“Love and Rage”: Natasha and Devangana’s letters of hope and resistance from Tihar Jail 6

A rendition of Sultana’s Dream, made by Devangana Kalita in Tihar Jail, where she has been incarcerated without facing trial since May 2020 in relation to the Delhi violence. Sultana’s Dream is a feminist story written by the Bengali writer and political activist Begum Rokeya, which was published in 1905. Illustration by Devangana Kalita/Courtesy Pinjra Tod

It has been over a year since Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, members of the women’s collective Pinjra Tod, were arrested in relation to the communal violence that swept northeast Delhi in February 2020. Through this period, Narwal and Kalita have remained incarcerated in Tihar’s Jail 6—the women’s prison—as under-trial prisoners, having repeatedly been denied bail. In May 2021, Narwal was granted interim bail for three weeks, following the death of her father, Mahavir, from COVID-19.

Kalita and Narwal are doctoral students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in the centres for women’s studies and for historical studies, respectively. They are accused under several different first-information reports related to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 and the violence in February, and have secured bail in nearly all of these.

The duo was first arrested on 23 May, in an FIR related to a sit-in protest against the CAA. The next day, they secured bail, with a Delhi court noting that they were “merely protesting against the NRC and CAA, and … did not indulge into any violence.” Within minutes of being granted bail, the duo was arrested in a second case, under more serious charges, including rioting and attempt to murder. They were accused of instigating crowds at the Jafrabad metro station in Delhi, preceding the communal violence. Once again, little was produced in terms of evidence apart from their participation in the anti-CAA protests. In September that year, while granting bail to Kalita in the second case, a Delhi High Court judge noted that the Delhi Police “failed to produce any material” that she had instigated any crowds. In Narwal’s case, a Delhi district court ruled that none of the videos submitted by the police as evidence “show the accused indulging or inciting the violence.”

Six days after being arrested in the second FIR, on 30 May, Narwal was arrested again, under FIR 59 of 2020, a case investigated by the special cell into an alleged conspiracy behind the Delhi violence. On 5 June, Kalita was arrested in FIR 59. The case accuses them, alongside at least twenty other activists, of offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a draconian legislation that enforces a high standard for bail and is often used by the state against its dissidents. They have been incarcerated under this FIR since.

In the year that followed, both Narwal and Kalita wrote numerous letters to members of Pinjra Tod, which would sometimes take up to a month to be delivered. The duo wrote their letters over several days, with one letter often having several dates at the different points, indicating when those portions were written. Narwal and Kalita talked about their daily lives in Tihar, their struggles and anxieties, as well as the moments that gave them hope and strength. Edited excerpts from the letters have been reproduced below.

Devangana Kalita (left) and Natasha Narwal (right) at a programme in Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018. COURTESY BILAKSHAN S HARSH

In end September 2020, Narwal wrote:    


… You know I think it’s much more difficult to be outside in this scenario. While we have to just wait, though excruciating at times, it is just that. But you people must be under so much pressure, handling so many things, taking so many difficult decisions, handling family pressures. While also witnessing the world as we knew it falling apart. Evil forces rising so rapidly and brutally crushing everything we held dear, all hopes for a better future being crushed every day. The only times here I have welled up to while singing songs full of hope, so much hope which does not have any future anymore. “Will there be singing in the dark times?”

… Basically prison is an extension of the logical end of all the unfreedoms in the society one has been fighting against, everything meant to crush one’s autonomy. But I have seen—even in a place like this which is meant to strip away one’s autonomy and humanity, reduce people to bare life—people still manage to retain some, hiding them in nooks and corners, hiding them from always prying eyes. They still manage to laugh, cry, sing together, form intimacies and friendships, dream about another future. I have also realised the infinite creativity people have, how they transform things, places into something else for survival with dignity.

… Have all of you read Women on the Edge of Time? If not, please read. I have read it twice, and already want to keep re-reading it. I relate to it even more in these times and hopefully you all will too. Maybe then we can visit each other like Connie and Luciente permeating through all barriers separating us, and dream about another world. And maybe one day we all will sit by a river and sing of love and hope again, of resistance and sisterhood.

