Updated: Mar 17
New Delhi: Almost one year after she was incarcerated in Tihar jail while pregnant, Jamia Millia Islamia University student Safoora Zargar is still coming to terms with those darkest of days, even as she raises her baby boy, writes her MPhil thesis, and defends herself against 34 criminal charges, including terrorism, murder, attempt to murder, rioting and dacoity.
There are good days when the 28-year-old thanks god for giving her a “happy baby” who sleeps through the night, and bad days when she imagines the worst possible conclusion of the police case against her. Even though the precariousness of her situation makes her wary about planning too far ahead, Zargar said that there were three things that she believed in now more than ever: the people’s movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 owning her Muslim identity, and never giving up.
“There was a point in time when I felt completely hopeless because I didn't even have a lawyer. I thought that no one is going to know about me and I’m going to rot in jail forever,” Zargar told Article 14 when we interviewed her over two days. “But it didn’t turn out that way. I feel like come what may, you should never lose hope.”
Zargar, a sociology student, was arrested on 10 April 2020, and accused of using the protests against the CAA as a front to plan the Delhi riots. She is among 18 people charged with terrorism and murder under the Unlawful Activties Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, India’s anti-terror law.
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had incarcerated a pregnant Muslim woman amid the raging coronavrius pandemic and was subsequently attacked by rightwing trolls resulted in bad press abroad. The American Bar Association said that Zargar’s detention was in contravention of international treaties to which India was a party.
Human rights experts of the United Nations described the arrest of the anti-CAA activists as “chilling.” After two rejections in lower courts of Delhi, Zargar was granted bail on 23 June by the Delhi High Court on “humanitarian grounds.” Of the 18 people charged in the UAPA case, which include six students, Zargar is one of two people to get bail, the other being Faizan Khan, a mobile phone salesman.
Eight months after she was released, Zargar spoke about why the anti-CAA movement was “revolutionary,” what it means to be Muslim in India, her arrest and incarceration, surviving Tihar, her first meeting with Pinjra Tod activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, and life after jail.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
How is your state of mind?
Sometimes, it is really troubling to think about the future because there is so much uncertainty. Not long ago, the biggest worry in my life was writing my thesis. Now, I’m fighting two FIRs. I have to manage court hearings and the online criticism. It’s been difficult to stabilise myself mentally. Last year, I went through a lot of hormonal changes because of my pregnancy. I’ve always been really hard on myself, but I’m learning to ease up a little bit. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m taking life one day at a time. I can’t really plan anything long term in terms of life goals. I want to stay alive and stay out of jail. That is my state of mind.
Are there days when you dwell on the worst possible outcome?
Lately, I think I have dealt with my bad days in a better way because I have a son. Babies are such stress busters. When I look at him, I actually feel so hopeful for the future. I’m very very positive. There is hope.
How are you managing your baby, the thesis, and the legal proceedings?
I thank god that I have things to be troubled with. At one point of time, I was in a cell with nothing to do. When I was in jail, I would reflect on whether I became too comfortable with my life. I wondered whether I should have made more of an effort.
I’m also lucky that my baby is a happy baby. He is not cranky or fussy. When he was two and half months, he started sleeping six hours in the night. When he wakes up, he gives this beautiful smile. I can’t help but smile. My husband is so sensitive about my sleep. He reads his namaz and then takes care of the baby. You start valuing your life so much.
How did you cope with the dark days in jail? Did you consider the possibility that you may not get bail?
Being in solitary (confinement), left alone with your own thoughts, one needs to be really really strong to deal with it. It was difficult. I used to read. I used to pray namaz five times a day. That would really refresh me and give me perspective and a lot of hope. I had borrowed a Koran from an inmate and read the translation of the ayats. I would try to match them into my situation.
Getting bail was… I didn’t believe it. I didn’t know my lawyer had applied for bail in the High Court. I did not even think that I would get it. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that it is a UAPA case and what that means. Getting bail was miraculous.
