Rajdeep Sardesai. Mrinal Pande. Zafar Agha. Anant Nath. Paresh Nath. Vinod K Jose. Shashi Tharoor. Siddharth Varadarajan. Dharmendar Singh. Mandeep Punia. Medha Patkar. Yogendra Yadav. Gurnam Singh Chaduni. Rakesh Tikait. Shiv Kumar. Ranjit Singh.
These are the names of some of the people arrested, detained, or charged in the past few months for protesting against the farm laws or reporting on it. Now, Nodeep Kaur is a part of this long, unending list which only seems to grow with every passing day. Nodeep Kaur has been in jail since January 12 of this year. The Dalit labour rights activist and trade unionist’s arrest garnered international attention after lawyer Meena Harris – niece to United States Vice President Kamla Harris – tweeted about it.
A factory worker in Haryana, Nodeep has been protesting the treatment and alleged harassment of workers by the Kundli Industrial Association. Nodeep was also protesting the erratic wages labourers received, making speeches at the farmers’ protest sites near the Singhu border. In a now widely shared interview, Kaur is heard saying, “Farmers and labourers are inseparable. We are both producers. Workers produce in the factories and farmers produce in the fields. We are both constantly being pushed backwards. The government is selling us, our rights, to make money for themselves.”
Nodeep is one of several activists and protestors arrested during the farmer protests. She has been denied bail twice so far and remains in police custody now for almost a month. Nodeep has a litany of charges against her, including attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, and extortion.
In speaking to The Wire, Nodeep’s sister Rajveer Kaur said, “My sister and her organisation had been fighting with the industry association at Kundli for a long time. She raised the issue of unpaid dues, exploitation of women workers, and harassment of workers among many other things. The workers of Kundli face continuous harassment by what the industry association calls a quick response team (QRT). The QRT’s only purpose is to intimidate workers so that they are unable to organise. The QRT also targeted the unity of the farmers and factory workers of Kundli. When some workers started joining the protest, the factory owners threatened to fire them.”
Further, Rajveer has also alleged that her sister was beaten in custody, and had injuries on her genitals. Nodeep’s lawyer has claimed she was sexually assaulted in custody, but The Hindu claims Rajveer has dismissed these allegations of sexual assault as being untrue, while the Hindustan Times reports that Rajveer has alleged her sister was indeed subjected to custodial sexual assault. The police denied these allegations, and in turn released two videos of the workers clashing with the police on January 12, 2021. Outlook alleges fellow inmates from the prison Nodeep is being held at informed her family that Nodeep was bleeding from her legs and could hardly walk.
Nodeep remains in custody, with her latest bail petition denied on February 8, 2021. It took Meena Harris’ tweet for us to take notice of this atrocity. A young, Dalit woman who is a labour rights activist is in prison and experiencing torture for merely being vocal in her protests against injustices. But Nodeep is one of several people being silenced for voicing dissenting views and standing up for themselves and important causes.
Several people have been arrested, detained, and charged in response to their participation or reportage on the farmer protests in Delhi. News reports also claim that journalists are being barred access to the protest site and Internet access is being blocked in areas that saw large protest gatherings. Eight journalists who covered the farmer protests and the violence that broke out on January 26, 2021, have been charged with a barrage of bogus and unwarranted charges.
Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly said, “The Indian authorities’ response to protests has focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events.”
Adding to the discourse on India’s repressive clampdown on protests and dissent, Rajat Khosla, Senior Director of Research, Advocacy, and Policy at Amnesty International said, “We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies. The crackdown on those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act still hasn’t ended, while new efforts to quell the anti-farm legislation protests have taken shape. The crushing of dissent leaves little space for people to peacefully exercise their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country.”
The horror of the largest democracy in the world; a once young, promising democracy with so much potential, silencing students, activists, protestors, journalists, lawyers should shake us. Dissent and truth being viewed as unlawful activities, being portrayed, essentially, as domestic terrorism should keep us awake at night, it should remind us of the lost promise of our democracy, it should remind us of the dangerous, ever-thinning line between freedom and authoritarianism.
It’s them today, tomorrow, it will be us. We can either shrug it off because it isn’t us in a prison cell or we can speak. The fates of those who speak truth to power cannot lead them to a prison cell, that cannot be the cost we expect them to pay. It’s our democracy, and our voices, collectively, can save it. There are only so many jail cells, but if we all speak for Nodeep Kaur, and the millions like her, we will be protecting the aspirational freedoms and liberties this democracy once stood for.