Letter from India

Skye Arundhati Thomas on censorship and resistance in locked-down India

Photo: Masrat Zahra.

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, identity papers, and crumpled, bloodstained notes lie next to pair of folded trousers. The photograph was taken by Kashmiri photographer Masrat Zahra, the items carefully arranged on a lavender cloth, embroidered with red and blue flowers, by Arifa Jan, the widow of Abdul Qadir Sheikh. Sheikh was shot by the Indian Army in 2000; we are looking at what was in his pockets on the day he died. Sheikh’s death was the result of an “encounter killing”—confrontations staged between suspected militants and state forces that most often result in unarmed civilian deaths. There is little accountability after such killings, and many of the murders go unrecorded. Zahra visits the homes of those that have were gunned down and collects their stories. Her quietly moving photographs of objects animate the ways in which they are remembered. “There were eighteen bullet holes and I still remember how deep they were,” the widow Jan told Zahra, who posted the image on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on April 18. She tagged it #KashmirBleeds.

Shortly after the photograph went online, the cybercrime police station of the Kashmir Zone booked Zahra under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for “uploading ‘anti-national’ posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offenses against public tranquility.” Zahra could be incarcerated for up to seven years and arrested at a moment’s notice. Despite being in the middle of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19—during which people are being beaten and fined for violating curfew restrictions—Zahra was forced to appear at a police station in Srinagar on April 21.

In the document detailing the allegations, Zahra is referred to as a “Facebook User”­—not a journalist or artist. Her photographs and captions have been classified as having “criminal intention.” Special attention must be paid to the language here: The UAPA is an intentionally ambiguous piece of legislature that allows the state to label an individual as a “terrorist” simply if it “believes so.” On April 22, New Delhi police booked university students Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar under the UAPA. Both students are from Jamia Millia Islamia University—one of the central sites of the recent demonstrations against the Islamophobic and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Haider and Zargar were charged with conspiracy and inciting violence during the protests and are currently being held in judicial custody. Zargar, who is pregnant, spent the first day of Ramadan in a high-security prison in New Delhi.

India’s 2020 began with the revolutionary energy of the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, but also the police brutality that came with it, including a four-day-long pogrom in the working-class Muslim neighborhoods of New Delhi which happened to coincide with Donald Trump’s state visit (dubbed “Namaste Trump”). Muslims were lynched by Hindutva mobs and their homes burned down. Many were relocated to refugee camps, some set up in graveyards. One of the strongholds of dissent was Shaheen Bagh, where a monthslong, women-led sit-in had become a generative site for community, public art, music, and book-sharing. On March 24, Modi declared that India was on lockdown. One of the first moves the police made was to bulldoze through the protest site, pull down posters and whitewash the murals and slogans that emblazoned its walls.

“Across India, the pandemic and lockdown have provided an occasion for the free play of authoritarian impulses,” writes Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist, editor, and cofounder of the online newspaper The Wire. On April 11, a group of policemen delivered court summons to Varadarajan, the case against him relating to The Wire’s coverage of a large Hindu religious gathering in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which was allowed to occur despite the lockdown. The charges claim that Varadarajan was “promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes” simply for printing the news. The Wire is one of India’s only newspapers that neither censors its opinions nor panders to the Hindu-centric, jingoistic demands of the central government. The lockdown is giving the central government leverage that could not have arrived at a worse time: Protest is impossible, millions are starving or stranded because of the lockdown, and all political opposition has neared a complete standstill as state-level governments focus on combating the virus.

We are being organized and disciplined along the borders of identity: primarily of class and caste (there is no doubt that it is the poor and the already marginalized that are bearing the brunt of this crisis), but also the borders of culture, and whether it aligns with the intentions of the ruling government. The recent slew of arrests began with that of educator and activist Anand Teltumbde, who is, incidentally, married to the granddaughter of Dalit leader and scholar Dr. B. R Ambedkar. After months of scrutiny and psychological harassment—including the ransacking of his faculty house—Teltumbde was taken into judicial custody on April 14, on the one hundred and twenty-ninth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s birth. Suspecting an imminent arrest, he published a letter with The Wire a day prior. In it, he details his case and unfair treatment, and signs off with this: “[I] do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes.”

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Mumbai. She is a contributing editor at The White Review.