We met Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old M.Phil. student of Jamia Milia Islamia university in New Delhi, for the first time early this year when she was in the middle of a meeting, prepping for a peace march that Jamia was organising. In the middle of winter, swaddled in a coat, a scarf and big round glasses, she could easily pass off as any other student but her powerful voice and quiet confidence made her stand out. 

The atmosphere was charged, there was sloganeering outside the Jamia gates 24x7 but Zargar was calm and collected as she talked about her time on campus, her life and political awakening. Sitting in front of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) office first and eventually the Arts faculty, she was interrupted every 10 minutes as her peers came looking for her. Her phone rang incessantly throughout the conversation, but she kept her focus as she spoke of her personal evolution. 

Months later, on April 10, Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested her. 

Zargar, who is now 21-week pregnant, was arrested on the basis of a police complaint that accused her of participating in protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) at the Jaffrabad area in north-east Delhi, prior to violence breaking out in the area. 

At hearing for her bail on April 13, the investigating opposed her bail stating she was suspected of being involved in “anti-national activities.” Bail was, however, granted on medical grounds, as she was 14 weeks pregnant at the time. However, halfway through the hearing, she was slapped with four sections of the Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act (UAPA). Imprisoned and booked under almost 20 charges, including rioting, murder, sedition and two sections of the Arms Act among others, her bail has been constantly denied, even on the basis of medical grounds.

At her last hearing on June 4, her lawyers, Trideep Pais, Ritesh Dhar Dubey and Sanya Kumar, argued that her stay in jail could be detrimental to her and her baby’s health. 

Zargar’s health is particularly vulnerable not only because of COVID-19 but also because she suffers from Polycystic Ovarian Disorder, and has a repeated history of urinary tract infection. Both conditions require close medical monitoring. 

The lawyers also argued that the prosecution was misleading the court and accused the Delhi Police of targeting students exercising their constitutional right to protest. The government prosecutor Irfan Ahmed negated these claims by stating that the JCC, of which Zargar was a coordinator, planned all the anti-CAA protests and eventually conspired to instigate violence in the capital in the form of the “Delhi riots,” which, in February, killed 53 people, including an Intelligence Bureau official and a head constable.

Judge Dharmender Rana of Patiala House Court stated that  Zargar was not entitled to bail because, according to data collected via WhatsApp chats and witness statements, it was evident that the Delhi riots were the result of a “larger conspiracy” and to “overawe the government machinery by resorting to force and violence.” Even though the defense exhaustively argued that there was no direct proof that Zargar and the JCC were responsible for the violence that broke out between the pro- and anti-CAA protestors in the capital, Judge Rana was not convinced, saying, “Even if no direct violence is attributable to the applicant/accused, she cannot shy away from her liabilities under the provisions of the said Act. 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...”  He concluded by saying that he saw no merit in the bail but ordered that she get the appropriate medical aid and assistance she deserves.

This was Zargar’s third bail hearing.

At least six other students have been arrested in connection with the Delhi riots.

Ever since her arrest, Zargar has been subjected to vicious online hate campaigns against her which has even resulted in the Delhi Commission for Women stepping in and putting a halt to her constant character assassination. Almost two months on, Zargar now unwittingly finds herself as the prime face of the women’s resistance against the CAA and the NRC, but this was not always the case. Her journey into activism was one that was more personal than it was political, and one driven by an organic extension of her personal growth as a student.

While studying at Delhi university, even though Zargar was associated with the Women’s Development Cell and helped run a campus magazine, she led a pretty mainstream campus life devoid of any activism. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she pursued a career in marketing for a year and a half, and then quit to do her Masters in Sociology from Jamia Milia Islamia in 2016. It was in Jamia, a place that she says she was reluctant to join initially because she was afraid of being boxed in, is where she came to understand herself, her community and the context of her socio-political identity. “I evolved so much as a person here,” she said.

We met her while looking for young activists participating in the anti-CAA, -NRC protests in India. Meeran Haider, a Ph.D. scholar who was also arrested and was the focus of the media storm, but Zargar’s name as a lesser known but upcoming women’s activist as the coordinator for the JCC kept coming up, so we decided to go and look for her.

Identity

Even though she is originally from Jammu, she considered herself to be from Delhi. Her father, who is a retired government officer, moved to the National Capital Region when she was a little girl. And interactions with her community were restricted at the time. “As we grew up, between boards, coaching and college schedules, the time we spent back home was even less. It was reduced to festivals and weddings, the entire affiliation with people from your own society was missing. When I went home, I was alienated from them as well, the colour of my skin is very dark and so I stood out... It was an othering process; I felt like I belonged nowhere in a way,” she said.