What are the big lessons that you have learnt from this whole experience?
There was a point in time when I felt completely hopeless because I didn't even have a lawyer. Since I was not anticipating arrest, I had not even taken any legal advice. I thought that no one is going to know about me and I’m going to rot in jail forever. But it didn’t turn out that way. I feel like come what may, you should never lose hope. There are many people who are losing hope for the country right now. People think it is going into the realms of authoritarianism and fascism. People are disillusioned with their own friends and families for supporting the regime after so much has happened. But I feel better days are coming. Times change very fast. There is always hope. We have to consistently work towards change and it will happen.
Secondly, I feel that you plan your life in a certain way, but Allah has a plan. He is the greatest planner of all—it is written in the Koran. And I see how he has planned it for me. How I got arrested. How I got bail. How I had such a beautiful baby boy. I have become more of a believer and more of a practising Muslim since all of this.
The Anti-CAA Protests
Why did you oppose the CAA?
If you see the CAA in isolation, it seems discriminatory but not that problematic. But when you read it with the NRC (National Register of Citizens), it could lead to catastrophic events. So many activists have said that. But what I want to ask is why are we making religion the basis of granting citizenship. We are a secular country. Should the basis not be humanity? Suddenly you are asking people to prove their citizenship or you will erase their lives. The CAA is a grave injustice. That is why I thought it was necessary to protest against the CAA and the NRC.
I still stand by it. I will continue to be vocal about why the CAA and NRC are destructive for the country. It is my constitutional right.
My interest in activism was just to become an active and politically sound citizen. Why is it that we don’t know what is going on in our towns and neighborhoods? Why are we afraid of getting involved? Why don’t we put ourselves in the shoes of another person. What I was doing was a bare minimum that every citizen in the country should do. If they try and shut you up, it is your moral responsibility not to shut up.
Jamia became a symbol of the anti-CAA and NRC protests. A lot of burden was put on our shoulders. Many students of Jamia felt that if we would stop, it would demotivate so many people. That is why Jamia did not stop. We wanted to keep the anti-CAA protests alive. Frankly speaking, we did not know how long we would protest. We were just taking it one day at the time. We were just hoping that our government would listen to us.
The anti CAA protests were seeing violent retaliation. What about self preservation.
Honestly, I never thought of myself on the frontline. If I had not got arrested, no one would have heard of me. I’m not a leader. I’m a writer and researcher. I never thought my words would land me in jail under UAPA. For many people, the protests were a fight for survival. It was about losing their homes and becoming stateless. When you think of that, you rise above that self preservation instinct. There has never been such an attack on students in post-independence India. We were not expecting that a country, which is born of a freedom struggle, will brand its own students who are struggling against a certain law as terrorists and put them in jail under UAPA. This was definitely a new low.
It did feel that people woke up when it was quite late. CAA was already the law when the protests started in Delhi.
I agree with you that everyone woke up late. Frankly, we kept on telling people that this is problematic and that we need to talk about it. But people don’t want to get involved in politics. Nobody foresaw that it would happen so fast or at all. That was stupid. But when the police went into the University and attacked the students (on 15 December), that is what angered people and made them wonder why police would have gone to such lengths to suppress the matter.
So many people started reading about it. People would come to us and say that the Jamia students were so brave. People felt that students were not safe in their University. Even the locality was targeted. I think the CAA movement was also about the identity of Muslims in India. People felt they were being targeted for who they were. It was then that people got really emotional about it. This is what I feel.
When did you decide to get involved in the protests?
There were a few personal issues I was dealing with at the time and I had told my friends that I would be there but only for a while. Then the police brutality on the 15th (December) happened, and those horrifying videos that started streaming into my phone, and a few friends called me and said “do something or they will kill us.” My juniors from the girls’ hostel were calling and saying that “they will do something to us in the night.” They scared the students so much. It really affects you mentally and physically. I couldn’t sleep that night. Then I thought, no yaar… and I left so many things on my personal front. It just felt that they cannot treat us like this. I felt like we had to protest and it took priority in my life.
