The year was 2015, and twenty year old A* had just been fined on three separate occasions for wearing shorts in her Paid Guest (PG) accommodation in Delhi. She had also been told she would be evicted from the PG for breaking the 8:00 pm curfew by 15 minutes.
For A, this was not the carefree college life she imagined when she moved from a small town in Rajasthan to study in Delhi. Her male fellow students, A noted, had faced none of these restrictions. So one day, she faked her local guardian’s signature, told her warden that she was spending the night with relatives, and went for her first Pinjra Tod meeting.
That year Pinjra Tod, literally translated as Break the Cage, had begun as a petition to end discriminatory restrictions against women students, particularly by ending arbitrary hostel curfews. A Facebook page and Whatsapp group followed; women across campuses came together to debate and discuss, march and protest, on a host of issues affecting them and the country. Pinjra Tod had no leaders and no formal induction of members. They grew strong yet dispersed, inspiring break the lock protests in college campuses across the country.
“My most euphoric days were when I met these women,” A said.
“We talked for hours. We walked around the campus. That was the first time I came to know what it was to be out at 10 pm in the night. We also ate outside. Just the passion of that evening stands out for me,” she said, recalling their first meeting.
Five years later, in May this year, the Delhi Police arrested Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, two of Pinjra Tod’s charismatic founding members, on the suspicion of inciting the communal riots that ripped through Delhi in February this year. Since then, the Delhi Police have taken advantage of India’s draconian anti-terror laws to keep the two women in jail; foisting fresh cases on them each time they get bail on a previous case.
The arrest of the founding members of a women’s collective premised on fighting the brahmanical patriarchy, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) critics say, is an apt metaphor for the regime and its Hindu nationalist ideology.
Kalita and Narwal’s arrests are a part of a wider crackdown against students and young people who have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi authoritarian government. The Delhi Police have arrested six students including 24-year-old Asif Iqbal Tanha and 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, who was incarcerated for almost 10 weeks despite being pregnant, Gulfisha Fatima, a 28-year-old MBA graduate, and Umar Khalid, a 31-year-old former student activist.
A wide spectrum of activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals and retired police officers have criticised the Delhi Police’s so-called investigation as a politically-motivated probe to harass, intimidate and arrest those opposed to the BJP’s right-wing agenda. ”We would like to say that it indeed is a sad day in the history of Indian police that investigations and challans submitted in the court by Delhi Police in connection with riots of this year are widely believed to be partisan and politically motivated,” the retired police officers wrote in a letter to Delhi Police Commissioner S.N. Srivastava. “It pains all those police officers, serving as well as retired, who believe in upholding the rule of law and our Constitution.”
The Delhi Police, which reports to Amit Shah, Home Minister in the Narendra Modi government, has maintained that it is conducting an impartial investigation.
Meanwhile, the women of Pinjra Tod say the arrests of their comrades in arms and the invoking of India’s anti-terror law had a chilling effect on their collective whose members are college students and alumni between the ages of 17 and 30. They spoke of the gradual thawing of the shock and fear that had for a while overwhelmed them amid the backlash not just from the state police and the media, but also concerned parents and hostile relatives.
After having paused to catch its breath, they say that Pinjra Tod, or PT, remains the “political space” for women students that its founders wanted it to be.
“For me, PT started as a support system that made me realize that it is actually wrong to cage women and we are not going to tolerate it anymore,” said A, who is now 25-years-old and pursuing a graduate degree in Gender Studies. “It still remains not just a political space but also a space of friendship.”
“What has been wonderful is that even after the horrible state repression, no one has left the group,” said B, a 22-year-old student of English Literature. “We will fight for Devangana and Natasha to be released. We will keep raising issues within the universities and develop feminist politics.”
“For me, Pinjra Tod remains a women’s collective against a brahmanical, patriarchal and a profit making neo liberal system. It has given me a chance to redefine myself in much bolder and more self reflective terms,” said C, a 30-year-old lawyer who is still a member of the group. “The question now is how to exist within the new reality where dissent is completely shut down.”
“The question now is how to exist within the new reality where dissent is completely shut down.”
Devangana Kalita, 31, who hails from Assam, completed a Bachelor’s degree in English from Miranda House, a Master’s in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, a second Master’s in history from the Centre of Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and she is pursuing an MPhil at the Centre for Women’s Studies in JNU.
