On 31 March, when Durga* was released on bail from a prison in Mumbai, her jailer was faced with a dilemma. The nationwide lockdown and ban on public transportation to prevent the spread of Covid-19 meant that Durga, who hails from Maharashtra’s remote Palghar district, had no way to travel home.
The jailer, who refused to speak to HuffPost India citing government rules, took a chance and asked if any of the other inmates being released the next day would take Durga, a destitute mother of two children, to their home until the lockdown was lifted. The only one to offer her shelter was 22-year-old Zeba*.
The two women had been incarcerated in the same prison, but didn’t know each other until they were released on bail. When Zeba, a feisty Mumbai girl from the slums near Deonar, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, arrived home with Durga in tow, her family was surprised, but quickly welcomed her.
“We were a bit taken aback that Zeba had got an extra person with her, but her religion doesn’t matter. We have not been raised with this Hindu-Muslim hate you see all around,” said Nadia, Zeba’s elder sister.
Zeba’s family—13 people, including her aged parents, Nadia’s husband and their five children—live in a 10 x 10 feet one-room house and use a local public toilet like hundreds of thousands of people in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the least inclusive cities in the world when it comes to distribution of wealth. Except Zeba, all the adults in the family are either self-employed or, like Nadia, work as domestic helps in neighbouring colonies. None of this prevented them from welcoming Durga into their fold.
The number of Covid-19 cases are rising in India—Maharashtra alone accounts for almost 31% of the country’s total cases—but right-wing keyboard warriors have found ways to spread Islamophobia even in the midst of a public health emergency.
While many Indians are occupied in peddling hate—whether it is over the anti-CAA protests, the Tablighi Jamaat incident, the creation of separate wards for Hindus and Muslims in a Ahmedabad hospital, the recent Palghar lynching or the vicious attacks on jailed Jamia student Safoora Zargar—Zeba and Durga’s story stands out by offering hope that ordinary Indians can display humanity even in the most difficult of circumstances.
During her first week at Zeba’s house, Durga was inconsolable. She wanted to return to her two children, whom she hasn’t even spoken to since she was sent to prison in December 2019.
“Looking at Nadia didi’s children and other kids in the neighbourhood reminds me of my children”, she said. But because of the warmth and generosity shown by Zeba’s family, Durga, a homeless woman who used to sleep at the Palghar railway station, is doing better now.
“They treat me like family, and though I am nothing but an extra mouth to feed, they have been nothing but loving and understanding towards me,” she said over the phone.
Durga, a first-time offender, is a Dalit woman with two teenage children. After her husband died a few years ago, she struggled to make ends meet and eventually turned to alcohol. She is estranged from her husband’s family, who took her children away from her because they thought she was incapable of taking care of them. In December, the Palghar railway police charged her with petty theft when they found her loitering around the tracks.
“It was my fault; I couldn’t cope with the pain when my husband’s family took away my children after his death. I left the house, got involved in alcohol and bad company and landed in prison,” Durga said.
She has no rancour towards her husband’s family though—her only regret is that she doesn’t have a phone number for her sisters-in-law. “It’s been five months since I saw or even heard my children’s voices,” she said, choking up on the phone.
Zeba, a popular figure among her peers, has been grappling with substance abuse and self-harm. Each time this writer tried to reach her, she was either away from her house or indisposed to speak on the phone.
“In our family, Zeba has always been the most adventurous one. She is not scared to speak her mind, and this has led her to a lifestyle that is not expected from girls in our society,” said Nadia.
Both Zeba and Durga, one a young Muslim woman and the other a Dalit widow, belong to the category of prisoners that are most marginalised and discriminated against in India’s justice system. They received bail after a March 23 Supreme Court directive asking state governments to consider releasing prisoners who had committed offences with sentences less than seven years, to prevent an outbreak of the highly infectious Covid-19 in India’s overcrowded prisons.
Nearly all of India’s over 1,300 prisons are overcrowded, and almost 68% of all inmates are undertrials forced to waste decades of their lives as they await the completion of legal proceedings. Across Maharashtra, more than 3,500 undertrial prisoners have been released on bail , but that still only forms around 10% of the people languishing in the state’s jails.
“We had hoped that states would take it as an opportunity to decongest prisons but across the country, what we are seeing is a less than satisfactory implementation of the court order both in letter and in spirit. The Supreme Court had cited undertrials arrested in offences where the maximum sentence was seven years only as an example, but it’s sad to see that instead, states are restricting their eligibility for release of inmates to only this category”, said Maja Daruwala, senior advisor, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
Uncertainty over return
Since April 1, members of Prayas, a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Centre for Criminology and Justice) that engages with undertrials on legal support and rehabilitation, have tried several times to arrange for Durga’s travel back home to Palghar but failed. This was because of the strict nature of the lockdown in the western Maharashtra district as well as the tension that flared up after a mob in Palghar lynched two Hindu seers and their driver because they suspected them of being kidnappers.
“We have the necessary police permission to take her home but as the lockdown is in force, we are going to have to wait for it to be lifted. Meanwhile, we are hoping to raise some funds for Durga so that when she goes back she is able to support herself as well as her two children,” said Sudhakar Marupuri, who works with Prayas.
With no government guidelines or support to help undertrials like her travel back home, Durga is reconciled to waiting until normalcy is restored. But there is a cloud of uncertainty over Durga’s plans to travel to Palghar even after the lockdown is lifted because she neither has a home there nor the necessary skills to earn a living and take care of her children.
For now, her new family is being very supportive. Durga helps around the house, taking care of the children and washing and cooking.
“She can stay here forever, and bring her children also if she wants, we will find her some work and take care of each other,” said Nasreen, another of Zeba’s sisters.
“This is the month of Ramzan and helping somebody in need is anyway our duty,” she said.
*Names changed to protect privacy.