“Hi, I’m Jagisha. And I want to talk about my husband.”
Last week, VICE News received a phone call from a 28-year-old woman from New Delhi. Jagisha Arora, a freelance journalist who writes on gender, caste and civil injustices, is a familiar name in some journalism circles in India’s capital. Over the last two months, she has been fighting to get her husband, journalist Prashant Kanojia, out of prison. On August 18 this year, Kanojia, 27, was arrested for sharing a tweet. He’s been in jail ever since.
Kanojia’s tweet, Arora confirms, carried fake news about members of the Dalit (lower-caste) community not allowed to enter a temple dedicated to Lord Ram in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya. Kanojia, a Dalit, deleted the tweet within a few minutes after realising it was fake, she said.
He was booked under nine sections of the Indian Penal Code, including one that accused him of fanning communal hate, and defamation. This was his second arrest. Last June, he was arrested for tweeting about Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was released after four days.
Over the last few years, Kanojia has been writing on human rights issues in UP. He was known to question the government in his reports.
A story like Kanojia’s is not new in India. The Narendra Modi government is drawing flak for its massive crackdown on journalists and members of the civil society.
Last week, UP state police arrested three journalists who were going to the village of the Dalit woman who died after four upper-caste men allegedly gang-raped her in September. The crime triggered nationwide protests.
“This is nothing but a witch hunt,” Arora told VICE News. “There have been so many arrests, and Prashant’s is one of them. This is an attempt to normalise this culture of arresting journalists.”
A report by New Delhi-based human rights think tank Rights and Risks Analysis Group listed over 50 journalists facing criminal charges, violence and other forms of intimidation for their work. UP had the most number of cases. Many journalists in UP have spoken about the fear psychosis of living and reporting in the state.
In June this year, VICE News had spoken to Kanojia about the clampdown on journalists in UP. He said the government did not want journalists to report facts. “If you show the reality, you’re booked,” he had said.
Arora said she has no idea how her husband is doing right now. “He is in jail in Lucknow (the capital of UP). They’re not allowing me to meet him,” she said. “They told me it’s because of COVID-19. The only time we spoke after his arrest was on August 19, when he spoke to the lawyer. All I could ask him was how he is, and he told me to take care of his parents.”
Arora’s marriage to Kanojia itself was filled with struggle. She belongs to an upper-caste family. For many, her marriage to Kanojia is an aberration. Inter-caste marriages bring up the country’s violent history of upper-caste people oppressing those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
In modern-day India, casteism has been institutionalised in all aspects of life—from education and jobs, to even marriage. Honour killings are still practised in many parts of the country on couples who dare break this tradition.
“With the kind of privilege I grew up with, I did not know about caste. I come from a patriarchal and orthodox family. And then I met him. It changed my life in every way,” she said.
Arora always wanted to be a writer but did not find support from her family. She started talking to Kanojia a few years ago after picking up a conversation with him on the comment box of a common friend’s Facebook post. “We had an instant connection,” she said. “He never judged me for what I am. He treated everyone with respect and equality. I found this really attractive.”
She recounted an instance when she had an anxiety attack in the middle of the night. “I had always shared my struggle with depression and anxiety with him. He had told me he will support me,” she said. “On the night when I had my attack, he calmed me down with such positivity. He’s extremely caring and emotional. I have seen him cry easily, without any fears of being judged.”
Arora’s family was against their union. When they were dating, she posted a photo of them on Facebook. Her family found it humiliating. “My brother asked me to leave the house forever,” said Arora. Kanojia, she said, told her she has rights as a daughter, but she was sure what she wanted.
The two got married in October 2018.
“Marriage transformed me. My mind opened up. I could go anywhere without any permissions,” she said. “I started writing, finally.”
When Kanojia’s first arrest came within just six months of being married, Arora was shaken. “I was so new at this. He never spoke about his work with me. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “But they say, love gives you courage. That’s how I soldiered through the ordeal.”
“When someone gets arrested, nobody asks what their mothers, wives or daughters are going through,” she said. “A political prisoner’s wife faces a lot of pressures, loss and sadness, which is not easy to overcome. But this is personal. And personal is political.”
Arora said one of the reasons behind Kanojia’s arrests has to do with his caste. The latest data by the National Crime Records Bureau show that Dalits, members of scheduled tribes and Muslims are jailed in disproportionately higher numbers.
Arora said her husband faces a lot of casteist hate on his social media. “I go through the comments and there are people saying he should be killed or burned. Just because he held different views from them,” she said. “Prashant has a thick skin, having grown up with this hate, but I’m not that strong. I have broken down many times.”
Arora said when her husband is out, she might just ask him to be cautious. She said, “The government has instilled fear in us. We’re scared even if we don’t say anything. I would like for him to be cautious, enough to be in trouble with the police.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.