 Zargar felt haunted by the question of identity, home and belonging for a long time but her Muslim identity stuck with her. “I always got extra attention because of my name. People would often ask, What does it mean, what are its origin.’ And the moment I would tell them, their attitudes would slightly change. There are many stray comments that you have to deal with. For example, the mother of a friend of my sister would often say, ‘You are such well-off Muslims; we have always only seen extremely poor Muslims’. So it was an everyday fight that was happening with me,” she said, adding that with time she learned to respond to these remarks with humour and used it as a coping mechanism.

Only at Jamia did she feel a sense of belonging because this is where she met people who were asked the same questions that she was. “But I realised I was responding very differently from them. I also met a lot of other Muslims and realised where this narrative was coming from, this narrative of Muslims being illiterate, uneducated and living in ghettos. Because from where I come, Muslims don’t live like that; they lived in mansions and posh colonies, so how was I to respond to something I did not understand. These were things and nuances I started to understand after coming to Jamia. When I was in my masters, I was the only girl in my class with an i-Phone. When I was at Delhi University, I was a lower-class person and when I was here, I was upper-class. So I would be so mesmerised with people and see how close-quartered they were.”

Her years at Delhi University and public schools in the capital had given her an exposure to navigate a world beyond Jamia and perhaps, this is one of the reasons why she found the confidence to own her voice. 

“There was an extra value attached to my voice. The question that was thrown at me repeatedly was, ‘How come my English is so good?’ But I came from an English-medium school. I later realised that even though the Jamia senior secondary school was English-medium, that education has not reached here. The Sachar Committee Report (on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India) highlights these factors very clearly. And now, since my topic of  research is urban Muslims, I am aware of all the shortcomings, the rate of illiteracy, the backwardness amongst the Muslim population in India. They are the lowest strata of the urban population, so they face domination, oppression. It is the lack of resources available to them which makes (them) the way they are. It was Jamia that made me understand the problems of the Muslim community and in a way, understand my own problems.”

Feminist Activism & the Making of a Women’s Movement

Zargar says that the momentum for activism had been building in this primarily non-political campus for a while. Students had taken to marching, effigy burning and other such forms of protest in the last couple of years, owing to the growing concerns over the clampdown of any kind of dissent. All of this would eventually come to a head with the CAA. On Dec. 11, there was a major march and women came out for the first time in large numbers, at night, defying their hostel “curfew.” 

“Every movement has a moment of romanticism, and it was that moment for this movement – when women came out on the streets. This has never happened in the history of Jamia. Every time there are political discussions in the central canteen, there are only 1-2 women; mostly it is boys. But it is when you see women outnumbering the men, that is when the romantic movement happens,” she said.

The reason women are taking to the streets, she feels, is because the country has done great injustice to its women. “I feel this country has failed its women in so many things that women have lost faith in men. I mean, as a woman, I don’t feel I think (that) men are capable of running this country anymore. As long as there are more men than women making decisions, I feel the circumstances of this country are never going to improve. This is partially because of the gender imbalance while making these decisions. Women are more empathetic of others and are better at making certain decisions. You may call me an over-feminist, a radical feminist or all of that, but wherever women go, they can find order in chaos and history has shown this. That is why I feel, when women saw that they made certain decisions and they turned out good, that helped build their confidence to fight for more.”

Zargar also said that one of the reasons why women are more reluctant to join politics is because they have to tolerate a lot. “I would say, the way a man is slandered, if a woman is slandered in the same way, the repercussions for both are wildly different. I feel that, as women, we are always told to be very protective of our character, (so) we will never go out and fight for it. In fact, we will always have to protect it from attack, so best not to say anything so that you don’t get attacked.” 

When she initially started speaking up, she would often encourage other women to join and they would all be hesitant primarily because of how people talked about women in public spaces. The confidence that has come to the women in Jamia, and all over Delhi as well, has also been because of Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and alumni of colleges from across Delhi, and its struggle in reclaiming public spaces. “The way that the Pinjra Tod women came out and stood as protectors of their male counterparts when the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or  a right-wing all India student organisation) hit them and challenged their narrative on their streets, gave women some legitimacy. Women realised that if they stand up to something, they will get there.”

The biggest problem for women now is the struggle to maintain peace between those who want to attack you and those who want to save you. This idea of protecting women also ends up snubbing them and shoving them into the back again. 

