‘The Government Thinks That it is Extremely Easy to Silence Women’: A Conversation with Dalit Activist Nodeep Kaur
Published in The American Kahani 03/04/21
Early morning as I sat in front of my Zoom on the other side of the world, nestling my coffee, I expected to see a visibly wounded Nodeep on the other side. Instead, she beamed a warm smile at me sitting at a tent at the farmers protest a few hours after her release from her traumatic arrest on January 12 on charges that are yet to be substantiated.
I tell this story with a lump in my throat because we do not know what will happen to Nodeep. The case is far from over. We do not know if she will get the justice she deserves. Before that, will she get just justice for the millions of laborers who were not paid wages by wealthy industrialists during the Covid locked downs? The laborers who are suffering terrible work conditions, long working hours, unhygienic and dangerous work environments.
Nodeep became a part of a labor union in Sonipat called the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangatan. It has been in operation since the last three years and headed by a gentleman called Sivakumar (who is still in prison). Over 90% of working people still operate in India’s mammoth informal sector. Many of these workers join unions to have their rights recognized and their conditions improved. However, over the last few years and during the pandemic, poverty pay has been institutionalized by the Modi Government in favor of the multinational corporation stripping most Indian workers of minimum living wages and social protection but also of occupational health and safety.
The organization that Nodeep is an activist for is in the Kundali Industrial Area, in the outskirts of the city of Sonipat in the State of Haryana. The activists raise their voice for various issues like the pitiful state of laborers during the lockdown, the need for basic groceries for their survival, minimum wages, and labor laws. Infact, the Union had helped Nodeep with obtaining her salary as well.
While the union protested for such just causes including the new labor laws that made workers work for 12 hours a day instead of the legal 8, Nodeep says that horrific attacks were carried out on them. These attacks were carried out by a private agency called the Quick Response Team, the private security agency employed by industrialists of the Kundali area.
Says Nodeep. “These teams are used by companies to make sure that unions are not formed, labor doesn’t quit workplaces or don’t protest for their wages. Sometimes the police are also part of this.”
The Delhi Government was using jammers at that location of the farmers' protest so my conversation with Nodeep kept getting disconnected, but she was as resilient as I was patient as we kept trying to reconnect to keep going.
Despite such difficulties, this union and Nodeep were supportive of the farmer’s protest. They felt that the magnitude of the farmers’ protest lent credibility and momentum to their own struggle for social justice for years, not only as labor but also as the lowest class of societal hierarchy — the ostracized Dalits.
The Constitution of India banned the caste-based discrimination in 1950 but the government and societal hierarchy continues to use caste to discriminate to hamper social mobility amongst those at the very bottom of the food chain. Nodeep has faced that discrimination her entire life.
On January 2, when the workers visited the Industry Association, demanding their unpaid wages, the Quick Response Team fired shots at them. Following this, the workers’ union went to file a case against the Industry Association at the Kundli police station. However, the police refused to register the FIR.
On January 12, the day when Nodeep was arrested, factory workers approached the management over the issue of non-payment of dues once again, but they were brutally beaten by the Quick Response Team. Even women workers faced harassment and were dragged by their hair and throat by the policemen, without any women constables being present at the site.
At around mid-day, Nodeep was dragged away from the incident site, while her colleagues tried to help her. She was rushed into a small van and was taken to a secluded spot where she was beaten by several policemen in the presence of the Station Head Officer before being taken to the Sonipat police Station where she was further punched and thrashed by the male cops. At no point in time were there any female officers present at any of these locations where 23-year-old Kaur was being assaulted.
In the process of hitting her, the cops hit her private parts several times, sexually assaulted her, abused her, called her racial slurs, and subjected her to third degree treatment.
At midnight she was finally taken to a prison facility at Karnal, where this treatment continued. This is all before she was told the reason why she had been arrested.
The cops have filed 3 FIR’s against Nodeep for charges including attempted murder and extortion.
Nodeep was not given any medical attention for the wounds by the police and was only able to get a doctor after her case was publicized by her activist friends and the court ordered a medical exam 14 days later.
The grit in the demeanor of this young girl is very inspiring because I had to ask her if a harrowing experience like this would silence her or women like her.
“No,” she said emphatically. “The government thinks that it is extremely easy to silence women. Because they can just put them in jail without any resistance and they will remain in fear for the rest of their lives because of the consequences of fighting for our rights. The government fears that if women join such protests, it will become the people’s protest making it wider and easier to win against the government. Also, the society thinks that women are things that can be used and thrown away. All this suppresses women. We are half of the population of this country. But this is the first-time workers have raised their voice for a woman because of which I could get bail.”
The plan for Nodeep is noticeably clear. She identifies herself as a worker. “Even if the workers do not protest, they will die a death working somewhere, in some factory or in an accident.”
Nodeep sees hope that the women in the future will not just work and die without a voice and a reason. She is determined to continue to raise her voice for the labor and women workers as well as continue to stand in support of the farmer’s protest.
Nodeep’s struggle maybe the story of the voiceless millions, who may not have a voice of their own. And thus, this story needs to be told.
Why are we still stuck in a caste-based world — the figment of imagination of someone who died 4,000 years ago? Do we need protection from the ones who are supposed to protect us? For a country that worships Goddesses, throws tantrums at every possible depiction on celluloid as close as possible to religious sentiment as they can conjure — where is the outrage to a woman being assaulted by so many cops? Where is your moral character, India?