… It is also giving us immense strength and joy to see the resolute farmers’ protests everywhere, especially to know that at many places it was joined and led by women and students. We looked and looked at the photos in the papers with immense exhilaration … Though of course all the bills were passed with naked disregard of all democratic norms. Maybe now people will be able to see its character more clearly. At least one can hope, though it of course seems quite naive.

… Another life so brutally throttled at the altar of the structures of caste and patriarchy in Hathras. We have been painfully following all the news. All the structures of power still bent on depriving her and her family of all dignity even in death. But it is again so heartening to see all the protests, so many people speaking up, coming out on the streets. I keep wondering about all the things we would be doing right now. I am sure you all are doing all that, writing stuff, making posters. I naively keep looking for one of you in the photos of all the protests happening across our country. Anyway, it all fills us with hope and some solace to see some challenge to this brutal regime.

… Both hope and solace are precious commodities here. Women keep them tightly held to their bodies, braiding them in their hair, hiding them from the powers that are hell-bent on depriving them of it. But they trade in them generously among each other, holding each other, wiping tears, sharing their stories with each other. One learns from them every day—how to survive with dignity, how not to let this regime break you, even if you feel broken on days, how to hold oneself and each other and regain strength for another day. So many stories held between these walls and locks (chuppiyan hain zubaan ban kar phutne ko, dil mein gussa ubala ja raha hai) [These silences are about to burst into words, the anger in our hearts is simmering]

Love to the moon and back,    

In end September, Kalita wrote:


It was so exciting and overwhelming to receive all the letters, full of so much love and thought, such beautiful, heartfelt words, healing and strength-giving. Ever since I got them, I have been reading and rereading them every single day, multiple times, holding them dear—very, very dear—especially on those days when one feels low, when courage flattens and one needs a little more support, a little more reassurance that we will survive this. Survive this together—we are not afraid, we cannot be afraid. We are here, here for each other through these walls and bars, holding, surviving, sailing through.

… The unknown awaits us. We will have to embrace it with all the courage we can muster together, open ourselves to new beginnings and the harshest of challenges. A new reality that has arrived too soon, too suddenly, it’s incredibly daunting and scary, but I believe we are together slowly learning to navigate and inhabit it. What can we do but move forward, learning from history of the world and our own—to equip ourselves to handle what is unfolding and awaits, it is also a graver responsibility. Not that I had any doubts about it—even as I never spelt it out to not burden—that after all these months, and despite the intense repression and constant fear of more, we are still holding through; that the little naiyya [boat] is still afloat and sailing is a testimony to our collective ability to survive and endure, it must be acknowledged for the possibilities it holds in itself. I miss you all so much and draw the strength to survive here, knowing you are surviving there, despite the sleepless nights, despite the intense longing, this brutal separation.

… Sometimes I really feel/wonder if in these abysmal times, it’s probably easier to be “inside” than “outside,”—the “outside” produces the burden and responsibility of action, of doing, which at the current juncture seems a more mammoth and overwhelming work than ever before. I keep drawing blanks thinking of how I would cope if I was in your place. Immobilised of everything inside jail, our only political task is to wait and endure; to not lose one’s mind in this excruciating confrontation with time and keep the mind and body alive; to not let the oppressors succeed in breaking our spirits and dreams.

… As the days and months roll by, one comes to gradually realise that the jail after all is really not such an exceptional place. It is just an extension of all the oppressions that define this brutal world—maybe it’s quite an intense version of it, but even that I am not fully sure of. Just like a factory, a plantation, a hostel—it is yet another space that imprisons the working classes, imprisons women.

… What is a woman’s life under patriarchy but a training for being in jail? When a jail staff instructs you not to go here or there, it’s not extraordinary—women are always told by fathers, husbands, lovers to not go here or there. At least in jail, the exercise of power is clear and transparent, unlike in the case of family and society where there is all the paraphernalia of “love,” “honour” etc.

