Delhi Riot Probe: Who Are Pinjra Tod & Why Did They Join CAA Stir?

At a time when Pinjra Tod members seem to be under the glare, The Quint brings you a profile of the group.

9 min read
Hindi Female

With two members of the Pinjra Tod group being arrested by Delhi Police in a case that is investigating the north east Delhi riots, there is a lot of chatter about who the group is and how they came to be linked to Anti-CAA protests.

Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were arrested on 23 May. While Kalita and Narwal were granted bail on 24 May, they were immediately re-arrested under another FIR after under charges of Arms Act and Murder from the Indian Penal Code. The police granted Kalita and Narwal two day police custody. This was again extended by another two days on 27 May.

Their names first came up in an FIR filed on 24 February by Delhi Police from the Jaffrabad protest site under section 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public function), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 283 (danger or obstruction in public way or line of navigation), 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 109 (punishment of abetment if the act abetted is committed in consequence and where no express provision is made for its punishment), 147 (rioting) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

With the organisation making headlines there is a lot of curiosity about who this group is. At a time when the members of Pinjra Tod are being reticent, understandable under the circumstances, The Quint brings you a profile of who this group is.

The Beginning: The Small & Significant Wins

Pinjra Tod began as a thought in August 2015. When an anonymous open letter was written by an alumni of Jamia Milia Islamia strongly protesting the cancellation of the women students' right to go for hostel night-outs. This letter then translated to thoughts, debates and discussions across universities in India. One of their first major wins was when after three years of struggle, the students of Jamia were able to extend their curfew till 10:30 pm.

At a time when Pinjra Tod members seem to be under the glare, The Quint brings you a profile of the group.
Hindu College’s new women’s hostel has shallow, restrictive rules for women and is forbiddingly expensive. 
(Photo: Facebook/Pinjra Tod)

Pinjra Tod started in the form of a movement against the regressive rules that hostels and paying guest accommodations had for women in 2015. In a note where they describe themselves, Pinjra Tod, which literally translates to breaking the cage, call themselves "a collective effort by women students to discuss, debate, share, mobilize and collectivize struggles against restrictive and regressive, regulations and moral policing by hostels, paying guest accommodations and University authorities in India".

Realising that a dialogue had begun they went on to submit a petition of their demands throwing light on discriminatory rules across universities in Delhi to the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW), who then inturn issued notices to 23 registered universities. "This was a historic moment in our struggle for undoing the discrimination and humiliation that has marked the lives of thousands of women students in higher education for decades now, denying them equal opportunities, access and rights," a Pinjra Tod note reads.

The Quint spoke to Pinjra Tod, who said that while the organisation is mainly based out of Delhi, there are various off shoots of the organisation across campus' in the country. However the interaction with them is limited. It would be safe to say that since Pinjra Tod began as an ideology, it was appealing to women across India, including those in Patiala, Bhopal and Chennai.


Pinjra Tod and the Anti-CAA Protests

The Pinjra Tod activists who have been named are mainly those who were named in an FIR linked to tensions in Jaffrabad on 22 February. The Quint was on the ground under Jaffrabad metro station on 24 February with the intention to find out why violence had erupted a day before. While we had no clue we were going to get swept into a new wave of violence that was going to dreadfully last five days, we had spent time inquiring what had led to the violence on 23 February.

We were told by Pinjra Tod and Anti-CAA activists who were present on the spot that a candle march was organised on 22 February to show support to the call for Bharat Bandh made by Chandrashekhar Azaad which ended with an altercation with the police close to the Jaffrabad metro station. Women told us that they felt the police vehicle would run over them.

A claim also backed by the following tweet from that day:

The situation kept growing tense till eventually the angry protesters decided to set up a new sit in protest against CAA begin under the Jaffrabad metro station and blocking the Jaffrabad road towards Maujpur.

By 23 February BJP leader Kapil Mishra had added the atmosphere of tension by stating, ‘We will be peaceful till US president Donald Trump is here but after that we will not even listen to the police to open the roads." Hours later the violence began and continued to rage.

In a note sent by Pinjra Tod to The Quint, the organisation said how it was a sense of social concern and solidarity that led to Pinjra Tod standing in solidarity with various sit-ins by Muslim women against CAA-NCR-NPR across Delhi and the country.

The portion of the statement reads:

The movement has drawn its legacy from the long history of women’s and student’s movement in the country and draws inspiration from the lives and work of Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh, the founders of women’s education in India. A sense of social responsibility and solidarity between women in the face of various kinds of social oppression has defined their work throughout and driven them to try bridge the gap between women students and the most marginalised sections of women in society.

It is with the same sense of social concern and in the nature of providing solidarity that Pinjra Tod stood in solidarity with the various sit-ins by Muslim women happening against the CAA-NRC-NPR across Delhi and the country.


How Pinjra Tod Moved Beyond Campus Issues

In May 2017, when the Kerala high court annulled the marriage of Hadiya and handed her custody to her father arguing that, ""As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married."

While her marriage was later restored by the Supreme Court ten months later in January 2018, Pinjra Tod wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India.

An excerpt from the letter reads:

At a time when Pinjra Tod members seem to be under the glare, The Quint brings you a profile of the group.
Students protest over discriminatory rules in the new Hindu College Hostel. (Courtesy: Facebook/Pinjra Tod)

The present judgement of the Kerala HC takes us back to the point where a woman was at best the property of her male kin and her body the repository of the ‘honour/interest’ of the country/community. It is indeed incredible how a court which everyday hears hundreds of cases of domestic violence and abuse, of ‘honour killings’ and dowry deaths could repose such blind faith in the institution of the ‘family’, to consider “the welfare and well-being” of their daughter “to be of paramount importance”.


