One Year to the Incarceration of Natasha and Devangana

InSAF India joined friends and acquaintances of Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, and other academics, students and concerned citizens in a public hearing at Trafalgar Square, London to remind the world of their contribution to the fight for women's rights, Pinjra Tod, as well as all other political prisoners still being held in jails worldwide.

InSAF India statement

Natasha and Devangana, both students in their twenties and early thirties, are two of a long list of jailed academics, students, and civic activists and artistes. Many like the Adivasi rural school teacher Hidme Markam, will never make it to international headlines, as their lives and the land and rivers and mountains they seek to protect are deemed as disposable commodities. These women are arrested for demanding rights, for holding the authorities accountable, for seeking an end to structural violence and patriarchal, heteronormative social formations.

As the Covid second wave in India has seen daily official death counts soaring in 4-digit numbers, the abject failure of a barely functioning public health service system has become visible for all to see. The healthcare situation in prisons reflects an absolute disregard for the basic dignity of human life. As this goes to press, news keeps coming in of more imprisoned human rights defenders testing positive for Covid. They are quarantined in small overcrowded rooms with lack of access to clean water, sanitation and basic medical facilities. The prisons are ill-equipped to deal with such emergencies. They don’t have personnel trained to take Covid tests, and often inmates are appointed as caretakers of other ill inmates. They regularly suffer from stomach infections due to the unhygienic food. They are regularly refused access to medical supplies sent by their families. They are harassed with having to seek court orders and provide copies of documents that are in police custody, for even the simplest of medical consultations. In a most cruel case, one of the imprisoned, Natasha Narwal was denied one last meeting with her father, who had contracted Covid and was seriously ill in hospital, and who sadly passed away in early May without his wish to see his daughter being granted. When we speak to the families of the imprisoned, we hear many such heartbreaking stories.

In March last year Narendra Modi, in yet another disastrous masterstroke, announced the most draconian Covid-19 lockdown. Or was it really for Covid-19? The speed with which the Shaheen Baag anti-CAA protest was shut down and the iconic artwork of the protest torn down and cleared away, it was clearly a locking down of dissent. But since then, once the Covid-19 lockdown was prematurely ended with the government declaring a ‘victory’ over the virus in another masterstroke, group after group has taken to the streets, including New Delhi, within its borders and at the Jantar Mantar: unemployed youth, students left high and dry, Adivasis demanding dignity and rights over their Santhaal religious beliefs, water, forests, and their lands - to save them from mining, landgrab and displacement -- to name a few. Surrounding Delhi, on the hard tarmac of its arterial highways, the biggest and longest protest of peaceful farmers and agricultural labourers in history has just marked its sixth month. Indeed the Covid ‘victory’ proved to be a pyrrhic victory, and if India leads in anything right now it’s in how to protest in an increasingly dangerous and dark authoritarian state. Many independent journalists, both seasoned and budding ones, in English and other Indian languages, are making full use of social media to upload evidence after evidence of the state’s continued violation of human rights even as the mainstream media toes the state line -- India is now down to 142 among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. Watch the work of these journalists, read their reports, listen to their interviews, and do share their work widely to sustain their work and raise both national and international awareness of the crimes against humanity that are happening in India right now.

Despite all this, India has a stubborn reputation abroad, it is largely seen as a functioning democracy and any reports to the contrary are brushed aside as minor aberrations. Western governments hesitate to raise human rights issues with the Indian government, for fear of harming trade and geopolitical interests. The international civil society must hold governments accountable and demand the rights of citizens.

We express our solidarity as members of the Indian diaspora deeply committed to academic freedom in India. We will continue to raise our voices. We want our fellow citizens in India to know that they are not alone, that they are supported by a community of people who care and will not be silent. We are here to demand that the human rights defenders should be immediately released from the overcrowded and unsafe prisons. They should not have been there in the first place but in this emergency, they should be allowed to be cared for by their kin. We demand that the authorities show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences. We demand that they are ensured their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.

In a letter that the young feminist activist Devangana Kalita wrote from prison, she talked about how the state can never snatch the sunshine falling on the prison, the flowers that will still grow between the cracks of the tiles, the rainbow that will shine through the smokey skies, and they can never stop the prisoners from dreaming. The image of Natasha in full PPE gear at her father’s last rites should remain with us and haunt us all forever.

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