Prime Minister Narendra Modi was lauded widely for announcing low-cost sanitary napkins for women during his Independence Day speech. Most of his fans and followers on social media and several mainstream media channels hailed him for ‘breaking a taboo’.
Modi mentioned that his government has ‘abolished triple talaq’ and mentioned, “Women are leaders now.”
As the country celebrated Independence Day and the Prime Minister was praised for his nuanced and benevolent take on issues pertaining to women, legal cases and threats hound these women and trans persons who had protested, mostly against the CAA and NRC over the past year.
Here’s a reminder of the ordeal they were made to go through.
When 24-year-old Ardra Narayan was finally released in March, after spending a month in jail for carrying a poster that said ‘Free Kashmir. Free Dalits. Free Muslims.’ to a protest organised by Sri Ram Sena, the bail judgment said, “It is unfortunate that, some of the youngsters have the tendency to commit such an act to draw media attention in order to become popular.”
The order added, “Hence it is necessary and just to impose stringent conditions on her such as, not to commit a similar offence, not to address media in provocative language, not to target any community or community leaders. If such stringent conditions are imposed, then interest of justice would be met in the facts and circumstances of the case.” The judgment further adds that their bail would be cancelled if the prosecution submits evidence of them issuing statements to the media, or repeating a similar ‘offence’ that endangers ‘national integrity’.
Sri Ram Sena’s lawyer Manjunath Halwar told HuffPost India that Ardra had arrived at the protest venue — Bengaluru’s Townhall — with the placard and entered from the back door where no one noticed her. “She was also shouting ‘free Kashmir’, ‘free Dalits’, but since our speakers were speaking on mics, most people did not hear her. One or two workers, right at the back of the crowd heard her and immediately reported her to the police on duty,” Halwar said. He asked, had something happened to them that day and the crowd was provoked by their poster, who would have taken responsibility for that?
Halwar said that Sri Ram Sena had organised a ‘peaceful’ protest against Amulya Leona (who had already been arrested by then), and Ardra was there ‘illegally’ without permit from police, like they had. Investigations, he said, has revealed that Amulya and Ardra were flatmates in Malleshwaram and part of the same group that was protesting NRC, NPR and CAA.” Asked that protesting against CAA is not illegal and a democractic right, Halwar promptly said, in Ardra’s case they did not have a permit. Ardra’s laptop and phone remain in police custody, months after her release on bail.
The judgment said that the public prosecutor ‘vehemently’ opposed bail even after Ardra had spent a month in jail, arguing they might indulge in activities detrimental to peace and national integration.
Attempts to reach Ardra and their lawyers failed.
Several posts demanding Ardra be released, when they were in jail, portrayed Ardra as a resilient, brave young trans person. One post by one of their friends, said, “Someone who visited them said their primary complaint has been a lack of leftist literature in prison, but they’ve been making friends with the cats in the compound to compensate.”
Another critiqued the media coverage of Ardra’s case: “Don’t get me started on how they have been misgendered and consistently reported as a girl/woman, alongside a picture of them that seems to make a spectacle of their personhood and queerness.”
Their deadname has been released - a part of their life that none of their friends have probed, respecting their privacy and chosen identity. Instead, the mainstream media, that seems to have limited understanding of the reality of queer lives in India, reported it as if they changed their name and got an alias so as to be able to carry out anti-state activities.”
Ardra’s political beliefs and voice were important to their friends and acquaintances, as is evident from the various Instagram posts about them. Their articulation of their political beliefs — which were against the majoritarian politics of the state — was precious to most people who knew Ardra.
One post said, “Every time i meet them, there’s something new to learn, a new joke to laugh at, a new adventure to pursue, a new poem to hear. they have welcomed me with open arms during turbulent times and have always had my back. their outspokenness about political issues has always inspired me and motivated me to never stop learning.”
The terms of the bail and the fear of cancellation has forced Ardra to keep quiet post their release.
Amulya Leona’s Instagram account is consistently political, one of the photos showing two policewomen trying to haul her into a cop car, as she lies on the road. “This is how I got detained a few days ago, for holding anti-governmental poster in front of Vidhana Soudha.” The comments section of Leona’s post, is now flooded with comments — a majority of them from men — with vile sexually coloured abuses, some saying ‘do deserve that’, or ‘you deserve more’.
It’s difficult to read the comments section — which is evidence of fragile masculinity and patriotism of abusive Indian men — as a woman. Leona spent over three months in jail, following which, the vocal, political 19-year-old was nearly silenced, and advised to disengage from speaking on politics, or anything else for that matter on social media. Prior to her arrest, on her Facebook, Leona reiterated what she had said on the dais on the day of the Freedom Park protest in Bengaluru.
“Are you teaching children that country means soil. We as children are telling you - the country is the people there. All those people should get the basic benefits. Fundamental rights should be available to all those people. The government should take care of the people of all those countries in a good way. Hail to all who serve the people! So, as soon as I say Zindabad to another country, I will not be there. I am an Indian citizen according to the law. It is my duty to respect my country and work for the people here. I’m gonna do that. Let’s see which RSS shorts will do what!” she wrote,
Her Instagram DP is a photo of her standing, hands folded, in front of a huge poster of slain journalist and rights activist Gauri Lankesh.
A chargesheet has been filed in Leona’s case. People familiar with her family revealed that her family faced continued threats from various groups following the incident where she was arrested after shouting ’Hindustan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad” on stage.
Leona’s poetry blog, which has also not been updated since she was arrested addresses a plethora of issues ranging from womanhood to freedom, religion and peace. As people familiar with Leona’s case told HuffPost that she is ‘safer’ not commenting on political issues at the moment, these lines from her poems stood out.
