The recent arrest of Dalit labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur compels us to look at other women activists who were taken political prisoners by the state for doing their job.
On Friday, February 6, American lawyer, author and niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris tweeted about the arrest and alleged sexual assault of labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur. This tweet put the spotlight on the arrest of the 23-year-old Dalit activist who has been in custody for over 20 days now.
Nodeep Kaur had been working in a factory in Sonipat, Haryana post lockdown. She was also a part of the Mazdoor Adhikaar Sangathan, which works for the workers’ rights in the Kundli Industrial Area. She was arrested by Sonipat police on January 12 and was charged with attempt to murder, rioting and assault under IPC, among others.
Nodeep’s sister, Rajveer says that her sister was arrested while she was peacefully protesting in solidarity with farmers and that she is being inflicted with violence while in custody which has led to injuries in her private parts.
The recently denied bail by Sonipat sessions court has led her family members to approach the High Court of Punjab and Haryana.
In the wake of nationwide protests demanding her release, we decided to take a look at 6 other women activists across regimes who were taken prisoners from protest sites or for raising their voices against injustice.
Sudha Bhardwaj – January 2018
On 28 January, 2018, writer, lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Bhardwaj, was arrested and put in jail with charges of involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case in Pune. Bhardwaj is a resident of Faridabad in Haryana. Later, the Pune police in a charge sheet filed against her claimed that some incriminating documents indicating her links with the CPI (Maoist) were recovered from one of her co-accused.
Her lawyers maintain that nothing “objectionable” was recovered from her and no authorship could be established of the documents recovered by the police as they were all typed documents, thus easily forgeable.
It’s been three years since then and Sudha Bhardwaj continues to be incarcerated without a trial. PIL by prominent citizens including historian Romila Thapar and economist Prabhat Pattanaik has been dismissed by the Supreme Court. Members of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers had also issued a statement stating that this was an “attempt to silence rights lawyers, activists and organisations involved in human rights work.” On the occasion of her being honoured by Harvard Law School in 2019, the Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra had tried to withdraw the charges but the central government intervened and handed the case over to NIA.
Her bail on the grounds of health has been rejected time and again by the court. She continues to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression.
Soni Sori – October 2011
Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher turned political leader of AAP in South Bastar, Chattisgarh was arrested by the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch for Chhattisgarh Police in 2011. She was charged with acting as a conduit for Maoists in Chattisgarh – an area which is still plagued by conflicts between the Maoists and government security forces.
Sori along with her nephew had uncovered human rights violations on both sides in the conflict.
By April 2013, Indian Courts had acquitted her in six of the eight cases filed against her owing to “lack of evidence”.
After being released from prison, Soni came forward with the harrowing tales of her sexual and physical assault and torture while in court.
Eventually, she also had to be hospitalised in Kolkata Medical Hospital where doctors had to remove foreign objects from her private parts. She alleged the then police superintendent to be an active participant in the harassment. He had “categorically denied the claims”.
Her subsequent hunger strike to protest her alleged framing in the cases drew attention from National Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and noted personalities like Jean Dreze, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy.
Sori is free now and continues to campaign for the rights of tribespeople in her area, criticising all kinds of police violence against them.
Safoora Zargar – April 2020
M.Phil student and activist at Jamia Milia Islamia University, Safoora Zargar was arrested in April 2020 by Delhi Police with charges of criminal conspiracy under the UAPA Act. Police claimed that she was among those who organised an anti CAA protest and road blockade under the Jafrabad metro station in Delhi on 22nd to 23rd February.
Zargar was pregnant during her arrest and stay in Tihar jail. Her plea for bail was dismissed several times under the defence of “several childbirths having taken place in jail”. Social Media saw a campaign of vicious vilification of Safoora pertaining to her religion, gender and condition.
Nationwide protests demanding her release were also witnessed. After remaining in Tihar jail for almost two months Zargar was finally given bail stating she was not to indulge in any activity that could tamper with her case.
Suhasini Ganguli – September 1930
Born in 1909 in Khulna, East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Suhasini Ganguli had her entire life dedicated towards her motherland’s freedom.
It is believed that her transition into a fierce revolutionary occurred in her early twenties when she relocated to Calcutta to work as a teacher for students with listening and speech impairments.
Academics believe she was introduced to the Jugantar Movement by Pritilata Wadedar where she began assisting others in recruiting and training new members.
Not long after, she came under the scanner of the British that made her work difficult.
In a bid to evade an arrest she went to Chhandannagore which was then a French colony. It was here where she was arrested along with Shashadhar Acharya and Ganesh Ghosh, other renowned revolutionaries, during a raid. She was subjected to torture in the British prison. Ganguli was released not long after her arrest.
Suhasini Ganguli later remained in prison in Hijli Detention Camp in Kharagpur for six years under the Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1925 which allowed British Authorities to arbitrarily and indefinitely detain individuals without trials or appealing rights.
Aruna Asaf Ali – 1930 and 1932
Best known for flying the Indian flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan in 1942 and saving the Quit India Movement from an untimely death, Aruna Asaf Ali is commonly referred to as the “Grand Old Lady” of the independence movement. British authorities had just arrested the movement’s leaders and she was determined to not stand idly in their absence/ She went ahead and raised the Indian flag in full public view. This act of rebellion sparked a chain of protests and civil disobedience around the country.
Her arrest in 1930 from a Salt Satyagraha demonstration, led to public uproar all around the country forcing the British authorities to release her.
She was arrested again in 1932 but continued her resistance in jail in the form of a hunger strike to object to the conditions of political prisoners in Tihar jail. Her protest led to changes at the jail, but she was punished with solitary confinement in Ambala.
After India gained independence in 1947, Ali dedicated herself to social reform, including women’s and workers’ rights. In 1992, Ali earned the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, then the highest, the Bharat Ratna, in 1997.
Gulfisha Fatima – April 2020
Arrested on April 9, 2020, Gulfisha Fatima, a Delhi University alumnus was arrested on the basis of an FIR on Jafrabad Anti-CAA protest sit-in. She was also slapped with the UAPA on April 18.
On September 21, Fatima said she was facing “mental and emotional harassment” by jail authorities. She stated communal slurs were used in order to humiliate her. Tihar jail authorities agreed to have “punished her thrice for her behaviour” while stating that she had been aggressive.
On October 21, ASJ Rawat dismissed her application seeking statutory bail. Her plea stated that she was arrested on April 11 and had been in custody for 183 days when the application was filed. The Wire reported, “Since no charge sheet had been filed against her within the mandatory 90 days period, she should have been released on bail under Section 167(2). of the CrPC.”
Gulfisha was finally granted bail in November 2020 but continues to remain in prison due to charges under the UAPA Act still being valid.
While the imprisonment of activists has remained a popular tool to be weiled by the state, across eras, the stories of physical, mental and sexual harassment also seem to be a joining thread in the narratives of almost all of these women. Irrespective of the time and regime they’d been imprisoned under, prison horror stories remained. It is extremely important that this issue is taken cognisance of and a more conducive environment is created for women prisoners.
We recognise these women as sources of power and are constantly inspired by their struggles and dedication towards their political activism.