What about the police saying that the students were violent.
It was so difficult to explain our position at that time but now it is so easy. Why is it that whenever a protest happens, some buses are burnt and students are labeled as anti-national, as terrorists, Khalistanis or urban naxals? People are not stupid. You keep repeating the same narrative over and over again and you think that people will keep falling for it over and over again. We have said time and again that there should be an investigation into the people who burnt the buses but why has nothing been done.
Share some of your happy memories from the protest days.
Being an activist in Jamia, I’ve seen how difficult it can be to mobilise people to protest. But during the CAA, you would see so many people coming out. The most beautiful thing was that the women of the girls’ hostel were out on the streets at about 11 in the night. That is one of my most beautiful moments from the CAA. How brave these women were. Honestly, you didn’t have to make a lot of effort. Someone just got creative and set up a library on the roadside. Someone took a chalk and drew on the road. Someone you did not not even know came and offered you water. Some of these things were so beautiful. They just made my heart flutter all the time during the movement.
What has been your favourite moment in activism?
The protest against the girls’ hostel curfew in 2018. That was the first time that the entire hostel came out and broke the curfew. We made the hostel administration extend our hostel curfew time till 10:30 pm. We got a no limit breakfast. It is still so fresh in my mind that I can’t forget it.
Was your breakfast limited before?
We used to get two breads and one cube of butter or jam. We wouldn’t get more breakfast.
Yeah. And half a liter of milk for the entire day. Imagine, it was happening for many years and women were taking this s***.
The boys’ hostel?
No limit there. They would get meat five times a week and we would get meat two times a week.
The anti-CAA movement was couched in the language of the Constitution. There seemed to be an effort to not make it ‘Muslim, Muslim.’
I think there are multiple strands of thoughts and there can be disagreements, but these are important because they give an opportunity for us to interact with each other. I just want to talk about what I think. I strongly feel that is exactly the problem in India. If you are a Hindu, even if you protest without a national flag, people will say that the protest is a good thing. But for a Muslim in this country, why is it that we cannot protest without holding a flag in our hands. We have to keep proving our Indian identity. We have to keep saying, ‘I love India. I’m nationalistic. I believe in secularism. I’m not a terrorist.’
People said that it was so easy to brand Muslims as terrorists and delegitimize the movement. People said that we shouldn’t talk from the place of Muslim identity. I was horrified by this thought. Even among the Muslim community, there was a very divided opinion. There were people who said there is no need to assert your identity.
Why have you accepted the fact that Muslims will be demonised? If you are targeted constantly on the basis of your identity then I think you must assert that very identity. I live in a secular country. I’m a free citizen. I should be able to wear a hijab, a skullcap, and eat whatever I want to, without being judged for it.
It has affected us on so many levels, professionally, socially, and politically. The entire narrative that the government has created about Muslim women being so oppressed by our own community. I think that oppression is beyond religion. It is very societal and cultural. Muslim women do not need saving.
For a movement to survive, it needs to grow, build bridges with other distressed groups. By making the Muslim identity central, that may not happen.
As a society, I don’t think we are very conscious of each other’s pain. People think it is a farmers’ issue or it is a Muslim issue and it doesn’t affect me. So yes, beyond a point, the movement couldn’t grow. That is also because this government has been very successful in polarising people. So many people were coming to localities and saying, “Yeh sirf aapka mudda nahin hai, yeh poore Hindustan ka mudda hai, aur hum aapke saath hain.” (This is not only your—Muslim—issue. It is an issue of the entire country. We are with you).
Why were they not able to channelise people from their own community? Why did we not have mobilisation against the CAA and NRC in the non-Muslim areas is something that we need to introspect and work on?
But I don’t think the movement failed at all. No efforts go to waste is something that I strongly believe in. I feel we learnt so much from this movement. I agree that civil disobedience movements are not successful if they don’t grow. But I think this was a social movement and a much required one. Social movements do not necessarily achieve their ends, but through the journey of the movement, they leave a great impact on society. That is what this movement has done for us. It was a big win.
