“I was arrested because I raised the voice of other people”: Activist Nodeep Kaur
Nodeep Kaur, a 23-year-old Dalit activist, was released from Karnal Jail in Haryana on 26 February. Nodeep, who works with the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, a labourer-rights organisation, was arrested on 12 January by the Sonipat Police. That day, two first-information reports FIRs were registered against her at the Kundli police station, with a range of offenses, including rioting and attempt to murder.
By MANDEEP PUNIA
For some months before her arrest, Nodeep and other MAS members had been organising protests in the Kundli Industrial Area to urge factory owners to pay workers their due wages. In late December, based on the complaint of an employee of a security agency in the area, the police had registered an FIR against her, accusing her of extortion.
After she was arrested on 12 January, reports began to emerge that she had been beaten and tortured in custody, bringing significant social-media attention to her case and to the arrest of her colleague Shiv Kumar, a visually impaired Dalit activist. In mid February, district courts granted Kaur bail in two of the cases against her. Then, the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo moto cognisance of her detention. The court granted her bail in the final case.
Mandeep Punia, an independent journalist, met Kaur the day after her release. He spoke to her about her activism, her arrest and the violence she faced in custody. The ordeal she faced “raises a big question on how our police treat women and Scheduled Castes,” Kaur said. “If there is no action taken today, this will keep happening to more women.”
Mandeep Punia: You were arrested on 12 January. What happened that day? Can you describe the incident that led to your arrest?
Nodeep Kaur: On 12 January, we went to the Kundli Industrial Area, near Singhu Border, to help workers, to demand their pending wages. A lot of workers went there. We went to a factory and the owner assured us that he will pay the pending wages within an hour. Another one said that he will pay by evening. When we go to a factory, we sit peacefully outside that factory for thirty minutes and we announce that the factory owners should pay the pending wages of the workers. One factory owner closed the door. The police came and started beating the women. One policeman put his hand around my neck and tried to drag me outside. They also fired shots in the air. I was arrested and taken to Sonipat. Then I was beaten in Sonipat and sent to Karnal Jail.
MP: How was the behaviour of the police towards you when you were arrested? Did the police beat you in the lock-up?
NK: I was beaten continuously from the time I was picked up to the time I was sent to Karnal Jail. There was no woman police constable present when I was picked up. Male policemen came and dragged me by my hair to the police van. They stopped the police van at a deserted place outside Kundli border and I was beaten up there. Then I was taken to Kundli police station and again beaten up. I was beaten up by male police personnel and not by women. They sat on me and beat me. Then they tried to forcefully make me sign documents and to name other activists and frame them. The Kundli police harassed me. They abused me by using caste names, and my private parts were also attacked.
I knew only a few workers who were with me that day, but a lot of them came to the Kundli police station demanding my release when I was being beaten up. So they [the police] lathi-charged those workers and took me to Sonipat. They beat me black and blue at Sonipat and then they left me at Karnal jail after midnight.
MP: You were in jail for 45 days. What did you experience there?
NK: I talked to more women when I went to jail. When I told them that I was arrested by Kundli police and that the police harassed and attacked me, it was very normal for those women. I met some women who were even raped [in police custody], some were beaten very badly, some for 15 days [while in custody] by male police officers. Some womens’ hands and legs are still broken. This raises a big question on how our police treat women and Scheduled Castes and Dalits—especially women.
MP: Do you think there needs to be more discussion on custodial violence and rape?
NK: We need to question this. This has not happened to me alone, there are a lot of women who are raped, they are treated badly in police custody. Police harasses Dalit women even outside jail. Women, irrespective of any caste and class, are treated like this. People need to come forward and demand action against such policemen, so that this does not happen in the future. The incident which happened with me is not the first or last incident of this kind. If there is no action taken today, this will keep happening to more women. This is a very serious issue, and we need to think about it.
MP: There was an international social-media campaign for your release. Everyone wants to know who Nodeep Kaur is, where she comes from. Can you talk about your background?
