Akash Narwal watched his sister Natasha Narwal as she stepped out of Tihar Jail on 17 June, and immediately started calling for the release of the other activists who had led the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and were later accused by the Delhi Police of planning the Delhi riots and jailed.
On 15 June, while granting bail to Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Asif Iqbal Tanha, the Delhi High Court said that the Delhi Police had failed to make a prima facie case under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA), 1967, against the three student activists, and dissent was not terrorism.
Two days later, the three walked out of Tihar Jail. But this was not the first time that Akash was seeing his sister in person after she was arrested in May 2020 in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. He had desperately tried making his way back from his film school in Kolkata at the time, but the lockdown had made it impossible for him to get back. They met when she was given special permission to leave jail and return home for their father’s funeral in May 2021.
Mahavir Narwal, a professor of plant breeding in Haryana, who had championed his daughter and her activism in the face of a growing litany of accusations by the Delhi Police, died from Covid-19, a month before she was released on bail. He was 70-years-old.
Infected and quarantined at their home, Akash said that he could not embrace his sister who was given three weeks to grieve before returning to Tihar. He could only watch from the top floor as she entered their doorway in a flood of tears.
“My father loved her very much. They had a very special bond. They were a huge source of strength for each other. It was devastating for her. Can you imagine how she felt?” said Akash. “A year in jail and when she returned, it was for our father’s funeral. A devastating year.”
A year in jail and when she returned, it was for our father’s funeral. A devastating year.
In the three weeks that she was at home, last month, Akash said that his sister was absorbed in the myriad events that shadow a death in the family. When they spoke, it was only about “what to do next.”
They were always close by virtue of being brother and sister, but they never really bonded, first because of the five-year age gap between them, and then Natasha went off to college in 2006, said Akash. She is currently pursuing her MPhil-Ph.D. in the Department Centre of Women’s Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Now that there are just two of them in their immediate family, Akash says they are each other’s first port of call.
Natasha, 32, and Akash, 27, lost their mother to an illness in 2001. “I’m hoping that we can talk about our feelings. I need my sister,” said Akash. “I feel alone. Our father is gone. We only have each other.”
I feel alone. Our father is gone. We only have each other.
Father and daughter
Mahavir Narwal loved telling the story of how the first word that Natasha ever spoke was “Pa,” said Akash. And every year on her birthday, their father would leave her a message on her Facebook page.
His father, Mahavir Narwal, attended every virtual court hearing in the Delhi riot cases in which she was accused, said Akash. “He would go just to see her. Even that was enough for him. I can’t quite tell you how he handled the whole situation. But there was a sense of optimism that both of them had. He just said, ‘We have to wait and we have to wait patiently.’ She just fought back and survived. They did it together,” he said.
He just said, ‘We have to wait and we have to wait patiently.’ She just fought back and survived.
Even as he put up a brave front, Akash said that the tremendous weight of the ordeal “broke” his father, but he seldom complained.
In his final days, as he waged a lonely battle against Covid-19 in a hospital, Akash said that Natasha tried making a video call from prison, but they couldn’t connect. The last time that he spoke with his father over the phone was for a few seconds in which he heard him struggling to breathe.
“He said he was tired and it was difficult for him to speak,” he said. “My sister is free, but she is returning to a house without him. We have lost so much.”
My sister is free, but she is returning to a house without him.
What the court said
Their father, Akash said, was aware of Natasha’s opposition to the CAA and the National Register of Citizen (NRC), and supported how involved she was in the anti-CAA protests that lasted from December to February, cut short by the Delhi riots and the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Natasha, an accused in four cases in connection with the Delhi riots, was granted bail in three of them in 2020, and the last one — the so-called conspiracy case of the Delhi riots that invokes the UAPA — on 15 June.
For Natasha, Justice Mridul Siddharth and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani of the Delhi High Court said that the government had not prohibited protests, and if the protests were non-peaceful, it was a matter of other cases in which she had already been granted bail. They said, “no specific, particularised or definite act is attributed to the appellant, apart from the admitted fact that she engaged herself in organising anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests around the time when violence and rioting broke out in certain parts of northeast Delhi.”
Noting that the instructions issued by the main accused are not directed at Narwal, the High Court said, “In our reading of the subject matter charge-sheet and the material included in it, therefore, are not even borne from the material on which they are based. The state cannot thwart the grant of bail merely by confusing issues.”
The High Court for Narwal said that allegations relating to inflammatory speeches and organising of chakka jaam did not relate to the commission of a “terrorist act.”
“Allegations relating to inflammatory speeches, organising of chakka jaam, instigating women to protest and to stockpile various articles and other similar allegations, in our view, at worst are evidence that the appellant participated in organising protests, but we can discern no specific or particularised allegation, much less any material to bear out the allegation, that the appellant incited violence, what to talk committing a terrorist act or a conspiracy or act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act as understood in the UAPA,” the High Court said.
The Delhi High Court said, “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. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.
The Delhi Police moved the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court order, challenging its interpretation of the UAPA law and bail for the three student activists.
On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld bail for Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, but the division bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian said that it would examine legal aspects of the Delhi High Court bail order, and, in the meantime, it could not be used as precedent.