Mumbai: For the past three years, Farida Begum has had to live under constant fear.
“I still have flashbacks of my 17 days inside Bidar jail. I have spent most nights imagining what it would be like to be sent to jail once again and, this time for life, under sedition charges (sedition attracts a life sentence).” But three and a half years after 53-year-old Farida, headmistress of the Shaheen Group of Institutions in Bidar district, and Nazbunissa Begum, mother of a (then) 12-year-old girl student were booked in a sedition case, the Kalburgi bench of the Karnataka high court, on June 14, finally quashed the case against the two.
This case, registered in a small police station in the northeastern part of Karnataka, grabbed attention both nationally and internationally in January 2020.
“I must have recalled every bit that happened in the school’s annual function on January 21, 2020, some thousand times and wondered which part of our work could have even remotely caused any harm to the country or provoked anyone. The only message the play intended to send out was of peace and unity,” Farida says.
Farida and Nazbunissa were booked after the latter’s 12-year-old daughter (now 15 and in class 10) had performed a play that highlighted the sense of insecurity felt by the Muslim community as a whole. The play was an artistic impression of her understanding of the unrest that had been seen across India because of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and two other impending countrywide exercises, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR).
On Wednesday, June 14, the Kalburgi bench of the Karnataka high court finally quashed the case against the two. Farida sounded happy while speaking to The Wire on the phone. “I have many happy moments to recall in my life. But the court’s decision certainly is the happiest,” she says. This news, however, she adds, came after three traumatic years, causing severe damage to both her physical and mental health. “I developed a heart ailment soon after the incident. My anxiety level too has been unmanageable,” she says. Her two daughters too were deeply impacted.
For 28-year-old Nazbunissa, a single mother who works as a domestic worker to support her only child’s education, the arrest had come as a major blow. “When I was sent to jail, my child (who was merely 12 then) had no one to take care of her. Although the neighbours and school administration had been kind, the child felt abandoned and as if it were her mistake because of which I landed in jail,” Nazbunissa says.
Nazbunissa took a while to understand that the criminal charges against her and Farida were not because of their stand but an outcome of the communal atmosphere that had been brewing in the state and across the country. When Neelesh Rakshyal, a local radical right-wing activist, registered the FIR, Nazmunissa says her first response was to hide. “I felt shame. I assumed none of my family members would understand what is happening to me and my child. But later after the arrest, when I had become a household name, relatives and friends found out. They extended unconditional support.”
Nazmunissa was only 12 years old when she got married. And by the time she turned 18, her husband died of cancer. She moved from her hometown Hallikhed to Bidar city in 2013 and ever since then has worked as a domestic worker. “I have seen the most extreme conditions in a very short period. From being widowed at 18 to being sent to jail at 25, way too much at such a young age,” she says. “Hope this is where it ends. My child will soon finish school and begin college next year. I only hope good things are waiting for us ahead.”
Since the news of the high court quashing the FIR reached these women, it has been unending celebrations in both families. “Relatives, activists, neighbours have been dropping by to congratulate us for both the court’s order and for being strong all through. One of them even called me an indomitable woman. Maybe we are indomitable Muslim women,” Farida says, happily.