What is the risk they pose?

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Two young women, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, have been held in judicial custody at a maximum security prison in Delhi for more than a hundred days. They are founding members of the feminist student activist collective Pinjra Tod (‘break the cage’). At the start of the year, Narwal and Kalita led peaceful protests against India’s new citizenship laws, which discriminate against Muslims and Dalits. The Delhi police are looking to place blame for the deadly riots that tore through the city in February.

The charges that Narwal and Kalita are being held on include property damage, assaulting state officials, armed rioting, murder, and the manufacture and sale of arms. They have also been booked under two sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on counts of fundraising for terrorism and inciting criminal conspiracy. Anyone accused of such crimes is automatically denied bail.

Thirteen others – nearly all of them students or young activists, nearly all of them Muslim – have been charged with similar offences, all under suspicion of orchestrating the riots. A 17,000-page charge sheet was submitted on 16 September; the police were spotted carrying it over to a court in East Delhi in two large steel boxes. None of the evidence has yet been made public; the defendants haven’t seen it either. From what little we know: the document relies on testimony from 747 witnesses, money trails, mobile phone footage, call data records and WhatsApp chats. (The BJP’s IT Cell uses WhatsApp both to spread propaganda and to hunt for ‘anti-national’ behaviour. The Wall Street Journal reported last month on alleged collusion between Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, and BJP officials: the platform has taken down content posted by opposition parties, while leaving up hateful and Islamophobic fake news posted by the BJP.)

Kalita’s bail petition argues that the evidence against her is the ‘product of a one-sided investigation’ and that the Delhi Police ‘has demonstrably made false submissions in writing’. Gulfisha Fatima, another young activist taken into custody, has described Islamophobic harassment in the overcrowded Tihar jail. ‘If I hurt myself,’ she has said, ‘only jail authorities will be responsible for it.’

‘What is the risk I pose?’ the student activist Umar Khalid asks in a pre-recorded video, released three days after his arrest on 14 September. ‘Is it that I claim this country to be as much mine as it yours?’ His family’s requests to visit him in jail have been denied.

That the state can arrest students for protesting peacefully and lock them up without trial is a sign of the way it has systemically dismantled – or obliterated – the institutions and processes that could hold it accountable. Last week, 15 bills were passed in two days by the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, by only BJP members, with no opposition present. Three of the bills are deeply contentious and opposed by several unions: the ‘simpler, more effective and transparent’ new labour laws are supposed to protect workers’ rights, but they apply only to businesses with more than 300 employees, not to small companies or the informal sector (almost 90 per cent of India’s labour force).

The bills also make it easier to lay off workers and harder for them to strike or protest, only months after hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers were displaced by a mismanaged nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. According to the Stranded Workers Action Network, at least 972 people died trying to return home, often having to walk great distances in the summer heat. The central government, however, claims there is no data on migrant deaths or injuries.

Last Friday, 25 September, large groups of farmers from several states in both the north and south of the country gathered in demonstrations along highways, railways and state borders. They are worried that the government is planning to abandon Minimum Support Prices for their produce.

India’s GDP has shrunk by nearly a quarter in the last four months. The central government is almost bankrupt, and arguments are being made in favour of the Reserve Bank of India printing money to bail out the economy, despite the risk of runaway inflation. Unemployment is at an all-time high. The BJP is making grave errors by disenfranchising the nation’s labour force, its farmers, and its politically passionate youth. The party’s efforts at distraction are getting increasingly desperate. When a guest on the popular rolling news channel Times Now raised the question of the economy, the presenter told him not to ‘waste the nation’s time’ and wrenched the discussion back to the matter of a dead Bollywood actor’s alleged drug use.

Meanwhile, leaders of dissent languish in jail. The young members of Pinjra Tod – both Muslim and Hindu, and of different castes – see Narwal and Kalita as mentors, friends, sisters. Khalid has spoken at more than a hundred protests across the country in the last year. The state has accused him of inciting violence with speeches that quoted Gandhi. All of the fifteen who have been charged – standing together as Muslim and Hindu, women and men – counter the divisive politics of the BJP’s Hindu, brahminical, patriarchal nationalism. For all the grievous accusations that have been levelled against them, they are guilty only of solidarity.