NK: I come from a small village called Gandher in Muktsar Sahib [district], in Punjab. I come from a working class family. My family is a mazdoor [labourer] family. My experience from my childhood has been that workers have to fight for their rights everywhere. I studied till class twelve, and it was also full of struggles. My family has struggled a lot: for food, for education, for working in the farms. We had to fight everywhere for our rights, to put forward our issues. After completing twelfth grade, I had to take a break from my studies. The condition of my family was not good. I applied for [admission to] a college after 4–5 years, but then lockdown came and I could not study further.
I learned to fight from my mother. My mother has raised her voice for women, my sisters have also been speaking for workers and women. I learned from them, and started raising my voice for workers and women. My family was my biggest influence.
MP: Do you work with any labour union? How did you join them? How did you come to work in the Kundli Industrial Area?
NK: I came here in September and started working at a factory. There was an organisation named Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan which was working there for the last three years, I joined them and started working with them.
MP: How were you connected with the ongoing farmers’ movement?
NK: We [referring to the MAS] supported farmers because their demands were fair. When farmers came to the Singhu border, all of us workers went there in large numbers and we did a strike in support of farmers on [2 December]. More than two thousand workers took out a march from the Kundli area to the Singhu border while shouting slogans. We went to the stage [at the Singhu border] and I talked from the stage on behalf of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan.
We also support farmers because these laws raise the limit of stocks [of produce]. There is now no limit on stocking agricultural produce. This has a direct impact on workers. If they [corporate houses] purchase it from farmers, workers would have to purchase it from the market. If they are buying potato from farmers at Rs 5 per kg then they sell it at Rs 40 or Rs 45 per kg to workers. The constant price rise will result in our loss. We workers understand this, and that is why we supported farmers and we will continue doing so.
MP: There is an FIR dated 28 December, naming you. Were you demanding wages before that day as well?
NK: Yes. We were continuously going to different factories to help labourers. The wages of the lockdown period are still due and we were helping these workers in getting their wages in a peaceful way. We have helped over three hundred workers in getting approximately Rs 5 lakh of their pending wages.
On 28 December, we went to a noodle factory to help workers get their pending wages. The Quick Response Team came and they attacked workers and then they also fired [a bullet]. When we went to the police station to lodge a FIR against the firing, but the FIR was not lodged. We also wrote a letter to the SP [superintendent of police], emailed him that police are not registering FIR on the firing incident, but we have not got any response till date. So we were constantly struggling for the rights of workers.
MP: What is this Quick Response Team? What do they exactly do?
NK: There is a team named the Quick Response Team in the Kundli Industrial Area. They get paid by factory owners because they try to limit workers’ organisations in that area. Their work is to stop workers from raising their voice. They patrol the area at night and claim that they work for the safety of workers. But that is not true. If any labour union goes in that area to distribute pamphlets or to talk to workers, or if they try to raise a demand, these goons attack them very proactively. We don’t have freedom to even distribute pamphlets. They have been attacking workers.
MP: Did you know about the arrest of your fellow activist Shiv Kumar, who is also with the MAS?
NK: I came to know about his arrest when I came out of jail. He was detained illegally for eight or ten days. Nobody knew anything about his arrest, nobody knew where he was kept. When they presented him in court after 10 days and remanded him again for 10 days, he was beaten up very badly and thrown in jail. What happened with Shiv Kumar is very serious, he is badly hurt. Some of his bones are broken. There should be questions raised about the police on Shiv Kumar. They simply cannot do this. They cannot arrest him without any proof, without any warrant. This is illegal.
MP: Like your colleague, a lot of farmers are in jail, too. Now that you have been released from jail, will you raise your voice for those farmers? Will you go back and continue raising your voice for workers?
NK: Yes, I will. By telling you my experience, I am not just telling you about what happened to me, I am also telling you about what happens to a lot of innocent persons. I was arrested because I raised the voice of other people. A lot of farmers activists, labour activists, women who have been jailed for becoming the voice of people. I demand their release. They should be released immediately.
I am still the same Nodeep. Now I will work with more energy because we were not doing anything illegal, we were within the legal framework of the Constitution. You can protest if you do not agree in a democracy. We will keep working in the future and raise the voices of workers, farmers and women.
Courtesy : The Caravan