… There are of course days when incarceration becomes too much, just your barrack, your ward and the park outside, the visceral physical limits day after day.

… During these days, one of the things that gave me the most strength was singing songs of resistance to myself—the unfinished broken lines that I could remember, singing them repeatedly and endlessly through the long days and nights, sometimes quiveringly, sometimes confidently, sometimes even a bit too loudly for the silent night, as so many memories flashed through, giving strength, giving power, reassuring. Each world felt loaded with so much meaning and so much history. “Niddar, azaad ho jayegi woh to naya zamana layegi” <3 [Fearless and free, they will usher in a new era.]

It is women’s defiance collectively that helped one survive “outside,” it is the same that is crucial to surviving “inside,” in jail. Every day I draw strength from the women who have been here for many years; women who have no-one “outside”; [women] who are endlessly waiting through long trials; women who are from far away countries and don’t even speak English or Hindi; women who have delivered their babies here and bring them up here; women who do not have money to hire lawyers and patiently negotiate the arduous process of the government legal aid system; women who have not spoken to anyone in their families for months because they just cannot remember or find a contact number and no one responds to their letters “home”; women who are as much “criminals” as prisoners of structural oppressions. I cannot write about fellow inmates in letter, but I do have a name for the prison: “Hum Gunahgar Auratein.” [A reference to the poem “Hum Gunahgar Auratein” by a Pakistani feminist poet, Kishwar Naheed, usually translated into English as “We Sinful Women.” Pinjra Tod often uses lines from the poem in its slogans] :)

We had a reading session of the story [Sultana’s Dream, a feminist story written by Begum Rokeya and published in 1905] in our barrack one night. It felt special, familiar, warm, and again, I missed you all so, so much.

All my love and unending hugs,

Envelopes of the letters sent by Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal from Tihar's Jail Number 6—the women's prison—to members of Pinjra Tod. Courtesy PINJRA TOD

In end October, Kalita wrote:


...We have a task for all of you :) Please ask women’s organisations and feminist publishers to donate literature, books and pamphlets to Jail No. 6, Tihar so we can enrich and diversify the library. Adult education books, books for women just learning to read and write, resource material about women’s rights and lives would be particularly useful. Also, some colourful and exciting storybooks for children :) Can you also send us a colour print-out of that drawing of Savitribai [Phule] and the school girls? The other painting we plan to make is a Gond art drawing of women reading together from the illustrated book of Sultana’s Dream.

I have finally been able to read and concentrate over the last month. I did not apply for a job inside jail because I intend to study, but it’s not an easy task. During “khuli ginti” [the specified time during which prisoners are allowed to access      other barracks and the open area within the jail premises] our barrack is a constant centre of activity. The children are always in and out—demanding, bringing joy and frustration—while other inmates are constantly dropping by for some reason or another: someone needs an application to be written; someone wants to learn to read and write (I even teach Hindi sometimes!); someone wants help in composing a love letter or writing cheesy shairi; someone has questions about the legal system, their case, their bail, their lawyer; someone needs a little assurance or a conversation to unburden; someone wants to understand how to book an e-mulaqaat [video calls that prisoners are permitted to have with individuals listed as their contacts]; someone wants me to read them a story, someone needs a canteen samaan [items] list written; someone wants to know how their children can study in college like us. In the process, one ends up traversing, intimately knowing, connecting and bonding with so many lives, so many encounters, streets, desires and dreams, building new friendships and collectivities, new life songs and histories. In the process we have also been given innumerable duas and blessings: “Hum sab se pehle aap log nikal jao mere pyare bache”—[You all should be released before any of us, my sweet children]—women are generous, very generous with their persistent and fervent wishes.


