Anu Mishra was arrested from her home in New Delhi in 2010. Plain-clothed policemen showed up at her house and took her away. They told her they had some questions. “I wasn’t able to tell anyone or ask any questions. No one knew where I had disappeared until the next day," she recalls. 

She was taken to a holding cell for seven days. The police then spent almost two days interrogating the 39-year-old, accusing her of being a Maoist. 

Mishra was officially arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, but her chargesheet also associated her with the illegal Communist Party of India (Maoist), although she wasn’t told that until a week after the police took her into custody. 

What she also didn’t know was that her husband, Gopal Mishra, who worked with labour unions in Delhi, Noida and Okhla, had been arrested the day before. The evidence the authorities cited against Anu and Gopal ranged from decorations in their home, in the form of hammers and sickles, to communist books and magazines, and alleged interactions with other members of CPI (Maoist). 

Visibly agitated when she recounts the story, she says, “I was angry during the interrogation. New police officers kept coming in and asking the same questions. It was exhausting. They kept asking about members of CPI Maoist—people I didn’t know. How many times could I give them the same response?" 

On 2 May 2010, Mishra was shifted to Tihar Jail, where she would spend the next two years as an under-trial awaiting a verdict. She is still waiting, though she was released from prison in 2012. 

According to a report by Amnesty International, “India has one of the highest under-trial populations in the world. As of December 2015, 67% of prisoners in India’s prisons were ‘undertrials’—people who were awaiting trial or whose trials were still ongoing, and who have not been convicted. In other words, there are twice as many under-trials in India’s prisons as there are convicts." 

In 2009, a year before Mishra was imprisoned, the then home minister P. Chidambaram, under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, initiated what became known as “Operation Green Hunt"—a massive offensive against guerrilla groups, Naxals and Maoists. 

In this sweep, hundreds of people were imprisoned or killed, sometimes with little to no evidence tying them to the Maoist party, according to Human Rights Watch. Some of the jailed were known human rights activists like Binayak Sen, who had prominent voices like Noam Chomsky and organizations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties demanding their release. Others, like Mishra, who were not so well known, struggled to clear their name. 

“It was hard," she says about her time in jail, when we meet in Delhi. “I don’t like to think about it much. There were moments when I felt like I was never going to get out. We would go to court once every month or two months, and nothing would happen." 

She continues, “Police officers used different techniques, from verbal to physical violence. They would search every inch of my body. I didn’t feel human. They (felt that they) had the right to touch me wherever they wanted. 

“When I first arrived, I wasn’t able to see the politics of the prison, where convicts would get money for work but not undertrials, or preference for certain jobs. For example, when I started working at the medical dispensary, there was pushback from the convicts. 

“They believed someone who had been there longer deserved that job—because it had certain benefits like access to medicines. There were fights everyday, all the time. Women would fight over extra blankets or soap, where someone kept their chappals (slippers), water; it was draining. 

“I don’t blame them. We are pitted against each other. Anger had to be released somehow. Surviving in jail is not easy." 

Her parents and siblings never went to see her in jail. Her brother Arvind Yadav is a decade younger and was visiting Mishra in Delhi when we met. “I got the call when it happened. We were all shocked, angry; we didn’t understand why this happened," he says. 

He pauses. “Di and I don’t always see eye to eye. I am a BJP supporter," he says with a smile. “Di was always into social work. She’s so good she thinks that everyone is good. She would only think about people who are repressed.

“When we got the news that she was getting out (in 2012), I went to meet her in Delhi. When I saw her, we both started crying." 

V.K. Ohri, Mishra’s lawyer, says that there was no material evidence against Mishra or her husband. The police used letters between Seema Azad—editor of the magazine Dastak, who was also jailed over alleged Maoist links in 2010—and Anu to try and build a case, when all that the letters contained was information about Hindi literature and poetry, he said. 

“In Anu’s time, governments were afraid of individuals who have the ability organize the common man under one banner, to speak out against injustice," he says. “This was especially true for those who have leftist ideologies—the police target them. Now, it has gone from bad to worse." 

Growing up 

Anu Mishra is a petite, disarming woman with an easy smile. She grew up in Varanasi, in a low-income family. Her father owned a paan shop and her mother would mend and tailor clothing. Mishra would tutor other students to make extra money for the family. 

“My parents worked hard, but it never seemed to be enough. It made me question things—if hard work is all you need, then why didn’t we ever have enough?" she says. 

She completed her 12th standard focusing on sociology and Hindi, and also got a diploma in sitar studies. Her family urged her to be more conventional, pushing her to participate in all the things that girls were supposed to do, but she had no interest in religious practices, marriage or cooking. 

While she was not political, she questioned the conventional. During the 1990s, she worked with Nari Hastkala Udyog Samiti, which supported women in the unorganized sector like vegetable vendors, weavers, and toy makers, besides working as a preschool and kindergarten teacher in Varanasi for several years. 