Raising Issues of Sexual Harassment, Safe Spaces & Several Other Issues

In their effort to make campus a more accessible place for women, Pinjra Tod also raised the issue of how most Delhi University colleges did not have an Internal Complaints Committee, to raise matters of sexual harassment. Adding that while these institutions may exist, but it will mean nothing till the time a vibrant and vigilant movement to keep these bodies accountable does not exist.

They've also carried out several protests after dark in a bid to reclaim streets which are otherwise unsafe for women.

Regarding when Holi is celebrated, Pinjra Tod raised issues about their freedom of movement. They've spoken up against the attitude of women not being allowed to step out of their hostel, rented accommodations or hostels in an attempt to solve the problem of dealing with perverts on streets. Even complaining how when they try and report these issues to the police, the police often in turn asks them the reason they've been out at night.

From campaigns on rising violence on women starting with the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape and murder case, engagement with the movement against caste atrocities on Dalits in Una, Gujarat, and the movement by Anganwadi workers for better working conditions and higher wages, Pinjra Tod has also been an active social organisation linking women students to other social issues even beyond the university.


Why 9 Members Resigned from Pinjra Tod Had Resigned

Facing sharp criticism regarding the inside workings of the Pinjra Tod, nine women wrote an open letter listing their issues with the organisation in February 2019.

The statement was titled, 'Why we decided to leave Pinjra Tod' and stated that the signatories "write this to put forth our experience as women from marginalized race, religion and caste and to state in clear words as to how the inter-sectional feminism of Pinjra Tod is only a showcase from the outside and internally how marginalized women have little or no say in the decision making."

While the entire statement can be read here, excerpts of it can be read below:

  • Pinjra Tod has used and appropriated the images of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Babasaheb Ambedkar to take cover for their hypocritical politics of the upper castes, by the upper castes and for the upper castes women.
  • Since the administration, decision making body and the committees composition was majority upper caste savarna women, women from marginalized sections were just mere numbers to be named when criticisms were thrown at the organization.
  • Pinjra Tod continues to be controlled by few upper caste women who with large social and cultural capital, ties across various political circles, makes it very difficult to speak up against. Many of us have faced immense problems in joining other civil society organizations after leaving Pinjra Tod, for there is no organization nor space that they don’t occupy.
  • The politics of Pinjra Tod is on one hand limited to being a fight against Hindutva, not against the overall idea of Hinduism leaving them with the luxury of having no stand on anti-caste and minority politics.
  • We are saying this loud and clear, irrespective of the anxieties most of us have over having to face social boycott; Pinjra Tod is an organization of Savarna Hindu women and like all other Savarna organizations it has failed women from marginalized race, castes and religion.

Pinjra Tod Responds to Allegations

Responding to the allegations raised by the nine women Pinjra Tod released a statement on 20 March 2019, titled Women on the Edge of Time – Reflections from Pinjra Tod, while the entire article can be read here.

It starts with: It is with deep dismay that we have read the statement raising serious concerns about the nature of Pinjra Tod’s politics and its internal processes.

These are concerns for any progressive movement and the subject of many ongoing debates in the political milieu of the country today. Signatories to the statement are friends that we have lost on this journey; some among them having played an important role in shaping it from the time of its inception.

Their absence in the movement remains with us and the criticisms they have placed have been the cause of renewed and an even more systematic thinking through for the entire movement. Some of the conclusions they have arrived at have been points of long drawn out political debates internally. Significant investment has gone into these questions through engaging in different issues and movements, observing and learning from them, and reviewing our own collective positions through such participation.

The Full Note Sent by Pinjra Tod to The Quint is here:

Pinjra Tod is an autonomous women students collective working for the emancipation of women through raising issues such as access to non-discriminatory educational opportunities; challenging social discrimination and violence based on gender, class, caste, religion, ethnicity, ability and social background; sexual violence within the university and beyond; defending the democratic and participatory character of university spaces and contesting aggressive masculine culture on campuses; consciousness raising about women’s issues in society through the medium of public campaigns, cultural activities and social media. Pinjra Tod remains committed to peaceful, democratic and constitutional means of struggle for equality and justice.

Pinjra Tod was formed in 2015 in New Delhi, in the course of a women student’s campaign demanding the safeguarding of women’s constitutional right to equality violated by discriminatory hostel curfews and unequal hostel fees for women in public universities, and the establishment of sexual harassment complaint committees in colleges. Equal access to libraries and other public spaces, making such public spaces safer through the presence and participation of women, and building on women’s initiative through collective work, installation of streetlights on campuses, extension of hostel deadlines, affordable public transport, lowering cost of education and accommodation, awareness raising on sexual harassment and mental health for girls in schools, working in solidarity with women workers in colleges and hostels have been various dimensions of their work over the years. The collective is mostly based in the various colleges and universities across Delhi. However, their campaigns and demands have resonated with young women across the country, especially educational institutions in cities big and small such as Ajmer, Bhopal, Lucknow, Raipur, Mumbai, Banaras, Kolkata, Rohtak, Ludhiana, Jammu, Chandigarh, Bhubneshwar, Kottayam and Hyderabad and others.

At a time when the public participation of women is increasing noticeably in society, Pinjra Tod has been an important voice highlighting the concerns and aspirations of young women students and a collective contributing actively to the student’s movement and other social movements. From campaigns on rising violence on women starting with the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape and murder case, engagement with the movement against caste atrocities on Dalits in Una, Gujarat, and the movement by Anganwadi workers for better working conditions and higher wages, Pinjra Tod has also been an active social organisation linking women students to other social issues even beyond the university.

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