… This criminal justice system wrongs and destroys so many lives, so many poor and working-class women languishing here, falsely framed and implicated; families, homes, futures shattered, but still surviving, somehow—almost a miracle! A common refrain that women quote here, “Police rassi ko saap bana sakti hai.” [The police can turn a rope into a snake.] We probably need to give up or rework the category of “political prisoners”—a political prisoner is no exception; most gunahgar auratein, incarcerated and brutalised, their lives and relationships torn apart, with very little besides an abyss of endless waiting confronting them under a legal system impossibly difficult to comprehend or access from their locations - they are all political prisoners!

… Is there any chance that the submission deadline may be extended further beyond 31st Dec? [Kalita is referring to a deadline for a submission as part of her master of philosophy programme at JNU, which she is still pursuing from jail. The deadline has been extended.]

… The fans have also been off since yesterday and it’s really silent. The women’s jail is surrounded by men’s jail on all sides. There is not even the sound of passing vehicles from the road or street, only the distant sound of a train whistle around midnight. Those of us who have been transferred from Mandoli Jail tell us that the streets are visible from that multi-storied jail, that it feels less isolated but there are lesser trees and birds.

… The last dispatch of letters worried us a bit, even amidst this nightmare. We have to hold and dream our dreams and songs; despair will lead us nowhere, we cannot let go of hope. Most importantly, do not worry about us too much, we are doing OK at the moment, slowly preparing ourselves. During quarantine, the horizon was six months—as that arrives, the preparation is for a year or more. Getting bail on the UAPA case is not going to be easy, it may be a long, long wait, but we will endure and survive this separation together, one day at a time, one year at a time. I miss hugs.

… But until that day of embraces and reunion, you must take care of yourselves, breathe and sleep well, like Natasha sleeps every night inside jail :)

Love and rage,

In mid November, Narwal wrote:


Two seasons have passed since we have been separated. The swelling heat and humid nights gave way to the pleasant autumn evenings and brilliant blue skies.

… Amma got bail and left yesterday night, leaving such a void. She stayed with us only for, maybe, two weeks but gave us so much love that we will savour it for a lifetime.

She had the cutest laughter and such amazing anecdotes. She had two bakris [goats] with her in her house and used to be called “Bakre wali amma” [the mother with goats] in the whole of Usmanpur, which is very near Seelampur. When we told her about our case, she told us how when the riots were happening everywhere around, people in her gali [street] did not let anything happen. She later told us how her parents also died in some riots in Meerut. She was a “Hindu” but practiced Islam as well. Only yesterday, Khala, another barrack-mate, told us that she (Amma) had confided in her that she had “converted” for her second marriage to be a Hindu.


Waqt ki kaid mein zindagi hai” [“Life is imprisoned in the shackles of time,” a verse from the Pakistani poet Fayyaz Hashmi’s ghazal “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo.”]    

Since yesterday we are finally allowed to be outside our wards in the entire period of “khuli ginti”—that is, 6 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm, instead of two hours in the morning and one hour in the evening. After months of requests and petitions to the administration, it has been allowed finally. You know it really feels like the moment when the Miranda House curfew deadline got extended. From hostels to prison, the struggle continues. :P

… The suicide of LSR student Aishwarya. [On 2 November, Aishwarya Reddy, a second-year student of the Lady Shri Ram College died by suicide.] You know it has hit me really hard … really stirred so many emotions of anger, frustration, rage and helplessness. I have been seriously thinking and wondering how any resistance or struggle will stand in front of everyday, growing, brutal repression, which will only intensify further and engulf our world. I was so shocked to hear about Sho and Tanmay. [In July 2020, two activists Tanmay Nivedita and Kalyani, who accompanied a gang-rape survivor to a court in Bihar’s Araria district for her testimony, were arrested along with the survivor after she refused to sign the statement attributed to her. Shohini is a colleague of the two activists who actively involved in their release campaign.]

… Please give them all my love and salutes. And of course, it has been really depressing and disturbing to read about all the other arrests, even of people who are so old and suffering with no respite in sight.

… I cannot even imagine what must you have gone through and are still going through, especially as this lockdown has deprived the warmth and reassurance of being together, holding and hugging each other. In a way, everyone is locked up in a prison of a kind.

