A year of Modi 2.0: Pinjra Tod and how the voice of dissent is crushed under the stringent regime
Pinjra Tod is a collective effort by women students to discuss, debate, share, mobilize, and collectivize struggles. Two of its members, JNU's Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, were arrested by the Delhi Police's Special Cell on Friday and booked under the inflexible Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
As a sprawling display of achievements takes the front seat in PM Modi-led BJP’s list of priorities, the dismal state of democratic freedoms portrays a contrasting image to the otherwise flamboyant promise of a "golden era”. Arrests, detentions, ruthless beatings by the police, and hate speeches - intimidation blooms in various forms during Narendra Modi’s second tenure as the Prime Minister of India.
The latest victims of the State’s mala fide intentions to curb freedom of expression are two female student activists from Delhi. JNU's Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were arrested by the Delhi Police's Special Cell on Friday and booked under the inflexible Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The arrests were made in connection to accusations of their alleged role in exacerbating violence in northeast Delhi's' Jafrabad district in February that led to the deaths of over 50 people.
The two women have already been arrested in another case and are now being investigated by the Crime branch. They are to remain in judicial custody till June 11. Surprisingly both Kalita and Narwal, members of women’s rights group Pinjra Tod, were charged for holding peaceful protests and sit-ins against the contentious NRC/CAA, the incumbent's poster child for garnering popular support.
Pinjra Tod is a collective effort by women students to discuss, debate, share, mobilize, and collectivize struggles. The collective recently wrote an open letter expressing their concern over the arrests of their members.
"There is definitely an aggressive form of intimidation that we're seeing," said legal and political columnist and lawyer, Abhik Chimni who has consistently supported and stood for students' rights. "A lot of legal actions that have been taken in the recent past also seem to be prejudiced in many ways," he added.
The constant attack on dissent has been more rampant than ever. As 2 female student activists come under fire, the deliberate attempt to shut down women's opinions poses some pertinent questions. Former FII ( Feminism in India) editor and founder of LGBTQ community, Nazariya, Ruth Chawngthu said": I think Indian society, in general, is afraid of opinionated women who are not afraid to take up space, no longer just staying behind the scenes during political movements."
In April, Jamia Scholar and student activist Safoora Zargar (pregnant at the time of arrest) was booked under the UAPA for her alleged role in the northeast Delhi violence. She was denied anticipatory bail. "What do they need her in custody for?" asks Abhik Chimni. "The fact that they want to keep her in custody beyond the number of days she's already stayed will raise questions in people's minds."
The police targeting activists who were involved in the February incident that has fueled arrests over the last few months seems to have missed out on some precipitating reasons that led to violence. "The fact that there were a great amount of dissenting voices against the legislation of CAA per se has no illegality, if there is any illegality (that the government and the police claim), it has to be pursued within the realm of fairness and the parameters of the rule of law. Citing a Delhi court's remark (on Kalita and Narwal's case) that the investigation seems to be 'one-sided'. There have been no FIRs against important members of the government, the primary example being Kapil Mishra. You're willing to file FIRs against students, then why would you not do the same with people in the position of power?"
BJP MLA Kapil Mishra's remarks about the anti-CAA protestors started and fuelled the violence in Delhi's Jaffrabad in February.
Recalling her own experience, Ruth Chawngthu said, "The aim of the current administration has always been to dissuade public anger from the actual culprits of violence and blame some other marginalized groups. I was at Jaffrabad during the protest that has been discussed multiple times by the media. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see women and children crying when the police tear-gassed us."
Asked whether the ongoing lockdown has provided the government with an opportunity to silence the voices of dissent, Chimni said, "The pandemic has limited people's movements. Lawyers and activists are being thrown into very difficult circumstances. This is posing a genuine threat to even their safety. What is this great urgency to arrest? I do feel this is a form of state intimidation. There are other ways in which this investigation could've taken place, without having to operate in such a draconian manner that the police have so far."
The continuous arrests of activists and students, and the replacing of words like activism with "anti-national activities" has certainly proven dangerous for our right to dissent. At a time when a major migrant crisis is at hand, the centre's misled priorities are questionable.
"The administration is definitely taking steps to do away with our right to protest during this time. If one pays attention to what's going on behind the scenes and observing what they are actually doing, there is so much that the Government is diluting and passing during this time of pandemic when the country is in turmoil. We are headed to an all-time economic deterioration and their best tactic is to distract the masses with empty promises," Ruth Chawngthu said.