Arrest of Pinjra Tod Activists: Yet Another Diversionary Tactic by the Centre

Today, with two months being in lockdown mode, memories of February and early March seem fuzzy.

However, in light of the arrests of two activists of the women’s rights collective, Pinjra Tod, on May 23, it would be worthwhile recollecting the sequence of events leading up to this unfortunate moment.

On February 24, violent mobs went rampaging across in North East Delhi, plunging the city into the most gruesome communal violence it had seen in decades. In this violence, Muslim neighbourhoods, homes and places of worship were systematically targeted and attacked.

The ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the Delhi police were shown to be complicit in the Delhi violence. Many credible videos surfaced, pointing in this direction. Considering that no riot can last beyond a day without the endorsement of the government, police inaction in this instance was a direct result of political pressure from the BJP government.

Also read: ‘Deliberate Targeting of Young Women’: 550 Activists, Groups Condemn Pinjra Tod Members’ Arrests

In the aftermath of the Delhi election, in which the BJP was defeated by a significant margin, the Delhi violence came as a vindictive attack by the BJP and its supporters, who were effectively releasing pent up anger. Kapil Mishra’s instigatory speech on February 23, following the Jafrabad anti-Citizenship Amendment Act sit-in, is proof of the blatant communalisation and the systematic targeting of Muslims – an agenda that has been integral to the BJP. Rather than reprimanding Mishra for his incendiary speech, the government proceeded to provide him with Y-level security, a further reflection of how the BJP actively endorses politics of hate.

What followed the orchestrated riot was the relentless blame game by prominent politicians across party lines, while the death toll continued to mount. After the initial violence, there was no effort to undertake any confidence or peace building measures with the communities; instead, they were met with a deafening silence from the Central government. The video evidence that came out in the aftermath of the Delhi violence and the consequent loss of trust in and credibility of the Delhi police fuelled debates about whether the riots were spontaneous or planned.

Against the backdrop of this distracting politics of speculation and finger-pointing, Pinjra Tod emerged as a convenient scapegoat.

Pinjra Tod, an autonomous collective of women, began with the objective of making hostels and paying guest (PG) accommodation free of regulations. They work towards combating the caging of women in the name of security and opposed patriarchal protectionism. They are one of the few radical feminist organisations in the country. The movement has seen active participation from the students of several colleges – Hindu College, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Jamia Millia Islamia, among others, and has locked horns with right wing student groups, primarily the ABVP.

In order to understand the reason behind the accusations levied on Pinjra Tod, it is crucial to recognise the movement’s mode of politics within college campuses. Pinjra Tod, often deemed as a ‘left-wing extremist’ organisation, poses a strong threat to Hindutva student factions such as the ABVP. Since Pinjra Tod has considerable traction with local communities, it became an expedient target for the Hindutva brigade to assign blame. The strong local networks of solidarity and support that Pinjra Tod has been able to build poses a direct threat to the clout of the Hindutva student leaders.

Thus, constructing a narrative that holds the movement as an active perpetrator of violence, ostensibly responsible for arousing a spontaneous riot, comes easy to its opponents. The women’s rights collective just becomes an easy antagonist.

Two days after having been granted bail, activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were rearrested under Section 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from the discharge of duty), Section 307 (attempt to murder) and Section 302 (murder), among others, of the Indian Penal Code.

The women, both students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, were targeted for their involvement in the anti-CAA sit-in at the Jafrabad metro station that occurred three months ago.

These arrests have occurred in the larger context wherein the government has utilised the lockdown as a means to clampdown on dissent. While the unplanned lockdown enforced due to COVID-19 continues to impoverish millions, the Centre, instead of responding to the immediate needs of people during this pandemic has decided to undertake a witch hunting of activists and dissenters.

Recent weeks have seen a spike in the arrests of student leaders, authors and journalists, who have been raising their voices against a fascist regime. On April 1, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider, students from Jamia Millia Islamia, were arrested under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for protesting against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act. Gulshifa, a member of the Seelampur protest committee, has been arrested under UAPA for allegedly instigating the Delhi riots. Prominent academics, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, have also been jailed.

Also read: Pinjra Tod Responds to Allegations of Being Non-Inclusive

The UAPA constitutes a grave attack on the democratic fabric of the country. It reveals the opaque and authoritarian character of the state, and acts as a useful tool to manufacture new truths surrounding the Delhi violence. This has legitimised the arrests by the Delhi police, and has enabled what senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan terms, a “conspiracy of investigation”. The UAPA, therefore, poses a very dangerous politics that threatens the imagination of individual autonomy that the Constitution envisages.

The country is facing a hard time today with millions who are vulnerable, sapped of the energies to recoup their lost livelihoods. The street protests of February and March seem hazy today, with a direct attack on the political vitality of peaceful grassroots movements.

The active attempt at this conjuncture to instil fear and anxiety among minorities and dissenters calls for unprecedented solidarity across all movements. The arrest of activists from Pinjra Tod must be a rallying point for uniting against the fascist onslaught by the state. There is a need to descend to the streets, to preserve the democratic imagination of India.

– Students in solidarity

* These are not real names of the authors