Pinjra Tod arrests: 'Who knows who will be next?'
As students and activists continue to be detained and arrested during the lockdown, fear and anger stalks the community
On 24 May, Pinjra Tod, the feminist collective, published a statement on its Facebook page: "The arrest of Devangana (Kalita) and Natasha (Narwal) and the repression being meted out on the student community today makes us ever more aware of the challenges we face, but they also further strengthen our resolve to keep fighting for the dreams of equality and dignity that have forced the darkest hours of history pass into oblivion."
On May 23, Kalita and Narwal, activists and members of Pinjra Tod, were arrested for their alleged role in the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) Jafrabad sit-in protest in February.
Hours after a Delhi court had granted them bail—stating that the Indian Penal Code Section 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty) invoked against them was “not maintainable", and that they were “merely protesting against NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA"—a Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch arrested them under charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy.
Nearly a month before this, on 29 April, Kawalpreet Kaur, Delhi President of the All India Students' Association (AISA) tweeted. “I am writing this to inform you all that on Monday, 27th of April, the Special Branch came to my home to investigate the violence that happened in Delhi in February. To my utter shock, the police seized my phone citing inquiry. It was hard to believe that this could happen to me."
Two weeks before her post, Safoora Zargar, a student of MA in Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia and in the second trimester of her pregnancy, was arrested by the police and remains in custody.
As covid-19 tightens its hold on the country, students and activists who were part of the anti-CAA and -NRC protests from December and March are being detained and arrested across the Capital for their alleged links to the violence in North East Delhi on 24 February.
As The Hindu reported, 25 to 30 arrests were made in the violence-affected areas of Northeast Delhi between 22 March and mid-April. The Indian Express mentioned a total of 802 arrests—at least 50 of these were made during the lockdown.
A matter of timing
“The pandemic is a time when none of this action should have been taken, because there is no grave urgency. In fact, that (the police) started cracking down with such aggression... is an indicator that they see the pandemic as a cover to be able to target activists students and various organisations who might not agree with the state’s view, which is not a crime in any way," says lawyer Abhik Chimni.
“The (police's) urgency seems to be limited and targeted. The FIR against (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra wasn’t filed, citing an issue of timing. The cases against the state for the violence against students of Jamia and JNU have gone nowhere," he adds.
There is fear and anger among students in Delhi as a result of these arrests. However, the lockdown has made it impossible for them to physically protest.
“The moment they were taken in, we wanted to come out on the streets to say this is wrong. But it was impossible," says Bhumika Saraswati, 21, a student of journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia who was actively involved in the anti-CAA protests from 13 December.
The protests in Delhi had Muslim women at the forefront—from Jamia Millia Islamia, Jaffrabad, and Shaheen Bagh. Kaur of AISA believes that the idea of women-led politics, among other things, rattles the social and political order.
“The language of politics of women is completely different from what we usually hear. Ours is more of compassion, love and justice. And that is absent from the political discourse," she says.
The 24-year-old law graduate from Delhi University also believes that “over the past few years women have been emerging as voices of dissent. Pinjra Tod was one such effort by women students to occupy public and university spaces. This, as well as Muslim women coming out on the streets to resist legislation, doesn’t fit with the narrative that these women are victims who need to be rescued."
Fear and anger
Even as reports of violence against students in Jamia Millia and Islamia came in between December and January, there is a clear distinction between long drawn out legal proceedings and immediate physical violence. Cases regarding those two attacks have been filed by the victims or their representatives and are ongoing. However, what is happening now, Chimni says, is a "more insidious form of state coercion—using the cover of the pandemic to violate civil liberties".
“The pandemic affects your ability to get in touch with lawyers, to have regular access to courts. There is no movement, you are financially constrained in many ways," he says.
Students have actively held protests on and off campus and supported larger anti-CAA movements in other parts of Delhi, often at great risk to their own safety. Even now, they stand in solidarity with their peers across universities.
“Why should students be targeted in cases linked to the riots in Delhi? They were expressing their dissent against the CAA, NRC in protests. There is no opposition and so they were filling that space. It has nothing to do with the riots," says Amit Kumar, president, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association.
Saraswati sums up the mood on the ground at the moment. “Who knows who will be next? These students who have been arrested—whether Pinjra Tod activists or others who are not as well known—aren’t big leaders. They are one of us. We could be next," she says.
Kaur, who is part of an investigation herself, adds: “What keeps us going is that there’s nothing we have to hide as well as a life long belief in compassion and justice."
FIRST PUBLISHED26.05.2020 | 03:00 PM IST