What did you learn from it?
Why can’t Muslims take the lead? Why is it so hard for people to digest? I feel this has been internalized so much, even within the Muslim community, it is high time we start talking about it and come out of this narrative. I feel the way that the Muslim youth have been targeted, they are now articulating that very identity to register their protest. I also think that Islamophobia was really laid bare and it is now being challenged more openly. We are definitely more aware of the challenges we face as a community and as citizens of this country.
Why is the burden of proving secularism on the shoulders of the minority? Is it the minority who is going to perpetuate secularism or is it the majority that is going to perpetuate secularism? It is the responsibility of the majority, 80% of this country, to save its secular ethos.
We know now there were differences of opinion within the anti-CAA movement. People also compare it to the farmers’ movement.
I wouldn’t be too hard on the movement, the people who were leading it, and the differences they may have had. The fact that there was a diversity of opinions and criticism, that is what makes it organic and also gives us a lot of learning points. For so many people, especially students, it was a first time experience to be in the middle of such a huge movement. It was revolutionary in so many ways.
The Arrest & After
What happened after the riots and before police showed up at your door?
The police cleared the protest sites in Jamia and Shaheen Bagh on 23 March. Even before that we had decided to clear the Jamia protest site because our priority then was to fight the pandemic. The police still came and painted the walls and the graffiti which was not required as per the pandemic rules. But they did it. They used the pandemic as an excuse to wipe out all symbols of the CAA-NRC protest. The next thing I knew was that the police were knocking at my door.
What happened when the police came?
I was sleeping when my husband came and held my shoulders. He just whispered in my ear, ‘Safoora some people are here to question you.’ I think my heart skipped two or three beats. He said, ‘Just get ready. There are a lot of them.’ He was trying to mentally prepare me. They told me to pack my bags. There was one female constable with them. I asked them why I needed to pack my bag. I said ‘shaam tak aa jaaongi na main’ (I’ll come home by evening?) They wouldn’t respond.
What were you thinking on your way to the police station?
I don’t know what I was thinking. Those five days in police custody, I could actually feel my heart beating so many times. I thought I might miscarry any moment. I was very worried about that. I was very focused on not panicking, not losing it, because that would have some effect on my baby. I was trying to stay as calm as possible and drink lots of water. I couldn’t eat anything. I was 12 weeks pregnant so I would feel very nauseated. I was also trying to keep a check on my emotions because I was very angry. I just concentrated on not miscarrying my baby.
How was police custody?
It was horrible. It was during the lockdown. I was arrested at 10:30 in the night. My husband was made to sign papers that said 5:30 in the evening. They took away my phones. They took away my laptop. Part of my (MPhil) thesis, my entire review of literature, was on that laptop. I had started writing some chapters. Everything was gone. I was not told why I’m arrested. I was not told which FIR I’m arrested for. I was not told what was going to happen to me or where they were going to take me. I was not told anything.
I remember seeing my husband on the steps of the Special Cell (police station). They were taking his wife at 10:30 in the night and they were not telling him where they were taking her. They did not tell me. I hugged him and I think our eyes said goodbye for the last time. I just looked at him and said, ‘I’m so sorry. Goodbye.’
You said that.
Yeah. I didn’t think I would see him again.
What happened next?
They were taking me at the dead of the night and the whole road was empty. I was in the car with six or seven policemen and one policewoman who was sleeping the whole way. This policeman who was opposite me was staring at me as if I was some candy. I was feeling so irritated. If it happened to me at some other time, I would have slapped that man. I have no tolerance policy for this. I couldn’t sit straight for too long in the jeep because of my back pain. I was really worried about the jerks and bumps because of the baby.
