As the crackdown on dissent gets normalised and democracy systemically eroded, Jagisha Arora manages sexist reductions, dwindling public outrage and a profoundly impacted mental health to take on a fascist and casteist goliath almost single-handedly, for the release of her partner Prashant Kanojia.
The voice on the other end was frail and evidently underslept. Jagisha Arora hasn’t gotten much sleep over the past month and a half, which is the duration for which her partner, journalist Prashant Kanojia, has spent in jail so far. The night before our conversation was no different.
“Prashant may be the one behind bars, but I feel like I’m living in a prison too,” says a distraught Jagisha, describing this period as fraught with anxiety, insomnia, panic and frantic efforts to garner support from the political and activist community for Kanojia’s release.
This is the second time Kanojia has been arrested over a social media post, and subsequently the second time Jagisha has had to scramble to get Kanojia out of jail. The former The Wire Hindi journalist was first arrested in June last year by the UP Police for a social media post about UP CM Ajay Singh Bisht. Within five days of his arrest, the Supreme Court ordered for his immediate release. This year, the UP Police whisked Kanojia away on August 18 from their South Delhi home for a tweet involving a quote falsely attributed to Sushil Tiwari of the Hindu Army, a right-wing Hindu supremacist outfit, which Kanojia had promptly deleted after a fact-check.
However, this time, Jagisha says, things are very different. Not only has the political climate changed, the furor over his arrest has noticeably declined as well.
“When he was first arrested in 2019, my phone was ringing from the moment he went in to the moment he got out, but that’s not the case now. These arrests hadn’t been normalised then. This time, not only have people gotten desensitised, it’s also part of a series of arrests—the list of political prisoners grows longer every day,” she explains.
Jagisha and Prashant have been living by themselves and since his arrest, she’s been alone. Striving for his release while also taking care of the house and looking after her mental health all by herself, she says, has been “difficult beyond words.” “My life has been derailed by this too. I finished my MA in History from Jamia Millia Islamia a few months ago, and need to prepare to apply to my master’s degree in social work, but every day since the arrest, most of my time and mindspace have been taken up by this – I haven’t been able to eat, I have to take medication to sleep, and my anxiety is off the charts. And I’ve had to care for myself even on the worst of these days all alone,” she states.
Theirs was an inter-caste marriage, so Jagisha’s parents, who disapproved of it, haven’t been around either. The couple still shares a relationship with Prashant’s parents, but when it comes to organising support for Kanojia, which includes running the crowdfunding campaign for legal aid and amplifying the unconstitutionality of his arrest and proceedings on social media, Jagisha has been doing it all on her own.
“People romanticise this – saying things like ‘she’s so strong and resilient, so great.’ This is all dangerous glorification of an ugly struggle that no one should have to endure – it’s been hectic, tiring, it’s taken over my life and it’s ripping my mental health apart,” Jagisha Arora notes.
The couple haven’t had any contact in over a month. Due to the pandemic, visitation has been curbed, and Jagisha couldn’t organise a protest like she did last year either. Owing to these inopportune circumstances, social media has become her primary avenue to mobilise more support and exert pressure on the state. Between last year and now, Jagisha has had no choice but to learn the motions of how to lock horns with the system.
“Last year, I didn’t know anything about approaching the media or who to talk to. I used to be extremely camera conscious. I spent time learning the law and the sections. Prashant is the journalist after all, not me – this doesn’t come naturally to me. Over the past year, I started writing more, reading more Bahujan literature by Ambedkar, Phule etc. and got over my camera consciousness. This time around, I knew who to call, but there is a marked decrease in support,” she says.
As of last week, a statement condemning the arrest has been undersigned by nearly a thousand activists and political leaders, including Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, political activist Kavita Krishnan, poet Meena Kandasamy, activist Teesta Setalvad and student activist and writer Gurmehar Kaur. Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad also tweeted in support of his release.
But sustaining a campaign exclusively on social media has its downfalls, for it is hardly the place to turn to for solace or solidarity. Reading the things troll accounts have been saying about Kanojia have been adding to Jagisha’s anxiety.
“There are people who say Prashant should be killed for speaking against the caste system. It’s impossible not to be terrified by this mindset. I had been living with the fear that the police would pick Prashant up under some pretext since the start of the year, and they finally turned up on my birthday. Another extremely real anxiety I live with is that a mob might lynch him,” she reveals.
Prashant first came in the eye of controversy owing to his story exposing the UP police jailing minors by passing them off as 21 and 22-year-olds, back in 2018. Jagisha states that much of this hate and scrutiny is caste-fuelled, owing to the fact that Kanojia, who belongs to the dalit community, directly challenges brahminical hegemony through his work. “In general, the BJP IT Cell maintains a close watch on every journalist at The Wire, and Prashant aggressively advocates the abolishment of the caste system. It’s especially rubbing people the wrong way that a dalit person is being so outspoken. It’s so strange how something so basic has become so contentious and hard for people to agree with,” she explains.
Tone-shaming is something Jagisha endures constantly, as well. People often ask her to be less angry, and she finds this position sexist and steeped in privilege. “We’ve been oppressed for centuries. My husband has been in jail for a month over a tweet – while Sushil Tiwari continues to make videos with statements like “musalmaanon ko kaant do.” I’ve been on medication to cope, had multiple anxiety attacks, and dealt with everything with very little support. Of course I’m going to be aggressive! There is something so sexist about being told to tone yourself down,” she explains.
All of these developments have contributed to an erosion of her sense of self and individuality and society has played its part in exacerbating that by constantly viewing her only in context of her association with Prashant and this issue. “Our social system is so deeply patriarchal, people have reduced me to my identity as Prashant’s wife over the past year. People even insinuate that I’m getting famous only because of Prashant – It’s all so problematic,” she explains.
As the attempts to snuff out every ounce of dissent get increasingly formalised and systematised, Jagisha Arora’s faith in the constitution is diminishing. So far, they sought a Sessions Court with a bail plea which was denied without being heard out at length. When they moved the High Court, they were dismissed and given a date for four weeks later.
“I couldn’t even leave my bed for two days when I learnt we have to wait at least four more weeks. The judiciary came through for us the last time, but India has changed since then. The good thing and bad thing about the constitution is its malleability. Its provisions can be interpreted to be both positive and negative, depending on the hands it’s in. Currently, the NSA and UAPA are being used arbitrarily to target anyone speaking out against this fascist regime. The judiciary has delivered a slew of bad verdicts, be it the Babri verdict or even the way the Hathras case is being handled,” she says.
Kanojia continues to be detained in Lucknow. Jagisha remains unfazed by this regime’s progressively fascistic tendencies. “I have to get Prashant out, I don’t have a choice,” she says. “All I’m asking for is for people to not forget about him, and keep talking about him.”