… You know I won’t say not to despair or fear. These are but natural emotions in these times. The only way to overcome them is to share them with each other and find the courage and strength through and with each other. We, here, are also able to endure all of this with smiles on our faces and peace in our hearts only because of our collective strength. We derive our strength from all of you and our collective struggles, the way we hold on to each other despite everything. “Haatho mein haath hai apna, zamana kya karega.” :)

PS: Omg! Begum Akhtar ghazals are playing on the FM [radio]. Can’t tell you what is stirring inside. Uff, how can someone sing like that!

… Though the books in the library are overwhelmingly of Gita Press, there are some books of Premchand, Mohan Rakesh, Krishna Chander, Rahi Masoom Raza, Amrita Pritam, [Margaret] Atwood, [Gabriel García] Márquez, Isabelle Allende, RK Narayan. You know I even found two books by Progress Publishers, and one by Trotsky … Then there are random scribbles on the backsides of the books, and some old notebooks I have found in the library while setting up. There are prayers, notes for loved ones, attempts at learning to write, traces of lives lived between these walls.

… Also it has been so so nice to get letters from you. I just cannot describe the joy and excitement we feel when we receive a letter. Just by the spring in our feet, people are able to tell that we have received a letter … It’s a little heartbreaking to know how lonely and isolated everyone is feeling and the inability to really share with each other what is in everyone’s hearts. Maybe you guys should write letters to each other :P Maybe the apps can’t really hold the depth of feelings, the enormity of all the sorrow and the piercing loneliness everyone contains in their hearts.


… The mountain of time has dissolved in the everyday rhythms of this place in which I have become quite absorbed. Spending time with the kids, with the other inmates, sharing stories, memories of life outside, each other’s despairs, intimately seeing the life of law painstakingly lived every day. Learning so many jugaads [hacks] of jail life. You know, we were joking that we should write Jail survival manuals 101.

Okay, it’s 10.30 pm and I am feeling very sleepy :P

I’ll leave you with a poem by an inmate I found in the old notes in the library:

To the night of our togetherness below open skies
When the moon will not be caged.

Hum dekhenge!

Lots and lots of love and rage,


PS: Khair, I am taking solace in this winter again being a winter of protests on the streets. I can’t tell you the feelings, the memories it is evoking.

I read a brief profile of a young girl in the newspaper who is accompanying her parents in the protests as she also identifies herself as a farmer. She participates in the protests during the night. It just filled my heart and I was almost in tears. I really want to meet her one day. Every day we await the newspapers as we have never done before and look at every picture almost ten times.

A sketch titled, "The C-Sec Meeting," made by Natasha Narwal during her incarceration in Delhi's Tihar Jail. The sketch refers to numerous meetings held by members of Pinjra Tod at the Central Secretariat area in Delhi. Illustration by Natasha Narwal/Courtesy Pinjra Tod

In February, Kalita wrote:


The reassuring yet startling passing of time—a year now, since it all erupted, the moment that has brought us to this crazy juncture that we confront today. Recently, we were talking about what it must feel like for people when they witness or become part of a major historical event—monarchy’s overthrow, end of colonialism, abolition of slavery, fascism’s defeat, the end of Emergency—what have we seen, what revelations does the future hold for us?

… A memory of that baji [a respectful term for an elder woman, referring to the sit-in protest outside the Jafrabad metro station] who had remarked, laughing infectiously while shifting the tent line, teary-eyed, “Jabse aankh khuli hai, bas ghar ki char diwari Delhi hai. Aaj raat teen baje sadak meh khadi hoon, woh kar rahi hoon jo kabhi bhi nahi socha tha karungi!” [“Since my eyes have opened, Delhi has become the four walls of my house. I am sitting on the road at 3 in the night, doing what I never thought I would do.”]