When we got to Jafrabad police station, there was a small room with a charpoy sort of bed with a mattress, but this woman constable told me that I have to sleep on the floor on a mat. I asked why. She said, ‘woh tumhare liye nahin, woh hamare liye hai.’ (That is not for you, that is for us). The fact that I was pregnant didn’t seem to make a difference to them.
Then what happened.
I was feeling faint and just wanted to sleep. But then they came and told me that we don’t have a women’s cell here and we have to take you to another police station. Then they took me somewhere else. They never tell you where they are taking you. I thought they were going to kill me. Seriously, that is what I thought. I made peace with myself—‘chalo, it was a very short life. It’s okay, Safoora. Don’t be scared.’ Then, they took me to Seelampur thana, where they kept me in the police station lock up. The next day, they presented me in court and I met my lawyers. They told me not to worry and they will try and get me out as soon as possible.
They took me to a police station called Welcome thana. It was horrible, horrible. No human should stay there. I don’t want to talk about it. I think I might cry if I talk about it.
What happened the next day.
I was at Seelampur because I put my foot down and said that I will not go to Welcome. Thankfully, they listened to me. Then, I was given two more days in the Special Cell. I met my lawyers. I think when you are given sound legal advice, you tend to calm down and not panic as much. It helps.
How did you feel entering Tihar?
I had decided to not break. I had decided I was going to be very strong. I had decided that it would be okay. I was really determined not to be depressed. But then they put me in isolation and gave me dinner in a packet on the first night. I ate that food and cried for the first time. I think realisation dawned on me — ‘you are in jail, bro. You landed here.’
What are your thoughts about jail?
I saw a very different place. I’m from a middle class family and I’ve grown up in a very sheltered environment. I was very sad when I looked at the other women. I had a family that wanted me to get out. I had a lawyer. There were women who had no hope of ever getting out simply because they did not have the legal aid and resources. Their families had also abandoned them because of shame or they didn't want to spend money to get them out. This had a huge impact on me.
I feel people are not doing enough for women to access justice. We have not talked enough about the incarceration of women and how the prison system is extremely misogynist. I thought why as an activist have I never talked about human rights violations in prison. Why is there no transparency in the system? When I was behind bars, I felt so cut off from the outside world. There was a realisation that anything can happen to me here and they can manipulate it anyway. Basically, I’m at mercy of the state.
What were your inmates like?
Of the 74 days that I was incarcerated, I was kept in isolation for 38 days at different times. Initially, when I was locked up, people used to buy water, soap, shampoo for me. Some people gave me their clothes and their utensils. They were really sympathetic and used to take care of me. I especially received help from foreigners (women from African nations). They were the most sympathetic. When I was in isolation, they would come and sit outside my cell and talk to me. It was also because I could speak in English with them.
We became friends. They would braid my hair for hours. They would tell them about their countries. I would tell them about my country. In Tihar, Indians don’t get bread. Only foreigners get bread. They would share their bread with me.
Throughout my incarceration, I never ever carried my buckets. The other inmates did. In the last month, Devangana (Kalita), Natasha (Narwal) and Gul (Fatima) were also in the same ward as me. They used to fill buckets of water and bring them to my door. They would get me drinking water. When they would wash their own clothes, they would ask me for my clothes to wash.
What was it like meeting with Devangana, Natasha and Gulfisha for the first time?
I was meeting them for the first time. We were arrested in the same case but we were meeting for the first time. They told me what was happening outside the jail. They told me how I was trolled. They told me how many women spoke up for me.
I think Natasha was the strongest. She would do yoga everyday for four hours in the sun. We would play badminton sometimes. We would exchange books and talk philosophy. We used to write so many applications for people in jail.
If one of us was having a bad day, the others would be like ‘don’t be like that, things will get better and we’ll be out.’ Once Natasha quoted an author to me — ‘in an unjust world, the only just place to be is prison.’ Our conversations were more about giving each other hope.
How do Indian inmates and staffers behave with inmates from African nations?
They call them kaala (black). They detest them. But these women stick together and they are aware of their rights. If something is wrong, they don’t keep quiet. That is why they detest them.
