Delhi Police came knocking on Safoora Zargar’s door on the afternoon of April 10 last year. They asked the Jamia Millia Islamia research scholar, who was pregnant at the time, to pack her bags. She was arrested that night.
Zargar, 28, led a quiet life until her university was plunged into protests against the amended Citizenship Act in December 2019. The law introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship for the first time. Coupled with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens, it raised fears that the initiatives would be used to harass Muslims. Zargar found herself drawn into a wider circle of protests.
“We thought we were just protesting and there is nothing criminal about it,” she recalled in an interview with Scroll.in.
But the Delhi Police took a different view: it blamed the communal violence that killed 53 people in North East Delhi in February 2020 on an alleged conspiracy by the anti-Citizenship Act protestors to defame the Narendra Modi government.
Invoking the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, India’s draconian anti-terror law, it arrested 21 people, many of whom were students. Zargar was one of them.
Unlike the others who remain in jail, Zargar was granted bail in June on humanitarian grounds because she was pregnant. Eight months later, she has decided to talk about her experience in prison – and the wider insights she has gained from her participating in a movement that the government has criminalised.
Excerpts from the interview:
You were granted bail around eight months ago but the cases against you are still pending in court. What has driven you to speak to the press at this point?
There were a lot of reasons for me not to speak to the press. Firstly, my pregnancy, I was going through a very difficult phase in the seventh month. There were complications and I was advised complete bed rest. There was a time I couldn’t even sit properly, I would always be lying down. It became very difficult and also my mother was not well. I was focusing on completely delivering a healthy baby.
I feel that I am much more relaxed now that my baby is born and healthy. I am studying and coming back to normal life. And speaking is a part of my normal life.
How did you become aware of the implications of the Centre’s citizenship law? What made you view them as a matter of concern?
There are two things, it is great that you are giving citizenship but why are you leaving out one community. That makes you question the entire idea behind the law. Secondly, when you read it with the NRC, it becomes a tad dangerous. And NRC is not something that is hypothetical. It has already happened in our country and there have been various studies on how there has been a devastating effect, and yet the government wants to replicate that all over the country.
How did your engagement with the protests begin?
It intensively started after the police brutality on Jamia, when the campus was attacked. So many of my friends were injured. The university was humiliated, students were beaten up [by the police] for no reason at all. When you see the people, who are supposed to enforce the law, break the law instead...We felt betrayed at so many levels.
We also realised that all of this happened maybe because we belong to a certain community. And that is why we decided to address that problem. But the more we addressed it, the more repression we faced, the more violence we faced, be it online or in the mainstream media tagging us as terrorists and anti-nationals.
That the government did not engage with us is something that seriously speaks volumes about the kind of attitude of the government towards its own students, and students were very dissatisfied with the whole situation and did not accept the status quo.
Delhi Police arrested you on April 10. Before that, did you sense that you were a suspect in the case? At what point did you feel that your arrest was imminent?
Till the end moment, I could not anticipate that I was going to be arrested. Even after Meeran [Haider] was arrested, we had no idea that further arrests were going to be made from Jamia. We did not even know about the conspiracy FIR, because we thought we were just protesting and there is nothing criminal about it so why to anticipate an arrest.
When the police came knocking on my door, I was sleeping and my husband had informed them that I was pregnant. He did not know how to break it to me. He just came up to me and whispered to me that there are some people here you have to come out. My heart started beating very fast. They asked me a few questions and asked me to pack my bags. I asked them why. They said, “aap baas pack kar lo”.
They took me to the Special Cell. It was around 3 pm. There was one woman constable. I was interrogated there. At night, they told my husband that they are arresting me and they made him sign an arrest memo which said 5.30 pm. He signed it and I also signed it. I was taken in a jeep to Jafrabad police station.
Did you have to spend the night there?
In my three-day custody at Jafrabad, I slept at different police stations because Jafrabad did not have a women’s cell. So the first and third night was in Seelampur, the second night was in Welcome.
It was very bad. They shifted me wherever they had space and accommodation. I was alone all the time. There was a woman constable outside my cell. I was alone in my cell without a fan. But then I had requested for it and considering my pregnancy they had put a standing fan outside my cell.
It is difficult when you go to a police station. There is no bedding there. You are expected to sleep on the floor, which I do not know was cleaned or not. There were some mats and blankets that I could have put. They smell of alcohol and dirt. I was very dazed through it all. I just kept feeling that it was a nightmare and it was going to be over.
You spent nearly three months in jail, and you were also pregnant at the time. What was that like?