“Still, hushed, docile ;
Biddable, amenable, pliable ;
Wounded, damaged, maimed :
I’m not that girl.”
28-year-old Rehna Sultana from Assam was already battling four FIRs filed against her for writing poetry in her mother tongue ‘miya’, when last year the police in Guwahati took suo motu cognizance of a Facebook post that was posted and deleted as well, two years ago, and booked her on charges of sedition. Sultana, who was busy helping poor, uneducated Muslims — most of them residents of chars (impermanent river islands) — figure out the NRC process, and was also raising funds for them to travel to far away districts for hearings, this came as a shock. Hate — threats of sexual violence and death — began pouring into her Facebook account, so she had to lock it.
In the midst of continued threats to her freedom, Sultana defended her doctoral dissertation and was awarded a PhD by the Gauhati University. After getting bail, Sultana continues to work for relief of poor Muslims who did not make it to the NRC in Assam, helping them prepare for a long legal battle that lie ahead of them to save their lives and livelihoods.
“When I was in junior school, I would be very excited about Independence Day. I’d shower in the morning and my father would take my to my school, where we’d hoist a flag, eat chocolates and play with friends,” Sultana told HuffPost India.
But now, following the events of the last year and witnessing the struggle of debt-ridden, poor Muslim families struggle to get their names into the NRC, or get hauled to foreigner tribunals, the meaning of the day has changed for Sultana.
“The rights that the constitution has given us, can we all access them? We can’t express our thoughts freely, we could get arrested, we can’t speak against political regimes, and when people gather for protests against issues like CAA-NRC, so many of them are arrested. If we speak against the system, ultimately we have to learn to shut up, I have realised over the last year,” Sultana said.
Forty-three-year-old Sadaf Jafar said that she had always taught her children that there is often a price to pay if we protest against dominant regimes. Jafar who is a Congress member and the only woman who was arrested in Lucknow’s anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests and jailed for months, told HuffPost India on the eve of Independence Day that she had told her teenage children that she could be arrested any time because she was protesting. However, what the kids were not prepared for was not having any information about where their mother was for one whole day.
“That was very traumatising for them. My family was informed only a day after I was arrested, they spent the intervening day wondering if I was even alive?” she said.
As Betwa Sharma reported for HuffPost India, Jafar has 4 FIRs filed against her, with allegations of at least 20 crimes against her. Jafar was arrested on 19 December last year when she was filming a peaceful protest against the Narendra Modi government’s announcement of the CAA and NRC.
Jafar told Sharma after her release, “They beat me. They mouthed the filthiest abuses that you won’t be able to print. They did not give me food and water. I was completely dehumanised. Thanks to this BJP government, I know the extent to which a person can be dehumanised.”
On the eve of Independence Day, Jafar told us that Independence Day should act as a reminder for the ideals of social equality, freedom of speech and religion that our country was built on. “How the government has oppressed minorities and Dalits over the last few years, begs the question is the country following the principles it was built on? Are we truly independent?”
She added that the government has been ‘lying through its teeth’ on issues ranging from COVID preparedness, relief given to the poor during this time and various other schemes. “No matter how much they torture you, we have to keep protesting peacefully following Gandhi’s ideals of ahimsa,” she said.
NATASHA NARWAL AND DEVANGANA KALITA
Natasha Narwal’s father, Mahabir Narwal father refused to discuss the case against her daughter who has been in Tihar Jail for nearly three months now after the Delhi Police kept booking her in separate cases, the moment she was granted bail in one. From her presence at the Jaffrabad anti-CAA protests, and her alleged role in the Delhi riots to her alleged links to a separate incident of protests in Daryaganj, the police made sure that Narwal did not get bail.
Narwal’s father, however, said that Natasha is “defender of human rights” and has been a “frontline fighter against all odds”. Independence Day, traditionally has been important in the Narwal family, as Natasha’s grandfather was in the Army and he regarded the day as one of human liberation. However, the 32-year-old’s incarceration has cast a shadow on the family.
Natasha was arrested alongside her colleague and co-founder of Pinja Tod — a collective that has continuously campaigned for safe housing, and to end restrictions like hostel deadlines on women students — Devangana Kalita. Kalita too was book by Delhi Police immediately after getting bail on one case.
A piece on The Wire reported that Kalita had accused the Delhi police of trying to spread false propaganda against her, by selectively leaking information like parts of WhatsApp texts. She alleged that this was done to create a negative public image.
After spending over two months in jail following her arrest on April 10, Safoora Zargar was released on bail on ‘humanitarian grounds’ in June. Prior to that, Zargar’s bail plea had been rejected quite a few times.
At the time Zargar was arrested, she was three months pregnant. Despite an uproar on social media, and scrutiny by international media, Zargar remained in jail even as the COVID 19 pandemic started spreading rapidly in India.
Reporting on Zargar’s ordeal, HuffPost India’s Betwa Sharma wrote, “For the Delhi Police, Zargar is a dangerous terrorist whose provocative public speeches sparked a communal riot that claimed at least 53 lives in north east Delhi. In court, her lawyer has noted that Zargar was not present at the site where the prosecution claims she gave her speech.”
Speaking to HuffPost before she was granted bail, Zargar’s husband Sirwal said he tries not to dwell on the day Safoora was interrogated for seven hours and then arrested.
While Zargar was in jail, the Hindutva right-wing descended upon her on social media slandering her, raising questions about her ‘character’ and the paternity of her child and even stooping to lows of suggesting she should be given a ‘condom’. Zargar hasn’t spoken much to the media following her release.