Narwal, 32, who hails from Haryana, completed a Bachelor’s degree in history from Hindu College, a Master’s in history from Delhi University, an M.Phil in development studies from Ambedkar University Delhi, and she is pursuing a PhD at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU.
Pinjra Tod sought to break a tragic trade off: security for freedom. Very often, the hostels and PGs with the most stringent restrictions said they were responding to the safety demands made by parents who worry when their daughters move away from home for higher studies, especially to bigger cities like Delhi, widely regarded as unsafe for women.
While the Delhi Police now call them terrorists, Kalita in 2016 was speaking of how Pinjra Tod had struck a chord with women students all over the country. “We started off with 15 people, a small petition and a Facebook page. And you just had people reaching out to you with experiences and stories from all across the country,” she said.
Kalita and Narwal were integral in growing Pinjra Tod.
The two women were always open with their homes they rented in Delhi, A said. Women students would gather to make posters and prepare for protests. They would talk about the politics of hostel curfews, and how it was one manifestation of the control that families and the state exerted on women all their lives.
“People saw them as friends, mentors and elder sisters. I thought they were phenomenal women who were studying but also getting women together to challenge the status quo,” she said. “There are a lot of people who crib online, but it takes a lot of courage and sincerity to start a movement on the ground.”
In the past five years, protests by women students have pushed at least 10 universities and professional institutes in Delhi, Chandigarh, Rohtak, Bhopal, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Mumbai, Rorkee, Pilani and Goa, to either extended their curfew timings or do away with them all together.
Meanwhile, Pinjra Tod has sought to broaden the movement by demanding subsidised student hostels in expensive cities like Delhi. A young woman’s future often hinges on finding inexpensive accommodation.
“In almost every college/university in Delhi, there exists a diverse range of discriminatory rules and regulations that seek to restrict the access and mobility of young women who come to study, work and live in this city. Cultures and practices of moral-policing of women students by administration abound in these institutional spaces. Lack of adequate women’s hostels in the city and steep fee-hikes in the existing ones make women even more vulnerable to such discriminatory practices,” they wrote in 2015.
In 2019, nine students from the Bahujan, tribal and Muslim communities left the group, and released a statement explaining why they believed it to be casteist, elite, exclusionary, and a hegemony of upper caste women with a saviour complex.
Pinjra Tod responded by calling them “friends that we have lost on this journey,” in its own statement said, “We share many of the concerns raised by the signatories, yet differ from the conclusions that they arrive at.”
Last week, Pinjra Tod posted about a host of issues on their Facebook page — the Ambedkar University of Delhi reinstating full fee waiver for students with disabilities and from socially marginalised groups, the Indian media’s witch hunt of Rhea Chakroborty, the attack on press freedom, the Allahabad High Court judgement ordering the release of Dr Kafeel Khan, and a petition calling for the release of Kalita and Narwal.
“The attack on us was very jarring, and it certainly had some ramifications, but we have been trying to communicate the politics that the collective abides by even when the consequences of speaking truth to power can be so high,” said D, a 21-year-old graduate student of English. “You can be at the behest of the most draconian law in the country.”
“I thought they were phenomenal women who were studying but also getting women together to challenge the status quo.”
What the judges have said so far
Pinjra Tod’s activism coincided with the rise of the Hindu right after Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to a sweeping victory in 2014 and then again in 2019. Their concerns about how women would be treated in a country filled with violent nationalism and a contempt for minorities predated the movement against the CAA and the NRC that started in December 2019.
The CAA is a law that grants Indian citizenship to people who say they fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and are living without documents in India, except Muslims. The NRC is an exercise to identify people living without documents in India.
Most of the 53 people killed in the February riots were Muslims, as per Delhi Police data.
With students joining the nationwide anti-CAA protests in December and January in droves, and Muslim women coming to frontlines, the women of Pinjra Tod described their involvement as “organic.”
The Delhi Police say that Pinjra Tod activists and the local women staged a sit-in at the Jafrabad metro station that caused a roadblock (chakka jam) on the night of 22 February, a day before the violence started on the night of 23 February. They have settled on this roadblock as a trigger for the riots, not BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s speech threatening vigilantism only a few hours before violence erupted.
The women of Pinjra Tod say they were far fewer than the local Muslim women, and there to express solidarity not lead them.