I was sent to Tihar jail for judicial custody. The pandemic made it worse. When I went there, I was isolated. It has double lock cells. High walls, barbed wires. I was kept there for 24 hours, after that I was shifted to ward number eight and I was locked up for 15 days citing the quarantine norms of the jail. But I started noticing that people who came after me were roaming about but I was locked up. When I was presented to the magistrate, I raised this issue. I kept writing applications [to the jail superintendent]. But I never got any response.
Someone in the cell opposite me had committed suicide. She hung herself with an exhaust fan – this is what they say. It affected me a lot. I had seen her being put into the cell. She was hurt. It was a case of murder and she had been badly beaten up. She was black and blue all over. She had attempted suicide in police custody. They knew she was susceptible to that. I feel there should have been an extra security cover for her. I told the police women that it was because of their negligence the suicide had happened.
I was in a cell so I did not have access to television, and even in the barracks there are TVs but only with access to one or two channels like Doordarshan so it doesn’t tell you much.
Mulaqat was closed. You can’t meet your family. You can’t meet your lawyer. You do not know what is happening in your case. You can’t get your belongings especially in the pandemic and that is what exacerbates the situation so much. Sometimes it made me very restless and I used to panic. I just wanted to speak to my lawyer even after writing repeated letters. It was on the fifteenth day that I spoke to my lawyer after I was presented to the magistrate.
I spent 38 days in solitary confinement. Even after that I was not allowed to go out. They kept me alone in my cell. We used to be in lockdown for 22 hours. They would open it for us to take water and food. It was becoming very difficult for me to keep myself calm.
When we would say something the staff would say, “Tumko bhi aapne tange tudwani hai kya? We will break your legs. We will break your head. Don’t speak much. You are not here to question.”
How did you cope with everything?
I was reading. I was doing my namaz and reading the Quran. Frankly, it was the only thing that got me through it all. I was just trying to divert my attention. I was trying to get other books to read also.
The first night I really begged the staff to get me a book, any book, but their library was closed. But there was a nice woman from the staff who got me a small book on children’s stories. It was in English. I think it was Reader’s Digest. I passed my time with that.
I am a practicing Muslim, but I had not been regular with my five-times-a-day prayer. But in jail there was so much time. I was praying five times a day. It does relax you.
Natasha [Narwal] used to do so much yoga, we used to be amused. It would take her mind off things. For four hours a day she would do yoga. She did not care what people would think. She would teach others also. Everyone finds their sweet things to do. But the bad thoughts do not leave you when you have so much time to think.
While in jail, did the other inmates know who you were?
So when we spoke to people we would ask them, “Tum kis mein aayi ho? Murder? Double murder? Theft? Drugs?” It took me a while to get used to this language. I did not fall into any of these categories. I would tell them we were protesting and then would have to explain that to them. A rumour spread in jail that we had done the riots and I have killed 53 Hindus and I am some Kashmiri terrorist. At one point, I did fear for my security in the prison but asserting that meant more isolation. I did not want to make my situation even more difficult.
While opposing your bail, the prosecution had alleged that you made an inflammatory speech on February 23 which, they claimed, led to the violence. How do you respond to that?
I will respond to that in court in the judicial process.
What do you make of the fact that the Delhi police have dismissed the entire CAA protest and called it a “facade” and a “conspiracy” to defame the Narendra Modi government?
Generally, the situation in the country is such that any voice criticising the government is termed as anti-national or is termed as having some ulterior motive. Whereas, the simple motive that we as protestors have is to engage in dialogue with the government which it refuses to do and to shy away from that it has been weaponising institutions, misusing institutions against the protestors and dissidents.
In the conspiracy case chargesheet, there was a purported disclosure statement of yours dated April 14, below which was scribbled: “Refuse to sign”. Could you please tell us more about this?
Disclosure statements are not admissible during the trial. I have a right to sign or not sign them. I did as my lawyer advised me. I exercised my right. Beyond that, I will defend myself in the court.
Including you, 15 out of the 21 who were arrested are Muslim. Most of those 15 are young students. What do you think about that?
Students have been the most vocal against the government. And this specific attempt to silence students and make an example out of some of them for the rest of the students to curb dissent and disagreement with the government. I think these tactics will not work. The student community is very angry with the government on such a severe clampdown on dissent be it using the police and now the law.
Is the discontent more acute among Muslim students?
I feel that earlier when we would say that we as Muslims are being specifically targeted, it would be as if we were playing the victim card. I do not feel that I am a victim. I have survived through it all. So when I talk about something that is happening on ground with me, I am not being hypothetical. There is no self-victimisation in this. There is a targeting of a specific community. We have to accept it.
Among all the accused, you were the first to be out on bail. How do you feel about that?