… One evening, a slightly low one, staring at the dramatic clouds for some solace, one of the little kids lying beside me asks, “Devangana, aasman kaha se aata hai?” [Devangana, where does the sky come from?] His next question stunned me even more, “Aasman ghar se aaya hai kya?” [Has the sky come from home?] He has grown up here, has learnt to feel that excitement for home, that longing for ghar that everyone leaves for. This little one is terrified of uncles, runs away to hide every time he sees a male police or worker inside jail. He likes wearing frocks and mostly he is taken to be a girl. Once, randomly he confided, “Aap bhi mere sath chaloge bahar? Mujhe na daar lagega.” “Kis seh?” “Uncle seh.” [“Will you also come out with me? I will be scared.” “Of whom?” “Of uncle.”]


… Seeing our joyous faces made even the matron in-charge of mulaqaats [jail visits from the public] senti[mental]. “Bohut din baad mujhe bhi mere hostel ki doston ki yaad aa gayi,” she said. [After so long, even I was reminded of my hostel friends.] I really hope we will reunite with more faces in the coming months. We wait, wait with all the love and rage of the world


Prison time is a lot about wondering, like those long nights, when I have wondered, with both anticipation and anxiety, how the process of reconnecting, recovering and rebuilding will unfold.

… We will be organising Women’s Day inside Jail No. 6. In anticipation of that day when we will meet again, and share and retell it all….

Love and rage,    

In mid March, Kalita wrote:


A calm Sunday, the arrival of spring, sunbirds have built an intricately woven nest hanging from a clothes-line in our park. Those fiery red flowers must be bursting through the city’s skyscrapers?

… The beginning of this month has been rather exciting. Jail No. 6, immersed in the preparations for celebrating March 8 :) We had put in an application to mark the day as had been the practice earlier. The hustle and bustle that marked the lead-up to the day produced a nice dynamism here, like things were happening. For those imprisoned for many, many years, a sign of a gradual return to “normalcy,” a breaking of the stasis and monotony that corona had brought even inside prison—maybe the burden of kato-ing [biding] time was to be eased a little.

… Sharing the history of this day with sathis [friends] eager to know; the joy of practice sessions as one saw people emerge and transform, create and enter character, fumbling lines to confident dialogue deliveries; working with one another and collectively owning the natak [a play]; learning together the lyrics of “Tod tod ke.” :)

… The play’s script was simple, the characters and dialogues evolved and developed together, the motley crew of twenty performers consisting of quite a few fellow inmates with whom one had built a relationship of comfort and trust over the last several months.

… At the end of those days, we used to be incredibly exhausted, but it wasn’t the exhaustion that comes from enduring incarceration. It was an invigorating exhaustion that comes from encountering possibilities—a feeling not new, but familiar, that had marked the end of a long day of campaigning; meetings where conversations reached somewhere; night protests! A realisation that had been working its way through over the last months but which found a concrete manifestation for March 8—our work, our dreams can never stop, no matter where they _____ [a word scribbled out by the jail authorities who read the letters] us or what they do to us! They imprisoned us for singing songs, where will they put us when even inside prison songs reverberate? “Shoshan daman ko mitayengi woh toh naya zamana layegi.” [If they bring an end to exploitation and suppression, they will usher in a new era.]

… Fatima Sheikh was played by Natata (as the kids lovingly call her), on popular demand :D It was quite amusing, but she had a few frustrated outbursts to get people to come to rehearsals “on time” ... haha!


… A small but important concession that the jail authorities yielded to is to not deduct anyone’s salary for their practice hours since most of our actors were also working various jobs inside prison, it really helped ease everyone’s anxieties about losing their jobs!

… Do keep writing the letters of love, they mean the world to us. You know, in one of the books I was reading, there was this petition by indentured Indian labourers of Ba district in Fiji to the Colonial Secretary in 1914. The workers wanted a “Hindustani” to be appointed at the post office, who could write correct addresses on postcards … how letters have mattered through history, so much and so dearly …

Love and rage,

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the poet Fayyaz Hashmi's ghazal “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo” was written by Begum Akhtar. The Caravan regrets the error.