A, who was at the Jafrabad metro station on 23 February, a day that the Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad had called for a Bharat Bandh, said that she struck by a palpable sense of despair among the protestors whose pleas were met with silence from the Narendra Modi government.
“I was there not just as a PT member, but as a student, a feminist, a citizen, as someone who had friends who were afraid of the future, and as someone who had the potential to drive change,” she said. “But after two months, there was a feeling of deflation, betrayal and anger at not being heard, and how the protesters were being portrayed by the media, especially for those who were putting their lives and livelihood at stake and sitting on the road.”
Kalita and Narwal were arrested on 24 May in First Information Report (FIR) 48 of the Jafrabad Police Station, now famous as the “chakka jam”case. Granting them bail on 24 February, Metropolitan Magistrate Ajeet Narayana said there was no evidence of them assaulting a police officer and the “accused were merely protesting against NRC and CAA and did not indulge in any violence.”
They were subsequently booked for murder and terrorism, and re-arrested under multiple FIRs.
Granting Kalita bail on 2 June in a second case related to an anti-CAA protest that ended in violence in Daryaganj on 19 December, Metropolitan Magistrate Abhinav Pandey said there was “no direct evidence” that showed the accused had assaulted a public officer, the CCTV footage did not show that she was involved in violent activity, and nothing incriminating was found on her laptop or phones.
Denying Kalita bail on 29 August in FIR 59, the now infamous “conspiracy” FIR, which invokes the UAPA, India’s anti-terror law, Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat said that it did not matter if the accused committed violent acts as long as her actions contributed to the pursuance of the conspiracy.
Granting Kalita bail on 1 September in a fourth case in which she is booked for murder, Justice Suresh Kait of the Delhi High Court said, the Delhi Police had “failed to produce any material that she in her speech instigated women of particular community or gave hatred speech,” and she is a “student pursuing her higher education and sufficient standing in society without any possibility of fleeing from justice.”
While Kalita only remains incarcerated under FIR 59, Narwal is yet to get bail in that and the murder case.
It is the “small things” that they remember the most, the women of Pinjra Tod said.
B, the 22-year-old English literature student, spoke of a campaign where they boarded public buses and sang songs to raise awareness about women’s safety. One woman commuter, she recalled, told her that she was so engrossed hearing their message that she got off at the wrong bus stop.
“Organising marches, shouting slogans, speaking and singing in public can be very daunting. But it is the collective that gives you the courage, confidence and experience to do it,” said B. “These small acts of encouragement are truly the nicest thing about being part of a collective.”
C, the 30-year-old law graduate, recalled the weekly meetings in the India Gate lawns and the diversity of the women students who attended.
In an event to protest the arrest of then JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, C recalled that there were more women than men, and when a speaker started addressing them as “mothers and sisters,” there was a chorus of rebuke.
“It was all of us calling it out together. That was thrilling,” she said.
“These small acts of encouragement are truly the nicest thing about being part of a collective.”
Backward and forward
When the anti-CAA protests started in December 2019, A was living with her parents in a suburb of Delhi. They cited safety concerns and forbade her from going to the protests. Her relatives even asked why a Hindu woman was going to protest where Muslims were asking for “Jinnah wali azaadi.” She told them they were misinformed.
A still went to the protests, telling her parents that she was spending time with friends in Delhi. On days when her voice was hoarse from shouting slogans, her parents knew where she had been and told her not to step out of the house.
Kalita and Narwal’s arrest shook her, said A. For several weeks, she lived with the fear of more arrests. Close to four months on, A foresees making posters and attending anti-CAA protests inside her campus once the coronavirus pandemic is over, but she can’t say when she will be ready to go back to the streets even after the coronavirus pandemic is over.
“I’ve had sleepless nights about what could happen to me. We never saw this coming. We didn’t know who the state was going to pick up next. The media trial was very very scary too,” she said. “And when they invoked the UAPA, it was really frightening because we are just students and we don’t have any political or financial backing. A lot of us live with our parents.”
B said that after two months of frenetic political activity in December and January, the space for dissent had entirely vanished, but it was not only Pinjra Tod’s burden to recover it.
“Everyone has to do it,” she said. “Sometimes, it feels like we are very small ants and they are big elephants, but we have survived a very difficult time with no help from anyone. The way forward is to keep a clear head, not get downhearted, be there for each other, and keep going.”
(Editor’s note: All four women interviewed for this story asked for their names to be withheld as they feared persecution by the police).