In 2003, at the age of 32, to the disappointment of her family, Mishra decided to take up social work full time. 

Social justice and love 

She moved to Allahabad to work with a student organization that was associated with Dastak editor Azad. 

Later, the police would use letters that Azad had written to Mishra as evidence of alleged Maoist links. “Seema wrote me letters on books and languages, and the police used that as evidence to say that I was a Maoist," Mishra says. 

In 2003, Gopal Mishra met Anu on a train journey to Kolkata, where both were heading to attend a rally against capitalism. “The first time I saw her, she was singing and laughing on the train. She had such simplicity about her. I wanted to know more about her," says Gopal. 

Eventually, the two were introduced and Mishra even came to Allahabad to see Anu, and proposed to her. 

Anu and Gopal Mishra at home. Photo: Sweta Daga
Anu and Gopal Mishra at home. Photo: Sweta Daga

Based in a basti 

Anu moved to Delhi after the marriage and met Bharti Jain. They began to work in Ambedkar basti, in Delhi’s Shahdara area. Mishra and Jain started Naari Mukti Sangh, a organization that focused on creating theatre programmes and games for children. 

After she was released in 2012, Mishra went back to the basti and helped form the Mehnatkash Mahila Sangathan, which worked with women and children in the basti, playing games and listening to the women grievances, as well as helping them understand their rights.

Jain was a student when she met Anu for the first time in Delhi. “I was involved in student politics but I wanted to move away from that; I wanted to work with everyday people. When I met Anu, it was so simple. She has such ease with people. I wasn’t sure how to talk to people about equality or how to incorporate social messages in everyday conversation, but Anu was able to explain things so simply," Jain says. 

Other volunteers joined them and they worked with the women and children in the basti, giving them access to games, books, ideas and information. They talked about diverse issues from hygiene and sanitation, to education, and even alcoholism. 

As Mishra walks through the basti, she greets people and exchanges smiles. The young women are allowed to be open with her, ask her any question. 

Anu and girls from the basti. Photo: Sweta Daga
Anu and girls from the basti. Photo: Sweta Daga

When Mishra was arrested, the local papers portrayed her as a terrorist, and the members of the community turned their backs on her. Even though the girls in the basti didn’t believe what the papers said, their parents did. 

Bala, who is the first girl from the basti getting her master’s degree, was a young student when she first met Mishra. “We heard about Anu Di’s arrest from our parents who showed us the local newspapers. There were so many lies. It claimed she had children. It claimed she was a Maoist and a terrorist, and that she carried weapons in her jhola. It seemed crazy to us, and we knew that it would hurt Anu Di, but our parents made us stay away from her." 

Mishra made it a priority to go back to the same basti. “After being in jail, I was able to see the other side to the system. I was able to see the class angle even more clearly." 

Arun Ferreira, a Mumbai-based advocate and author, who describes his four years in jail in his book Colours of a Cage, says social activists have often been labelled and arrested as Maoists even though the sections under which they are charged are something else. 

“The government uses this label as a way of incarcerating social and political workers for prolonged periods," says Ferreira. “Anu was never charged under the relevant sections of UA(P)A for being a member of the banned Maoist party, even though they described her as one in her chargesheet and publicized this in the media. 

“She will have to fight this label throughout her life irrespective of whether she will ultimately be acquitted. The criminal justice system and the media make it impossible to get your side of the story understood." 

Homeward bound 

“On 26 April (2010), Anu was worried that Gopal Da had not come home," Jain explains. “Then on the 27th, even she did not show up to the May Day campaign, and that is not like Anu. We knew something was wrong." 

Gopal Mishra was already in police custody at this time. 

“I never went to see her in jail," says Jain. “When I went back to the basti, people said terrible things. I didn’t know how people we had helped, stayed with and eaten food with could say such awful things about Anu. I stopped going to the basti; I wasn’t strong enough to handle it." 

Jain steals a look at Mishra as we sit in her house. “Anu got so skinny in jail. She changed after jail—she had to change. Before jail she had been so open, so free." 

Moving on 

Gopal and Anu Mishra have gone back to the same work that they were doing when they were arrested—working with the unions and in the basti. 

But the scars run deep. Mehnatkash Mahila Sangathan is looking for other places to meet—their current landlord, seeking higher rent, has asked them to leave. The girls think it is because the landlord doesn’t approve of their discussions—and of Anu. 

Neighbours have labelled the girls as “out of control", saying that their parents shouldn’t educate them further. 

Anu and Gopal’s trial is ongoing. They still have two cases against them, and are not allowed to leave Delhi. But Anu remains steadfast in her thinking. 

“People have suffered much more than I have. People have died. I was lucky. I have to keep working, helping others, supporting these young girls," she says.

Sweta Daga is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist writing under the National Foundation of India Media Awards Programme.