What Gave Us Courage in Prison: Araria Activists Speak Out

They can put you behind bars, saathi. But they will never break you, write Araria activists Tanmay and Kalyani.

6 min read

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

Illustration: Aroop Mishra

Producer: Mythreyee Ramesh

Dear friends languishing in jail for simply speaking truth to power,

We are Kalyani (pronouns: she/her) and Tanmay (pronouns: he/his/they) from Araria, a small district in the northeastern tip of Bihar. We work with Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS), a trade union of landless workers in Bihar.

We may not have met, but ever since you have been arrested, we have been seeing your names and your photos every day. And now we feel like we know all of you very intimately.

In July 2020, we were incarcerated, along with a 22-year-old gang-rape survivor, for allegedly disrupting court proceedings. We were in court that day to support the survivor who was there to submit her official statement about the trauma she had undergone. A working-class Muslim woman; a domestic worker with little to no formal education.

After giving her statement, when she asked for her friends/support persons (us) to be in the room with her as she signed, the magistrate took offence and in a bizarre twist of events, had all three of us arrested.

Yes, including the gang-rape survivor.

What a travesty of justice that a survivor was incarcerated simply for trying to access justice while also trying to feel emotionally safe. The three of us – two women and one trans person – were sent to a women’s quarantine prison, over 200 km away from our home district. While the survivor got bail, after seven days, we were let out on bail after 25.

It was on 5 August, when we finally tasted freedom but it tasted bittersweet. It was the same day Ram Mandir was inaugurated and Kashmir completed one year of the harrowing lockdown it’s been under since the abrogation of 370.

There wasn’t much to celebrate. Especially, knowing so many of our friends still remained behind bars.

‘Like Dust, We Shall Keep Rising’

We are telling you all this because we want you to know that the 25 days we spent in jail, you folks were in our thoughts all the time.

Even as we hummed bars of ‘Kyun daraate ho zindon ki deewaar se… aise dastoor ko, subah -e-benoor ko hum nahi jaante, hum nahi maante.’

It warmed us to think that perhaps you were in your cell singing along. Thoughts of your smiles, your slogans, your struggles gave us so much courage. They still continue to do so.

Anytime we would come across a new obstacle in prison life – overflowing toilets, broken prison phone, depressed fellow prisoners, or prison guards on power trips – we kept wondering if you had similar obstacles to face and if prison life was similar across the country.

It is infuriating, the systematic way in which the powers that be are trying to crush dissent and put into fetters some of the bright minds and gentlest souls striving for justice in the country.

But little do they know that like dust, we shall rise. And keep rising.

‘They Will Never Break You’

We won’t ask you how you are. It’s an impossible question to answer. Also, because whether inside or outside of those oppressive walls, it is so hard to be “okay” – given the state of the world today.

But we’d love to know the little things you are doing to stay sane, to find beauty, find joy, to survive, and who knows, perhaps even thrive.

It reminds us of those lines by Nazim Hikmet:

“It’s this way: being captured is beside the point. The point is not to surrender.”

They can put you behind bars, saathi. But they will never break you.

What Gave Us Courage in Prison: Araria Activists Speak Out
(Illustration by Tanmay during imprisonment)

‘Lucky To Have Each Other’

We realise we were incarcerated for a very short while, and we can’t imagine what it would be like to spend several months and years in prison, like many of you have had to.

What we do know is that the three of us were extremely lucky to have each other through it all.

We really hope you are getting enough time to laugh, love, learn, listen, make sense, discover, expand, cry, breakdown, reminisce, read, rant, rave, sing and dance with your old saathis and are able to forge meaningful friendships with new people.

One of the most humbling things about being in jail was meeting fellow prisoners, listening to them, and their struggles.

As expected, an overwhelming majority of women we met in jail were from oppressed communities (Dalit, Muslim, working class). Perhaps, this is why prison was a collection of amazing fighter women who have all resisted the Brahmanical patriarchy in their own ways. Many find themselves in jail because of it.

After all, prisons have been historically used to discipline and punish the oppressed; to cement the control of the state over its citizens.

The mental health in prisons is in absolute shambles. Women wailing for their babies, for a clean blouse; a three-minute phone call with a loved one, for a handful of detergent; for dignity, for justice.

What Gave Us Courage in Prison: Araria Activists Speak Out
(Illustration by Tanmay during imprisonment)
What Gave Us Courage in Prison: Araria Activists Speak Out
(Illustration by Tanmay during imprisonment)
But along with bearing witness to this deep pain, we learnt new grammars of giving care, we learnt frightening levels of vulnerability, tenderness, generosity and solidarity, in addition to some brilliantly creative gaalis and wonderfully wanton desires of women yearning for their lovers’ touch.

‘Nothing Like Resistance to Lighten The Mood’

At some point, when the constant crying around us got too much, we instinctively broke into “Tu zinda hain…”

After a bunch of shy giggles, suspicious sniggers, folks slowly started clapping and joining in.

Nothing like resistance music to lighten the mood, eh?

After that, almost every night after lockup, the prisoners of a certain ward of Dalsingsarai jail grooved to the beats of ‘tu zinda hain’, ‘tod tod ke bandhanon ko’, ‘hille le jhagjhor duniya’, among others.

The music got the prison guards to lighten up as well. We (a bunch of women and a trans person) would sing of freedom, of smashing oppressive forces, of annihilating caste and patriarchy and sometimes just of how ‘munni badnaam hui’ while some saathis danced.

In those moments, when we sang (and danced) with abandon, often giddy with laughter, for a brief period, we actually felt like our spirits were free.

Free of the iron bars, the socio-political fetters that chain us down, defying State’s attempts to rob us of our liberty, dignity and integrity.

What Gave Us Courage in Prison: Araria Activists Speak Out
(Illustration by Tanmay during imprisonment)
Is it weird that it is during these nightly dance parties that we got glimpses (however fleeting) of what freedom could look like?

Hair flying, pallu falling, buttons popping, music hopping – without a care in the world. Here was a space where, despite strict state surveillance, women and a trans person were defiantly building our own little fiery feminist universe.

Someday, through our collective struggles, we will bring this fiery, feminist, albeit fleeting universe to the outside world and win freedom for all oppressed communities; from all sorts of chains.

Until then, just take care of yourselves and each other. Know that you are loved and held in more ways than you may realise. We are all fighting for you, for your release, for the principles you stand for.

The struggles continue.

We shall fight! We shall win!

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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