Lounge heroes | Mishika Singh: Fighting for justice, from CAA to Covid-19
This Delhi-based advocate started Lawyers for Detainees to address the need for organized legal support for anti-CAA activists, riot victims and students
Dissent is now sedition in this country," says 29-year-old lawyer Mishika Singh, clearly outraged by the arrests in Delhi of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) activists like Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal, Khalid Saifi and Meeran Haider over the past few months. “You can’t say anything against the establishment because you don’t know how it will be twisted, and everyone knows this: the process is the punishment."
Singh has experience fighting detentions, particularly in the context of the resistance that unfolded after the CAA was passed by Parliament on 11 December.
On 19 December, for instance, the lawyer recalls being present during the aftermath of a protest at Delhi Gate in the Capital. The roads were strewn with blood and shoes, eyewitnesses report that the police used lathis and tear-gas. Several men, including minors, were detained. “When we (a group of lawyers trying to provide legal aid to detainees) reached the Daryaganj police station at around 7.30pm, it was deserted. Till around 9.30pm, we were completely stonewalled—the police refused to speak to us, refused to open the doors," claims Singh.
She had started the Lawyers for Detainees network just a few days earlier for this very purpose—seeking to address the need for organized legal support for anti-CAA activists and students who were detained as the protests began to spread across the country.
As a result, her phone number was circulated on social media. That night, she started getting calls from the families of those detained while she was at the Daryaganj police station—they could not get out of the house because “the RAF had surrounded their homes", their children were in custody and they needed help, she says.
“Eventually, word got out and lawyers arrived. It took us till 6 in the morning to get everyone released. One team went to Seemapuri, one to Mustafabad and Jaffrabad to check if there were people there, we coordinated orders from judges in the middle of the night," says Singh.
For two months, she spent her days running between protests and police stations, and then court.
The Delhi University alumna, who grew up in the Capital, was always proactive when it came to causes she believed in. In 2011, she helped organize the SlutWalk in Delhi, inspired by the Toronto edition where women took to the streets to protest against the slut shaming and rape culture. Since then, Singh has been working on the ground and has also initiated several petitions on Change.org—the most recent being a call for a centralized online database of hospitals, beds and covid-19 care protocols.
Her activism through college is what led her to pursue a law degree—this, she says, has enabled her to fight battles on a larger scale. “I am more empowered now, I have more agency, partly because I have been there before and partly because once you have the tag of a lawyer, people take you seriously," she says. The gendered impact of being on the field during these times, however, is something she did not anticipate. “Police officials undress you with their eyes," Singh says, recalling the time she was trying to secure the release of an activist in north-east Delhi.
When we arrived in Mustafabad on 6 March—a part of north-east Delhi that had been hit by riots in late February—covid-19 was the least of anyone’s worries. There was heavy troop deployment—the RAF, the police, lathis and sten guns were visible among charred shops, damaged schools, burnt rubble and parking lots filled with the remains of torched cars. In a small room in one of the by-lanes, Singh and a team of lawyers had been working since 29 February, just as the violence in the area stemmed.
“When we set up the camp, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had gone to Rajghat (to pray for peace in the riot-affected areas)," says Singh.
The team of independent lawyers and volunteers was trying to fill the void that seemed to have been left by the authorities. “We were looking at ensuring compensation was given, getting forms filled, getting an FIR registered to get the process moving," says Singh. The families that approached the team included those of people who had been arrested, and those who had gone to file dead and missing person reports. “We were also taking care of those—eventually, the bodies were found. And it (our work) expanded to deaths, detentions, arrests; eventually, everything we got, we took."
Singh has been involved in trying to ensure this legal work continues despite the restrictions mandated by the pandemic. In addition to processing nearly 400 compensation claims, Singh and her local contacts went on with the relief effort—providing ration to riot victims.
“Since 20 March, things spiralled out of control—the SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) stopped accepting compensation forms, then there was a lockdown, then the Eidgah camp was vacated," says Singh. “There were people who were homeless, people who didn’t have money for food, for rent. It was chaotic—700-800 people were left without any means, and that’s how we got into the relief work. Providing rations and raising money to rebuild livelihoods."
On 22 June, months after the violence in north-east Delhi, a writ petition filed by Singh was listed in the Delhi high court, praying for a direction that the SDM resume work on the compensation claims. She says many of the victims have been denied compensation and many have not been given a commensurate amount—“someone whose entire home was burnt down received ₹5,000". There was, it would appear, no system of appeal.
“There are days when there is an absolute sense of disillusionment when you don’t know what is happening or how long you can continue to do this. It’s like a nail being hammered—one blow after another," says Singh. But she maintains that justice and “securing the secular fabric of the country" has always been her single-point goal. “Eventually, it’s about protecting human rights, that’s my core idea of work. Which is what we will always continue to do."