“The most important thing here is the power given to women to make their own decisions,” Zargar said. “In the process of correcting them, you throw women on the fringes and do not let them make their own decisions. This is something that women have to face all their lives, starting from the small things in their homes – the subjects they need to choose, their professions and all the mansplaining that keeps happening to women all of their lives. I feel, we as women have also ingrained that, and we need to try to break through from these things, only then, I feel, will we be able to create gender-neutral spaces – not only in protests but in everyday life, including public spaces, the process for which has already started.”

Protests and Jamia 

After the CAA protests kicked off at Jamia on Dec. 13, the police fired tear gas shells on students. She said she couldn’t help but feel that this wouldn’t have happened if it was another part of Delhi. The reason Jamia was targeted with such brutality was because it was a Muslim University (even though it is not really a Muslim university; it is a Muslim-majority university).

When the police entered the Jamia campus on Dec. 15, Zargar was at home, watching the news live as students were being rounded up and brought out with their arms raised. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “I recognised my friends, walking with their hands up and I kept thinking to myself, why were they being treated like terrorists. This is how you round up terrorists, the way they were brought out of the campus.”

Jamia, which was a largely apolitical campus, had been gaining momentum in activism over the last couple of years. The frequent incidents of lynching, the “triple talaq” verdict, the rape and murder of Asifa Bano, all caused hue and cry on the campus, but it was the CAA that tipped the students over. The strong backlash from the government was not something that the university anticipated and the more it tried to clamp down on dissent, the more it increased.

“We tried to cite Gandhiji’s Dandi call but we faced so much resistance even in that; there were no barricades during Gandhi’s time but there were police lines that the people did try to cross, they did try to move through it. But the way the police reacted to us from the other side, that can be called violence; you are attacking unarmed students who have nothing but a bag and a phone on them. You are mercilessly lathi-charging them. There are different kinds of lathi-charge but this was a lathi-charge with an intention to cause grievous harm. There was a line drawn across the police barricades – on one side were the students and on the other side was the police that was tear gassing them.”

Living as a Minority

“I feel, the Muslims in this country are still trying to establish that they are Indians, that they do not want to go to Pakistan, they were not left behind but they chose to stay back,” Zargar said. 

This might come off as an apologist concept but Muslims don’t really have a choice. When they go out to protest, even then they have a national flag in their hands. 

“Muslims in this country have always been very apologetic; they have been trying to (portray) their religion in a good light – how do we show that our religion is good, we should tell good stories, we have to stress on all these aspects because we want to prove that our religion is peaceful and how we are not related to Pakistan and how we support India.”

There are moments when Zargar as an academician can feel and pinpoint the exact problems with the hyper nationalism. From simple things such as playing the national anthem before a movie to lynching people in the name of a religion, but she has never freely voiced those because her friends often remind her of her identity. 

“I must remember at all times that I cannot resist; I must take my identity and its limitations into account. As Muslims, we always have to embrace our identity, keep its limitations in check and then protest. Where I am concerned, I feel this attack is doubled, because not only am I Kashmiri, I am also a Muslim, so for everything, people are quick to tell me that I should go to Pakistan. Being a citizen of this country, I cannot bring up its issues without being told that I have a personal vendetta,” she said.

Zargar still has hope. She believes that there are only a handful of people who are so violent and full of hate. “I do not feel that 80 percent of the people in this country are filled with hatred. I recently met Arundhati Roy, who was reading from a book, and she told us that this is a fight between the lovers and the haters. So just for a few moments people might get instigated because of the false narrative, but eventually, the reality will come forward. The way we are being repeatedly attacked and we are not responding, we don’t want to speak their language.”

When it was almost dusk as our conversation with Zargar carried on, a person interrupted our conversation, telling Zargar that her father had been trying to reach her. She laughed and told us that her in-laws are coming over and her parents wanted her to be home soon. With that she rushed off.

The next time we saw her was for a brief photoshoot. Zargar was busy convincing people to unblock the Jamia road for the Delhi Assembly elections. “We do not want to cause any inconvenience to the people,” she said. There was a lightness to her that day. She had just come back from a day spent in Delhi’s Khan Market area with her family. She laughed through the short conversation where she talked about her future plans, which involve doing a Ph.D. at some point.

This time, when someone interrupted us and shouted, “Aaapa (an Urdu word to address a woman with respect),” she said goodbye and disappeared into the crowd.


Ruhani Kaur and Gunjeet Sra are journalists, and  founders of "The Others", an initiative aimed at using  storytelling as a tool to amplify the subaltern voice.