Making the experiences of imprisoned women activists visible

  • September 8, 2022
Making the experiences of imprisoned women activists visible

Jigisha Bhattacharya's PhD will trace the prison experiences of Indian women activists

Growing up in a small town in Bengal, Jigisha Bhattacharya [2022] developed a particular sensitivity to marginalised groups and conflicts between different communities and identities from an early age. 

It is this interest and her experience of political protests at university, combined with a longstanding curiosity about the links between politics and the arts, that has fuelled the subject of her PhD, which she begins later this month.

Jigisha will study the steep rise of political incarceration in contemporary India and trace the prison experiences of Indian women activists as recorded in literary works and family and institutional archives. She is aware that those women who have written about their experiences as prisoners have tended to have benefited from a good education and have therefore been able to articulate that experience in prison memoirs and other writing. 

To capture a more representative picture of the prison experiences of women activists, she wants to study how to make the prison experiences of women activists more visible, given those experiences have been little studied. She also wants to study how the state and others depict imprisoned women activists, for instance, in pamphlets and posters.

Early education

Jigisha’s awareness of marginalised identities stems from growing up in a household that was forced to migrate because of British India Partition. Although she was an only child, because family finances were tight, Jigisha shared her home with her cousins. With both her parents being science teachers, education was highly valued at home so it was little surprise that Jigisha took to school readily. She loved learning new things and reading – she devoured the books her parents would bring her when they visited the city, particularly fairytales from around the world. For her last two years of school, she chose a science track, however, until she realised that her love of literature was too strong to ignore. “My love of stories about people was stronger than my interest in science,” she says simply. 

Undergraduate and master’s degrees

So she did her undergraduate degree in English at Presidency University in Kolkata, with a minor in political science and sociology. In her final year Jigisha chose to focus on world literature and women’s writing to explore her interest in how different literary forms affect each other. For her dissertation she studied the literary exchanges between Bengali authors and the Beat Generation in the US

Jigisha then moved to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi to begin her masters in English literature, which gave her a taste for academic research and working through complex ideas and texts. She was particularly inspired by JNU’s focus on interdisciplinary approaches to the humanities and took classes in history, cinema studies, visual studies and performance studies alongside English literature. When she finished she had to weigh up other options like journalism, but her passion for research won the day. 

She opted for another master’s – this time in Social Sciences – at Jadavpur University in Kolkata where her studies centred on the global history of thought and the rise of modernity. Her focus was on the development of Indian photography. She wanted to explore how Indian photographers developed their own language, drawing on the country’s pictorial traditions. For her dissertation, Jigisha studied indigenous photographic studios in Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s, looking at the aesthetic debates that took place about realism and issues such as representation and attempting to understand how different textual practices work in tandem with photography. She was particularly interested in a process of painting on photos which is unique to the South Asian context. “The photographers embellish the photos and that comes directly from  traditional approaches to art, the painting of goddesses and gods, for instance,” she says. “It’s a kind of curious amalgamation of traditions which is unique.”


Jigisha finished her master’s in 2019 and then worked on a six-month project with her supervisor on a female sculptor, looking at how she had written about her craft. At the same time she was teaching English to undergraduate students from Jindal Global Law School, something she continued to do online during the Covid pandemic before her classes went hybrid more recently. “I wanted to see the other side of academia – to see if teaching was for me or if I was interested in pure research only,” she says. “I also wanted to understand the different pedagogical approaches. It was a very important learning experience and taught me the transformative power of teaching and how to simplify complex ideas and explain the roots of different theoretical concepts so that everyone can understand.” Because the archives were closed as a result of Covid, she also focused on developing her ideas for her PhD during this time.


Jigisha has long been interested in gender, in the experiences of women and in the stories that are not told – what she calls “the silences of history”. When she was at JNU there was a lot of political turbulence which continued during the pandemic. Many students were imprisoned as a result. Jigisha became interested in the history of imprisonment in India and noted the lack of research studies on women prisoners. She started researching and writing about the subject, questioning what makes a political prisoner a political prisoner in different contexts.  

She applied to Cambridge because she wanted to take a global perspective on the issue and be able to have a dialogue with different carceral traditions. She was also drawn by the work of her supervisor Professor Priyamvada Gopal and Cambridge’s South Asian archives. 

She knew about Gates Cambridge through friends and particularly about its focus on community engagement. Jigisha has long been involved in student union activities and organisations for women students and has an interest in feminist spaces and the depiction of women’s bodies and marginalised people in public discourse.

She hopes her time at Cambridge will help her to bring her research interests and activism together and help her to explore how conditions of marginalisation enable responsibility, solidarity and hope.

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