It took a tweet from Meena Harris, niece of US vice president Kamala Harris, for India to learn about Nodeep Kaur, a 23-year-old Dalit activist who is in jail for more than three weeks in Punjab on alleged trumped-up charges. And even more serious are allegations that Kaur was tortured in custody. Harris’s February 6 tweet, “ Weird to see a photo of yourself burned by an extremist mob but imagine what they would do if we lived in India,” was a sharp comment—in the backdrop of the farmers protest—on frequent assault on dissenters in India.
Nodeep Kaur is a Mazhabi Sikh, a community considered untouchable in Punjab. Around four months back, she came to Delhi in search of work. And today, as I write this, she has been in Karnal Jail for the past 27 days, under serious charges of attempt to murder and extortion. During the lockdown, her family went up to its ears in debt due to which Nodeep and her brothers had to drop out of school. She had no choice but to come to Delhi in search of work. She came to her sister Rajveer, the only person in the family who was able to step into a university. Rajveer is a student of Punjabi Literature at Delhi University.
When I met Rajveer, she was waiting for a bus to Chandigarh where she had to meet the lawyer. To my surprise, her first words came with a smile, “My sister is a fighter. Sometimes it’s the only choice we have.” She continues,” When Nodeep came to Delhi and started working in a factory in Kundli, she and her fellow-workers faced many atrocities at the hands of the factory owners. This motivated them to join Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS)”.
Rajveer told Outlook, “MAS toiled hard for the rights of workers who were fired from the factories without any notice, just like our own father.” Many workers in the area shared their grievances with the organisation. Taking out a register from her bag, Rajveer told us, “This is the record of all the workers who were not paid their dues. Nodeep and her organisation protested against many factory owners and helped more than 300 workers get their due payments within a month.” On December 2, MAS carried out a protest march of 2,000 workers from across Delhi in solidarity with the farmers’ protest. Many of them, including Nodeep, were fired from the factories when the news reached the owners. On December 28, MAS activists were allegedly beaten assaulted by goons hired by the Kundli Industrial Association’. They even opened fire on the workers. Rajveer points out, “No FIR has been lodged till date”.
On January 12, MAS was on a sit-in dharna outside a factory, when Nodeep, along with MAS president Shiv Kumar, was arrested. Rajveer adds, “The media is not even talking about Shiv Kumar. He comes from a very poor Dalit family. He is partially blind and the police had beaten him so brutally in jail that he can barely stand. Why aren’t they (the media) talking about him?”
“These people treat them as criminals. The SHO of Kundli station gave a statement to a newspaper that ‘Nodeep is a girl who keeps 40-50 men with her and extorts money from factory owners’,’ says Rajveer. With fury in her tone, she asks, “What do they mean by ‘keep’? And if she was a criminal, why didn’t the police send women cops to arrest her?” With a choking voice, Rajveer recalls her meeting with Nodeep in the jail, “She was holding back her tears but burst out, saying that she was beaten and tortured by male police.”
The next day, her fellow inmates sent a message to Nodeep’s family that she was bleeding heavily from her legs and could barely walk. On January 14, serious injuries were found in her private parts during a medical examination. The family alleges that male police have brutally beaten her on her private parts with lathis.
We also got a few minutes with Nodeep’s mother. She wanted to send a message to all the daughters in India, “Darna nahi hai bachhe. Haar nahi manni hai. Aakhir tak ladna hai warna ye log humein jeene nahi denge.” (Don’t be afraid. Don’t accept defeat. We have to fight till the finish or else these people will not allow us to live).
She proudly recalled, “These girls were barely 10-12 years old when they used to hold placards in their tiny hands and raise slogans with me.” Taking a sip of water to ease her words, she said, “I have taught them not to suffer silently but to question.”
“I remember when I was jailed for 12 days for raising my voice for Dalit women in our village. We even faced a social boycott. But these girls stood strong and faced every adversity with a smile, “ she says pointing to Nodeep’s photograph.
In her eyes, beyond the storm of hope, tears and pride, I could see Pavel’s mother from Maxim Gorky’s famous novel Mother. With a smile and teary eyes, she said, “And today, I stand strong with her.”