In May 2020, three student activists were arrested and are accused of being the “instigators” of the February 2020 violence in North Delhi, which left 53 people dead and more than 200 injured. The high court, while granting them bail on June 15, 2021, almost after a year had observed that “in an apprehension to suppress dissent, the state has blurred the line between the right to protest and terrorist activity” and if such a mindset gains traction, it would be a “sad day for democracy”.
Thank God that the courts in India have an understanding of the democratic rights of citizens. After spending nearly a year in jail, Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha could see the open sky but there are many such activists still languishing in jail.
From environmental activists to Social activists and the RTI activists are always under threat. Freedom of information act 2002 was the precursor to the Right to Information Act, 2005 of Parliament of India. The main weakness of this act was that it did not acknowledge the right to information of the people. Consequently, it provided for appeals only within the government bodies.
Many Right to Information Act (RTI) activists, including policemen, have been harassed and even murdered for seeking information to “promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority” in India. Many face assaults on a regular basis. People seeking information from their gram panchayat and the local administration also face social ostracism. Many activists, who sought crucial information under RTI related to scams, were killed. Many threats and attacks (including murder) go unreported by the media.
Media reports of more than 300 instances of attacks on or harassment of citizens and at least 51 murders and 5 suicides can be linked to information sought under The Right to Information Act. Maharashtra followed by Gujarat tops the list for states with the most attacks on RTI users.
Similarly, be it student’s activists or social activists they all are vulnerable in India. Here making noise against the ruling party or its policy failures is a crime. People cannot protest for their rights. Activists are vulnerable in India. Student’s activists are moved by anger at government policies, atrocities and corruption and other illegal activities.
Student’ activists are vulnerable because they live in the campus areas as the political leaders who do not want to protest against their policies brutalise them easily. For the most part, human rights defenders receive media attention only when killed or seriously injured. When complaints are made by activists, law enforcement personnel (who often work with dishonest rulers) do not take appropriate action.
What happened in Delhi is not new to people, it started from Kanhaiya Kumar and came down to three students. Natasha Narwal is a student and a women human rights activist. She is also one of the founding members of the Pinjra Tod, a grouping of women students and university alumni from across Delhi, who seek to fight against oppressive forces, precincts imposed on female students and an overabundance of other social issues. She is a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Natasha Narwal’s father, Mahavir, a retired senior scientist from the Haryana Agricultural University, was a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M).In 2020, Narwal was arrested on May 24 for protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act proposed by the central government.
Devangana Kalita is an MPhil student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Devangana grabbed eyeballs in 2020 after she took part in various anti-CAA & NRC protests in Delhi and NCR following which she was arrested in May 2020 and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Devangana had been very inclined towards student politics during her days at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She had contested the student council elections as an independent candidate and got elected as the student council vice president of the university. She regularly took part in various protests related to safety and social issues both inside and outside the university campus.
After her graduation from Miranda House, the University of Delhi in 2010, Devangana interned at the Seva Mandir, an NGO based in Udaipur. Thereafter, she moved to the UK to pursue a master’s course in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex. In 2015, she enrolled at JNU to pursue a second master’s degree in History. In JNU, she started taking part in various events and indulged in a campaign in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University to create awareness about menstrual hygiene.
Asif Iqbal Tanha is a 25-year-old student pursuing his final year of the BA (Hons) Persian programme at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. Along with Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, he was also arrested by the Delhi Police in connection with the northeast Delhi riots case and was charged under UAPA. Tanha is a member of the Students’ Islamic Organisation of India. While demanding the release of other prisoners, he also appealed to the government to address the COVID conditions in prison. Tanha also asserted that the fight against the CAA, NRC and the NPR would continue.