This letter is from friends, acquaintances and batch-mates, distressed by the arrest of Devangana Kalita (Miranda House alumna, 2007-10). She has been arrested 4 times in the middle of the pandemic within a span of ten days, re-arrested each time she gets bail on fresh FIRs. The charges levied against her are grievous and include the Arms Act, rioting, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, where it is nearly impossible to get bail. For interested readers, you can read more about the UAPA here.
You turned 31 this month and your birthday passed like no other before. The newspapers have written a lot about what you are going through and many in the country now know your name. But they don’t know you as we do.
We have known you for years – as a dear friend, supportive roommate, generous colleague, fellow-debater, a brilliant student, and a tireless critic of injustice and inequality on the campus and beyond. Many of us remember you as a ball of energy, swirling in your skirts, with kajal-smeared eyes, and your peals of laughter bouncing off the red brick walls of our hostel.
Although like a typical hosteler, you made it to your lectures only just in time, you always shone academically – all your teachers have known you as a promising young scholar. As a student of English literature and then History, you had a keen eye for workings of power in fiction as well as life. Always curious, you were – and remain – consistently open to other points of view, and engaged with others to review, revise and even reconsider your opinions. In your interim bail order from the magistrate in one of the cases read, you,“[t]he accused, have strong roots in society and are well-educated.”
For you, transporting your ideas beyond the walls of classrooms and libraries was important.
You were fiercely active in the women’s development cell and spoke out on how colleges and hostels should be enabling spaces and nurture free-thinking, independent young women. We remember how you participated in the university-wide campaign for all institutions to have a functional gender cell, internal complaints committee and implement the Vishakha Guidelines. Beginning with demands for more streetlights on Delhi University streets and the city, more public transport, active helpline numbers, safer PGs and hostels for women students – you saw the world for all the better it could be.
Those of us who were in college with you remember your campaign for the post of the college Student Union Vice- President in 2008-09. Many of us volunteered day and night for something we truly believed in – YOU. Student activism is often understood as antithetical to studies and equated with hooliganism. You broke that stereotype by proving to be an honest, able, approachable and accountable representative time and again.
We know that in your quest to understand and improve the world around you – studying it and participating in activism went hand in hand. In a world where one’s success is only measured in money and merit, you gave up many financially rewarding opportunities that came your way, to be a full-time women’s rights activist and fight for social justice and equality.
In the hostel, you painted for your own pleasure, giving colour and shape to all your feminist dreams. For anyone who remembers, your paintings that decorated the hostel walls were large swirls of bright colours that drew us all in. We cannot imagine where you are now–a place where freedom itself fails. Knowing you though, the walls around you must be splashed with the same bright colours of your mind.
Happy Birthday, Devangana. We hope this letter brings some joy to you and reminds you of how we, your friends, really see you. The fact remains that if they put all the light in the world inside a box, it is the outside that is left in the dark. Know that if we could make a birthday wish on your behalf, it would be that more of us could be more like you.
Your friends and batch-mates.
Note: As concerned friends and citizens of the country, we hope that she, and others arrested on similar grounds, in the matter have a just and fair investigation. Also, that adequate measures have been taken to ensure everyone’s safety while in custody in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.