What was Tihar like?
Tihar is so old. There are holes everywhere on the floor. There are holes and holes. There are so many ants, big and small. There are ants in your food, your hair, your bag, your books. We used to stuff the cracks in the walls with soap. I used to spray myself with Odomos. I would draw a circle of it around me. There were all kinds of creepy crawlies.
You could not sit on any chair in jail. There is a Rs 500 fine for sitting on a chair. You have to stand or sit on the floor. This is meant to demean you. This made me so angry.
Even though I was pregnant, and I had to stand for so long during production (in virtual court hearings), nobody ever offered me a chair. For one production, we stood from eleven in the morning till six in the evening. There were chairs but I couldn’t sit on them. I was in such pain that I slept on the floor while waiting for the hearing to start.
But what is frightening is that the jail staff don’t tell you anything. You keep asking for basic information and they don’t tell you. For example, if you are keeping me in isolation for 15 days, just tell me what it is for and that after it is over, I can speak with my lawyer and family. That is where they take away your dignity. They make you feel that you are not worthy of knowing what is happening to you. You have to write so many applications for your basic rights. They don’t answer you. They make you ask the same things so many times. It is this attack on your dignity that really makes you lose it.
Were you thinking about the anti-CAA movement or were your thoughts about day-to-day survival.
You have a lot of time in jail. You think of everything. You think about your past, present and future. I’m someone who can have really troubling thoughts and dwell on them. I’m aware of my weakness. I used to devote a lot of time reading the Koran. If you are asking if I felt any regret being part of the movement, not even for a moment. I felt that I had not done anything wrong. I had full faith in the almighty. I was prepared to face the worst but I was hoping for the best.
You must have been worried about the baby.
I was very very worried about my baby and where I would give birth. My body was sore. I was sleeping on the floor. I had Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and a vaginal infection that was very bad. The food cravings were too much to bear. I had been living off pizza and pasta at home. Anything I wanted to eat, my husband would get. You are going through so many changes, mentally and physically. You need your support system.
You have to understand that you are not taken care of in jail. There is no infrastructure for that. They just keep you alive.
The prosecution argued that women give birth in jail.
Jail is not a safe place for pregnant women to be or give birth whether she is an undertrial or a convict. We need to work to change that. To say that so many people give birth in jail and what is special about her is shameful to say the least. How can you even say that? What about my reproductive rights? My reproductive rights require me to have proper treatment and a safe and sound environment to give birth in. My reproductive rights require me have
the mental and physical support I need to have a healthy pregnancy.
Was there an anti-Muslim sentiment in jail?
People would come and say to me that people are saying that you have killed 53 people and that you are a terrorist. They would say that you were the one behind the riots. I felt that some people would look at me in a certain way.
During Ramzan, the jail authorities provide you sehri and iftar. But we (Muslims) were not allowed congregational prayers. But they did not have problems with the foreigners who would come together and sing. So, the Christians could do it. Hindu women would congregate and sing bhajans. They allowed me to get a prayer mat and a dupatta, but they did not let me get a copy of the Koran from home. I had to borrow the copies available in jail which were in a shabby condition. These were some of the things that I felt.
What was it like leaving jail?
I cried. I returned the Koran to the people who I had borrowed it from. Many of the foreigners who I was friends with had been shifted. I could only say goodbye to the few who were remaining. When I was saying goodbye to Natasha, Devangana and Gul, I felt guilty for having to leave them behind. I hugged them through the bars of the jail. I told them I hope you will be out soon. We all cried a little.
When I came out and there were all these camera flashes, I was so astonished. I kept asking my husband what happened. My husband said that it was a long story and that he would tell me later. He asked me where I wanted to go. I said that I wanted to go and have pasta. Trust me, the food cravings were too much.
How was it to come home?
It was unbelievable.
(Betwa Sharma is an independent journalist who covers politics and civil liberties. She was the politics editor at HuffPost India.)