Kalpana Kalita says she is at a loss for words when people ask her how she feels about her daughter getting bail, over a year after the Delhi Police accused her of planning communal riots in Delhi and locked her up in Tihar jail. The 60-year-old professor of Applied Zoology says that she is reading and rereading the Delhi High Court judgment, which says that there is no prima facie case of committing a “terrorist act,” and finds the Delhi Police case against Devangana Kalita to be based in “superfluous verbiage, hyperbole and the stretched inferences.”
“I say, ‘ I’m happy, I’m very happy,’ but no words can capture the feeling. We will give her a hug. Actually, no, that’s not true. At last, we will give her a tight hug,” said Kalita. “But June 15 isn’t just a great day for us. It is an important day for the country. It was a day when the court delivered justice. It was a great day for democracy.”
Things felt bleak when bail in FIR 59/2020, the conspiracy case of the Delhi Police, was rejected by a district court judge in January this year, said Kalita, but in the months that passed, amid the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, their family steeled themselves for the worst and hoped for the best. Kalita, who was in the virtual hearing when the division bench of Justice Mridul Siddharth and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani granted bail to her daughter, said, “I didn’t believe it. I have come to understand how draconian the UAPA law (the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967) is. My only thought was that the impossible has become possible.”
My only thought was that the impossible has become possible.
Kalita, who teaches at Dibrugarh University, and her husband Hem Chandra Kalita, a 64-year old professor of cardiology, live in Dibrugarh, Assam. Their daughter, Devangana, completed her Bachelor of Arts degree from Miranda House College, Delhi University and a Master of Arts degree in Gender & Development from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Devangana is currently pursuing the M.Phil.- Ph.d. Programme in the Department of Women’s Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
With there being little clarity on whether Devangana would be allowed to make the trip to her hometown in Assam, her parents plan to visit her in Delhi when she is released from Tihar jail. On Wednesday, 16 June, as the Delhi Police moved the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court, challenging its interpretation of the UAPA, they also asked for more time to verify the addresses and sureties against which the bail was granted, triggering concerns that the police were trying to delay the release of the student activists.
“We were expecting it. We are prepared for it,” said Kalita on the appeal against the High Court order. “We got justice in the Delhi High Court. We will get justice in the Supreme Court.”
We got justice in the Delhi High Court. We will get justice in the Supreme Court.
While granting bail to Asif Iqbal Tanha, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita in connection with the Delhi riots on Tuesday, 15 June, the Delhi High Court said that the Delhi Police had failed to make a prima facie case under the India’s anti-terrorism law, the UAPA, and they could not build a case with “superfluous verbiage, hyperbole and stretched inferences” or deny bail by “confusing issues.”
Tanha, Narwal and Kalita were among the students and activists who led a ten week-long protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) starting in December 2019, and were later accused of instigating the communal violence that ravaged northeast Delhi in February 2020, claiming the lives of 53 people, 40 of them from the minority community, as per a Delhi Police affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court in July 2020.
Within the meaning of a “terrorist act” in Section 15 UAPA, “raising funds” to commit a terrorist act under Section 17 or an act of ‘conspiracy’ to commit or an ‘act preparatory’ to commit a terrorist act under Section 18 , the Delhi High Court said, “There is absolutely nothing in the subject charge-sheet, by way of any specific or particularised allegation that would show the possible commission of a ‘terrorist act.’”
A devastating year
It wasn’t long after Kalita was questioned by the Delhi Police in connection with the Delhi riots on 23 May, 2020, and they grasped the enormity of the challenge that they would now face, Kalita and her husband Hem Chandra Kalita, a cardiologist, decided not only would they stand by their 31-year-old daughter every step of the way, they would do it as calmly and stoically as possible.
“There was simply no choice. What could we do? We said, ‘We have to cope. We have to cope.’ To ensure that she was strong, we had to be strong. We could not break. She could not break. It was the only thing that mattered,” said Kalita. “She was the one in prison. That she stayed physically and mentally fit was the most important thing for us. We had to do our part to make sure of it.”
To ensure that she was strong, we had to be strong. We could not break. She could not break. It was the only thing that mattered.
As they educated themselves about the draconian nature of the UAPA, Kalita said she and husband confronted the possibility that Devangana may not get bail and their daughter could be incarcerated for a long time. “We had prepared ourselves. We told her that she should spend her time reading, writing, painting, and helping her fellow inmates,” she said.
We told her that she should spend her time reading, writing, painting, and helping her fellow inmates.
There was never any question of anger or rebuke, said Kalita. They knew how deeply Devangana cared about her causes. Six years ago, she co-founded Pinjra Tod, a coming together of women who want gender equality across college campuses in Delhi, starting with an end to arbitrary hostel curfews. They inspired similar movements across campuses in India.
“We consider her to be an independent woman. We knew how involved she was in the movement against the CAA,” said Kalita. “That day when those policemen came to question her, we told her to stay calm and reply honestly. We thought that there was some misunderstanding that would get cleared up soon, but then she was arrested. That was shocking.”
It is still hard for Kalita and her husband to recall how traumatic it was for them to have been miles away in Assam, unable to travel because of the Covid-19 lockdown, as their daughter was arrested in Delhi. Kalita recalled how they desperately they had tried to track her movements as she was moved from one location to another by the police in the early days of her arrest.
Every day had been “difficult” since then, but Devangana’s parents said that some days were worse than others. Hearing their daughter’s name in the same sentence as “murder” and “attempt to murder” was devastating, Kalita said. Television news with screaming headlines and anchors shouting her daughter’s name, was terrifying at first, she said. “There is nothing you can do. After a while, you just say, ‘Let it happen. The truth will come out,’” she said.
After a while, you just say, ‘Let it happen. The truth will come out.’
In its judgment on 15 June, the Delhi High Court said that the Delhi Police was blurring the lines between dissent and terrorism. “We are constrained to express, that it seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line of between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred” the High Court said. “If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
Kalita and her husband have not met their daughter after she was incarcerated in May 2020. They met online and exchanged letters during her time in Tihar jail. Through these letters, Kalita said that she caught a glimpse into the devastating circumstances of some of the inmates who had befriended her daughter. The poor, she came to understand, languished for years with little or no access to legal aid, many resigned to perishing within the confines of the prison.
“Devangana wrote letters to us, to her friends. And from the little that they allowed her to communicate, we learnt about the inmates who she was living with. It was heartbreaking to learn about the condition that some of them are in. It is our collective duty to ensure that things improve inside jails in the country,” she said.
It is our collective duty to ensure that things improve inside jails in the country.
While most people around them were supportive, Kalita said they were a few who had avoided her family after her daughter’s arrest. Even in these modern times, Kalita realised that there was a stigma with which they had come to terms with, and she wanted Devangana to be prepared for it.
“We will deal with it. We have been dealing with it. How people react to us. How they are afraid to speak with us. But only some people are like this. Others are more aware of things. The country is changing,” she said. “But there is a stigma and we will prepare Devangana for it. It will be something she may have to deal with even after we are gone, but she can handle anything.”