Locked Up But Undeterred, India's Voice Against Discrimination - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Locked Up But Undeterred, India's Voice Against Discrimination

Locked Up But Undeterred, India's Voice Against Discrimination

By Pallabi Munsi

A protest demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump in New Delhi, India.
SourceYawar Nazir/ Getty


Because the struggle against heavy-handed policing is global.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • From behind bars, Safoora Zargar has become one of the leading voices against India’s anti-Muslim citizenship law.
  • The organizer is pregnant and risks exposure to the coronavirus, drawing global attention to her detention as, effectively, a political prisoner.

For exactly five minutes on alternate days, 27-year-old Safoora Zargar gets to speak with her husband, Sirwal. While Sirwal is at their home in Delhi, Safoora has been in Asia’s largest prison, Tihar Jail, since April 10. She was arrested on charges of instigating a riot in northeast Delhi during President Donald Trump’s February visit by giving an “inflammatory speech” in the area just a day prior.  

In those five minutes, Sirwal and Safoora, besides exchanging legal updates, mostly talk about her health and how to make things as comfortable as possible for their coming baby. She was arrested when she was three months pregnant. In court, Zargar’s lawyer recently argued that she should be released in part because she suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome and, unless she’s careful and resting, she could suffer a miscarriage. Not to mention the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

But Zargar, a master’s student in sociology at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, who emerged as a prominent voice of India’s protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that discriminates against Muslims, would prefer to be the voice behind a cause — not the cause herself. “That’s the kind of person she is,” says Sirwal. 

While America — and the world — rose up in revolt to condemn the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Zargar’s case shows how police misconduct is not exclusive to the U.S. Reports state more than 400 people died in police custody in India last year, and a survey of police officers revealed that 37 percent believe the police should administer punishment for minor offenses as an alternative to legal trial, and 19 percent of officers agree that police killing dangerous criminals is better than a trial.

Maybe that’s why she was targeted … because leadership comes naturally to her even though she never wants to be in the limelight.

Fayiza, friend and colleague of Safoora Zargar

Sirwal vividly remembers the day his wife was arrested. It was around 3 p.m. on a Friday amid the first phase of the national coronavirus lockdown — with access to the courts and the right to be heard in the streets both almost impossible. Safoora, who hails from Kishtawar in Kashmir, was sleeping. Sirwal and his parents were watching TV when around 10 policemen arrived at their door.

Safoora thought it was for routine questioning similar to what some of her colleagues had faced for dissenting against police brutality in the university and the CAA. She is hardly the sort to be scared: Just days after police allegedly forcibly entered the university, threw tear gas shells inside the library and assaulted students in early December, Zargar became a part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), a group formed to address the violence and schedule peaceful protests.

But it is not just politics she is interested in. 

When Zargar was completing her bachelor’s in sociology from Delhi University’s Jesus & Mary College, she was instrumental in the launch of the campus magazine Still I Rise — for which she was evidently inspired by American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s poem. In 2017, she told an interviewer for a documentary: “We want to conduct events in our department where we can discuss nation-state, nationalism and jingoism. These subjects are inherent to sociology, but we are not allowed to speak about them.”

On April 10, Sirwal recalls, the cops asked his wife to accompany them to the police station. That night, around 10 p.m., she was locked up. The charges were numerous, including instigating a riot. She was granted bail by a lower court just three days later — but within moments, Special Investigations Team members of the Delhi police re-arrested her on different charges at a different police station.

On April 21, she was booked under India’s draconian anti-terror law. In his order denying bail to her recently, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana wrote: “When you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind to have carried the spark a bit too far and spread the fire.” Authorities allege it was a speech by Zargar the day before Trump’s arrival that instigated the riots. Her lawyer says she only passed briefly through the general area.

The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights has said that Zargar’s detention “does not appear to meet the standards of international law,” and local activist groups have applied pressure to no avail.

Given all the factors, she should be released, says Tara Narula, an advocate in New Delhi, who has been instrumental in dealing with cases regarding the northeast Delhi riots. “Especially given the pandemic and the additional risk of her being a pregnant woman,” Narula adds.

Zargar’s friends speak of a fearless leader who had an inkling the cops would come for them for speaking out. “But no one, including her, had any iota of understanding that [the incarceration] would be for so long,” says Srijan Chawla, a fellow member of the JCC.

Fayiza, another JCC member (who asked that her full name be withheld for fear of the police), recalls Zagar taking charge at an early meeting of the group and “effortlessly combining all the ideas.”

“Maybe that’s why she was targeted … because leadership comes naturally to her even though she never wants to be in the limelight,” Fayiza adds.

Chawla, meanwhile, wonders why she was singled out. Probably, she says, because Zargar is assertive and uncompromising. “There would be times when I would disagree with her for being so obstinate on her views. But in the end, she knew what she was doing,” she says, adding that “there is no pattern and we are all under their radar.” 

But Zargar is a lot more than what the news shows — a dutiful daughter who took care of her two younger sisters, a wife in a relationship that grows stronger by the day, and a mother-to-be whose main concern is to ensure a healthy upbringing for her child. Beyond all that, she is a woman in love with black coffee, makeup, the American legal TV drama Suits, and the notion of a better world. An ideal the resilient activist will, her friends say, never compromise on — despite everything. 

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