Days after being granted bail by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Dalit labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur spoke to Outlook about the custodial torture and her resolve to fight for the rights of farmers and workers. During a protest last month, Haryana police arrested the 24-year-old under charges including murder and extortion among others.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q) You alleged that you were sexually assaulted and tortured in police custody.
The police arrested me and took me to Kundli police station on January 12. They pulled my hair and dragged me into the van and I was beaten up inside the van also. They slapped and hit me with shoes and sticks on my private parts. I was bleeding heavily after that.
No lady police officers were present at the station. Four policemen sat on me and tortured me. I couldn’t walk for days because of the assault. Later they took me to a police station at Sonipat at night and confined me in quarantine for two days. The torture continued there also. I suffered multiple injuries while in custody.
My condition was extremely bad. Even my medical report wasn’t made. It was 14 days after my lawyer obtained permission from the court that a medical examination was done.
Q) You also allege that the police used casteist abuses while in custody.
While torturing me, the police kept saying that I am a Dalit and I should behave like one. “Your job is to clean the gutters. Who gave you the right to organize protests against big people?” I was asked.
They used abusive language to intimidate me. The police were miffed that I stood up to the rich and powerful. I believe I had to face the harassment of being a Dalit woman and a trade union worker.
Is it a crime to organize and demand our rights? The police are hand in glove with factory owners.
Q) The police have denied charges of custodial torture.
It will be illusory to think that the police will admit it. Medical reports don’t lie. I got bail on the basis of medical reports. The court was convinced that I was falsely implicated. The police always dance to the tune of the powerful. That is how the system works.
Q) Your colleague Shiv Kumar is yet to get bail. He has also been allegedly tortured in custody according to medical reports.
Shiv Kumar wasn’t present at Kundli on January 12. But the police took him into custody only because he is the president of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS). His medical reports reveal that he has been severely tortured and is in depression now. The police haven’t even informed his family about the arrest.
Q) The police arrested you under various charges including extortion and attempt to murder. What led to the arrest?
The government knows that if farmers and workers unite, it will work against their oppressive policies. That’s the reason they slapped extortion and other charges against me. The police picked me up from the Kundli industrial area during a protest against the delay in the payment of wages by the factory owners. I have been working in a glass factory since August and was also a part of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan to fight for labour rights. The workers were even denied basic rights and we have been actively protesting against it. When the farmer's protest began on the Singhu border, we became inspired by it. During our protests, we always faced attacks from thugs in Kundli, and sometimes, they even fired at us. On January 12 also, the goondas came and there were clashes. However, police took their side and arrested me under various charges.
Q) You were in Jail for 46 days. What was the condition of other female inmates in jail?
The condition of female inmates in jail is horrific. When I described my harrowing experience to other jail mates, they weren’t surprised. In fact, they said what I had gone through was nothing. I was shocked to listen to their stories, the violence they had endured. There were more than 200 women in the cell where I was kept. They were put in jail for minor charges, most of them belonged to poor and backward communities.
Q) Aren’t you scared of speaking out?
I am not scared to speak out. Being a Dalit and poor, our life is never easy. We have always faced discrimination. My mother is a labourer and a trade union activist. I have seen how Dalits and workers get exploited. I was part of my mother’s activism from childhood. I have learned in a hard way that we can’t achieve anything without fighting. If we bow our heads, we will be suppressed more. We have no other way than to organize and question the oppressors.
Q) Your case garnered global attention after Meena Harris tweeted about it. Did you expect such public support?
I had no inkling of the public outcry over my arrest. It’s because of the public support that I got bail. No woman should be made to suffer the way I did in jail. Even when I was being tortured and fake charges slapped, I didn’t lose hope.
Q) Do you think the voices of young people are being muzzled?
The space for dissent is definitely shrinking under this government. I am not the only one who is raising my voice. There are several young people, farmers, labourers, journalists, and political prisoners who are in jail for the same reason. The draconian UAPA has been slapped on them. Everyone will have to come forward and fight this battle. The government can’t put lakhs in jail. Constitution has given us the right to protest but the right has been taken away from us. To protest is a crime, and the protester is being called anti-national now. All public sector enterprises have been sold off to big corporates. If we don’t speak out now, nothing will be left.
Q) Will you continue participating in ongoing farmers' protests?
I have joined the Singhu border yesterday. I am a trade union activist and I have always stood with the farmers. The impact of the new farm laws will be felt on labourers also. The government is trying to stop the labourers from joining farmers or else they will have to bow down before us. We are also fighting against new labour laws, which are detrimental to labour rights. Now, workers won’t be able to form unions and the working hours have been extended from 8 to 12 hours.
Q) Do you regret not continuing your studies?
I had to discontinue my studies after class 12 owing to financial constraints. I have applied to Delhi’s Khalsa College, but I couldn’t join because I didn’t have money. Now I am happy about the work I am doing. A degree is futile when we don’t enjoy basic rights and freedom.