I feel relieved to be out. Because of my baby, my situation was more distressing in jail. It makes me sad because there are so many people who are innocent who are inside jail and we don’t know when they will be out.
The loss that they are facing now will never be compensated. Justice delayed is justice denied. It has been a year. The police are continuously filing more and more chargesheets, and people are still in jail. The trial has not started.
Before your bail order, several trolls on social media made misogynist comments on your marital and pregnancy status. At present, you have become very active on Twitter. How do you deal with the trolling?
The key is not dealing and not engaging with it. I do not think the trolling against me was very organic. It was systematic. Some news was published that it was discovered in jail that I was pregnant and that I did not know from before. I do not know whether I should laugh at the stupidity of it all. It was such a stupid claim. All of these news reports were fake. It led to the systematic trolling to discredit and dehumanise me.
Now when anyone gets arrested, it is said you should get pregnant like Safoora Zargar. I mean it exposes the misogyny and sexism of our country. Is it criminal to get pregnant?
You have become a public figure of sorts. How have the events in the recent past impacted you? What is the cost of all this for you?
I avoid going out with my baby and generally I try to go to places where I feel I will not be threatened that much. The second change is that I have been a very talkative person. But now every word I say is measured. Some people are just waiting to use my words out of context and portray them as being hateful and communal. Now I really need to watch my words and myself, and this is something I do not like.
There is so much academic loss that I experienced. My laptop was taken by the Special Cell, and since I am a research scholar all of my work has gone with that.
How do you view the role of the media in all this?
There is a media trial going on. That makes the whole trial prejudiced against me because the so-called evidence is out there and I do not have an opportunity to defend myself.
Secondly, I feel that this is being done deliberately to create a public perception of whatever happened in Delhi to be a riot. I feel it was an anti-Muslim pogrom. When religious symbols of one community are destroyed, when almost 40 Muslims died...not to undermine the deaths of those from other communities, my heart pains for them equally, because every life lost is painful for all of us. But it is being depicted as a riot, something that is being done through the media to create a public perception.
So the chargesheets are leaked to the media, the documents are leaked and then it is layered with more disinformation and more lies. From there it goes to every household using WhatsApp, and at the core of it is the mainstream media.
The government has blamed the ongoing farmer protests on a conspiracy and the farmers from Punjab have been labelled “Khalistani” by members of the ruling party. How do you view these events?
Firstly, at least the government engaged with them. We were completely invisibilised and erased but at least the government has spoken to them and acknowledged their presence. That was something the women at Shaheen Bagh and the students at Jamia were denied. We were never even given that courtesy or space to talk. Our issue was not addressed. It highlights the rampant Islamophobia in the country, how it is easier to delegitimise any protest with any kind of Muslim element in it.
Along with you, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Gulfisha Fatima were arrested in the Delhi riots conspiracy case. More recently, the police arrested a 22-year old climate activist Disha Ravi and in another case, 23-year old labour activist Nodeep Kaur.
I think the government does not know how to deal with women with political opinions. The easiest way they find is to charge them arbitrarily and put them behind bars and keep them there as long as they can.
At a speech you gave in January, you mentioned there was a need for healing through deradicalisation. Could you please share your thoughts on that?
I was talking about religious healing and reconciliation between religions. There has been so much of polarisation, misinformation against minorities in general, against Dalits, Sikhs and Muslims.
This kind of atmosphere is not good for anyone. Unless you get justice, you cannot heal. After every communal episode, only one community is asked to move on and forget all the time. And their secularism is tested on that basis.
I feel that it is a pattern replicated again and again and we are becoming apologetic for being Muslim, when we have been already marginalised, discriminated against and there is a lack of opportunity and education.
Even during the riots there were calls for deradicalisation and talk about peace [from Hindutva groups]. We were surprised because you have to deradicalise the radicalised. You do not deradicalise the victims. You do not deradicalise the survivors.
How do you look back at the anti-Citizenship Act movement?
The movement is in itself a big win. But also the fact that we were constantly told to not assert our identity and there was an effort to steer the movement away from the Muslim identity towards saying it affects Hindus and Muslims both, which it does, but you have to accept that it affects Muslims more, and what is wrong with that?
If something is affecting me then I will raise my voice against it and that should not make me communal. In that perspective, the claiming of space that happened was very important and central to the movement. The claiming of identity, the coming of age of the Muslim identity, Muslim women coming out breaking so many stereotypes. The power of the people.
Do you think the movement achieved closure?
Far from closure, [the response to the movement] it exposed Islamophobia in the country. It has exposed a pattern of how the government plans to deal with protestors. It gives us more of an insight of what we may face in the future, and what we have to be prepared for.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.