was shut down. Court productions, phone lines were shut and no one was allowed to go out of their wards. After that incident, any time you asked the staff members anything, even something basic like when are the phone lines going to restart, they would threaten you that if you say anything at all, you will meet the same fate as the foreigners.

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Devangana: The day that incident of violence happened inside prison, that night itself around 2-3 a.m., searching took place, where a lot of matrons come and just throw open all your stuff. Even though we were technically in isolation, me, Natasha, Gulfisha and Safoora, they came in and searched only the four of us. We are grateful to our lawyers that they approached the Delhi High Court when the daily phone calls were stopped and for five days there was no communication with our families. Immediately, after that the court asked for a VC to be held. In that VC, Natasha told the lawyer that this violence had happened in jail, and we were getting threatened. It was only after that, when the court asked for a report, they suddenly restored the phone lines.

The African inmates who were injured were not provided proper medical attention. Their wounds were bandaged in an ad hoc manner in the medical room inside jail. When their court production took place, the camera would be placed in such a way that their bandages wouldn’t show. One of the inmates, who suffered internal bleeding from the beatings and did not receive proper medical attention, died after two months. That was when we saw the kind of impunity the jail authorities can demonstrate. Maybe if our lawyers had not filed that writ in the Delhi High Court, even that slight protection we got over the next months wouldn’t have been possible. There are many in jail who face such custodial torture but have no mechanism [to counter it], particularly during the pandemic when the external scrutiny that is available in the prison system was suspended. Even otherwise, for little things, the matrons would twist your hands to slap you, all of which was quite routine. When we spoke out against such things, the inmates were threatened by the staff and warned to not share these things with us.

The two of you are out, but Gulfisha Fatima is still inside. How was that parting?

Natasha: This was the most bizarre and painful rihai [release] we have seen in jail. They literally locked everyone up in the wards and barracks. We did not have one moment of calm where we could hug people, specially Gul or say proper goodbyes. Because so much drama was happening around our release, we had kind of given up [hope] that we would be released. On that particular day, we made our daily phone calls around 3:30-4 in the afternoon and we were told by our family members that our release orders had come and that night we would be getting out. When we asked the staff about it, they said some orders had come but they were still waiting for proper orders. So we thought maybe it will happen later in the night, as it usually does, so we were taking it easy.

At around 5:30 in the evening, me and Gulfisha were picking jamuns from this tree inside for the kids when suddenly four or five matrons came and told everyone to get back to the wards and added, “orders aa gaye hain” [have arrived]. But they were tight-lipped about what the orders said. They just kept locking everyone up. As we approached our ward, they told us to pick up our bags, that we were being released. We requested them to not lock everyone up because that never happens during a rihai. But they… said they had orders to ensure the release was peaceful and quick. We were like, what do you expect us to do? We will just hug people peacefully and leave. It is not like we are going to do a dharna here that we will not go. It was so completely bizarre.

Devangana: This last bit, where we were denied even one moment of freedom to say proper goodbyes really affected us. There are these friendships and bonds you form in prison. The three of us had been together for that entire year, plus all the other friends we made and the children we met helped us survive this one year and to just be so violently snatched away from all of them was also very [unjust].

Natasha: We are still grappling with that. Every night I have dreams of some children or other inmates. It’s like a wishful dream that we are properly saying goodbye to everyone. The last visual of the kids we have is of them… being locked up and… literally bawling for the gates to be opened. It was so heart-breaking. We are still grappling with that.

You had good legal support and your families also stood by you. Many women inside probably do not get that.

Devangana: That is one of the things that will strike you most, particularly in a women’s prison. When you get charged or incarcerated, you lose any kind of family ties, which for women might anyway be very fragile. You would find many women are inside on charges of murdering their husbands, but if you go into the complexities of their story, you realise that many of these husbands have committed suicide. But other family members because of property and other related interests have slapped fabricated cases [on the women]. When you get known as a husband murderer, there is nobody who is going to stand by you. Even your own children abandon you.

So there is that feeling of abandonment which is quite strong in the women’s prison, and despite that women would work really hard inside prison for meagre wages. They would earn money and look after children who were born inside prison and continue to send money for the children outside who might not even be willing to talk to them. The demand for proper wages in line with the minimum wage is part of our writ.

One felt really lucky for the family support, which has also been crucial in terms of survival inside. My parents would send letters and photographs every week. As a young woman, at least for me, it has never been a simple relationship with my parents. To now see how your parents have come to evolve and come to understand your politics is really nice. It is my mother’s influence which has given me the confidence to be an independent woman, but also to come out and see her interviews makes you feel nice about the different ways in which the struggle is being imagined. During my teenage days, it was her that I would constantly have confrontations with. And now to see her so staunchly there and articulating some of the things that she is articulating is reaffirming.

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My father also used to be a student activist during his youth. He is a doctor in a government hospital and has been invested in the question of a strong public health system which is accessible to everybody in the country. A lot of my learnings came from both of them. Besides, as one grew up, one formed one’s own ideological opinions. It is also funny because my parents had been preparing me for a really long haul in jail. In all their letters, they would say forget about when you have to come out. Just treat the prison as your home and do whatever work you can do in there.

For Natasha, Uncle [Natasha’s father] was the person she used to speak to on her daily five-minute call. When the farmers’ protests were going on, he would give her updates: dharna took place here, a mahapanchayat was held there and somewhere else people are very angry. The person who would be in line after Natasha on the phone would ask whether this was all she talked to her father about. People were often amused and curious about the conversation that the father and daughter used to have during that very precious five-minute call.

Natasha: Apart from our families, the support of a lot of friends and people outside whom we do not even know has been crucial. So many women who were part of the movement [anti-CAA] and now have gone completely out of the picture, their support and those memories of solidarity were really something that gave us a lot of strength. We would also encounter some women from Delhi or other parts who had taken part in those protests. They would recognise us and reassure us that our struggle was right. Even today, so many women do duas [prayers] every day for us, so it was also inspiring for us and crucial for our survival.

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