On the morning of May 3, a message was being circulated that Mahawir Narwal needed oxygen support urgently. I panicked. Despite knowing that there must be scores like me trying to arrange oxygen for him, I still made frantic calls to good samaritans. I tried to find the contact numbers of friends in Rohtak. Pramod Gauri of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti informed me that Narwal sahib needed to be hospitalised and that oxygen support at home was not sufficient. They were trying to find a hospital for him.
Within hours it was arranged. I breathed a sigh of relief. There was no panic in Pramodji’s voice so I felt reassured. Little did I know that precious time had been wasted before the invasion of the virus on his vital organs. His son, Akash, was looking after him but he had also tested positive for COVID-19.
On Saturday I received a message from AIDWA leader Jagmati Sangwan that Mahavir Narwal’s condition was critical. His oxygen level was falling and doctors were doing everything possible to stop it.
My heart sank.
I could not gather the courage to call Jagamati again. On Sunday morning, I called Pramod to inquire about Narwal sahib’s health. “No, he is not well.” I did not know what to ask next. He told me to expect a call from him only if there was any improvement in Narwal sahib’s condition.
The call never came. Instead, I got a message came from Kavita Srivastava that Mahavir Narwal was no more.
The Delhi high court has granted interim bail of three weeks to Narwal’s daughter, Natasha Narwal, so she may be present for his cremation. The judges are very kind, I must say. In the court’s order, they said, “In view of the interest of justice, we are of the view that the release of the applicant is imperative in this hour of grief and personal loss and in facts and circumstances of the case.”
Natasha’s lawyers, I recall, had pleaded before the court while he was still alive, seeking bail for her so she could attend to her ailing father. The court had heard her plea but reserved its order for Monday. Justice moves at a stately pace but coronavirus doesn’t care. Moreover, it didn’t impact the judges – if Narwal sahib had to die, he would have died even if his daughter was near him.
So, we are sincerely thankful to their lordships for taking such a humanitarian stance. We should also remember that G.N. Saibaba, who is serving a life sentence at a jail in Nagpur, was denied bail by the courts to visit his mother when she was unwell. Not only that, Saibaba was refused parole to perform her last rites. Vernon Gonsalves, awaiting trial in the Bhima Koregaon case, didn’t even try to get bail after the death of his mother. Gonsalves didn’t want to burden his family and lawyers with this additional work.
So, we are truly grateful to the honourable bench for joining humanity with justice in this case.
While writing these lines, I called Kavita Srivastava to find out if Natasha had reached Rohtak. The bench has waived the condition of surety so that saves some time.
Natasha is not alone in Rohtak. Narwal sahib’s friends and colleagues are with her. That is how I console myself.
It all ended too soon. It was only last year in May when my phone rang and I heard Narwal sahib’s voice on the other end. “Narwal this side, Apoorvanand”. I immediately recognised his voice – I had met him at least twice when I was in Rohtak. “Natasha is my daughter,” he said. I was shocked. How did I not know that Narwal sahib was Natasha’s father?
In 2016, I didn’t know that Umar Khalid was the son of my friend, Iliyas sahib. Why? There must be something wrong with those of us who keep talking about our society but seldom ask about families or families of our friends!
Natasha had been arrested last year. Her friend Devangana Kalita was also arrested with her. Delhi Police wants us to believe that they had hatched a plan to instigate the violence that had ravaged North East Delhi in February last year, that their organisation Pinjra Tod was a conspiratorial body that had provoked women protesting against the CAA-NRC to indulge in violence and had also organised the logistics for it.
This theory has been peddled since February. We knew that this was an absurd story weaved by the Delhi police which had refrained from naming the real perpetrators. It had instead decided to criminalise the protestors and those who had supported their agitation.
So we knew that the arrests of Natasha, Devangana, and Gulfishan were imminent. I did not know the three personally. I knew of Pinjara Tod, I had seen them in action at the Delhi University’s campus. I had met Natasha at one of the protest sites.
I met the members of Pinjara Tod and Natasha after the violence. She had been involved in the relief work for those who had been hit by the violence in North East Delhi. Despite the fact that she had already been named in an FIR in connection with the violence on February 24 at Jafarabad. She never went into hiding.
Natasha continued with her relief work and soon this relief work was merged with philanthropic work for those facing the brunt of the pandemic. She was also suffering from back problems. I would see her getting up from her seat and taking short walks from time to time.
Suddenly she was not there. The police had taken her in. That was why I got a call from Natasha’s father. “Do not worry, Apoorvanandji. I have been in jail. My daughter would also know the life of jails.” Was he trying to be brave? There was a certain nonchalance in his tone. He said that the charges were not serious and she would get bail easily.
Narwal sahib was right. Natasha did get bail in that case but then the police arrested her in another case. This time it was very difficult, if not impossible, to get bail for her as she had been slapped with the dreaded UAPA.
Narwal sahib remained unfazed. We kept in touch. There were many missed calls and messages that were left without a response but the link remained alive.
Narwal sahib on some occasions sounded more concerned about my wellbeing than his daughters. We were tied to each other in a strange way. The Delhi Police needed to assign the role of a teacher to someone since in its conspiratorial worldview the young women have to have been tutored. We laughed and cried. Banojyotsna told me that the women of Pinjra Tod would be miffed to learn that the police were portraying them as having been led by a teacher. Can there be a bigger insult to a feminist group than this?
Narwal sahib also enjoyed the joke. He was happy that his brave daughter was not worried about herself in jail. She was looking after the other women inmates – teaching them yoga, looking after the jail’s library.
I took care not to touch the personal cord. I could see he was mobilising all his emotional and intellectual resources for it was bound to be a long haul. His daughter was facing a brutal regime and a bewildered judiciary. Not only that, but she was also braving an onslaught from a media ecosystem that is baying for blood.
I, myself a father to a daughter, have wondered where Narwal sahib got his strength from. The short film that the Karwan-e-Mohabbat team has done on Narwal sahib brings out the courageous but also vulnerable father in him. He accepts that there are times when he is surrounded by negative thoughts and forces and cannot find a way out of it.
“Suppose my daughter has to stay in jail for a really long time and there comes a time when she is not able to see me,” he said. I could see him fighting back tears. After all he is growing old and who knows he would not live to see her! Has he not seen the fate of Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen and others? But he does not want his daughter to be assailed by such thoughts.
He cautions against bravado. “Not that these are pleasant times. It is only that we suppress our pain deep within.”
Narwal sahib was not so old as he claimed to be. He had to live. To see his daughter free. Not on bail. Free, with apologies from the Indian state and Delhi police. He definitely was the father all girls deserve to have. But daughters need to be with their fathers. They need them. Even when they are brave. This much the courts need to realise. Develop some heart. Justice would look better with an ear to hear a heart beating for a daughter or a daughter’s heart beating for her father.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.