She’s blunt, compassionate and wants to make the world a better place. Instead, a 27-year-old pregnant Jamia student, now 60 days in police custody, faces 26 criminal charges, including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and terrorism—for exercising her right to free speech and, according to a judge, conspiracy to block a road.
New Delhi: “I went blank,” said Yasmin Naaz*, recounting the WhatsApp message informing her about the 10 April arrest of 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, her junior from Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university’s sociology department.
“I mean, completely blank.” She thought it was fake news. She rang two of her friends before she believed that the woman who became one of the most prominent opponents of India’s new citizenship law, which left out Muslims, was in police custody and now faces 22 criminal charges, including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and dacoity.
Memories of the last time they had gone out together flashed before her. They had visited Select Citywalk mall, South Delhi, in October. “Safoora feels elated every time she buys a Sephora product because it sounds similar to her name,” said Naaz, referring to the French personal care and beauty store chain.
On 21 April, in response to her bail hearing, apart from a slew of criminal charges, the Delhi Police invoked the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA), an anti-terorrism law, against the MPhil scholar, now in the fifth month of her first pregnancy, for her alleged role in riots that raged through northeast Delhi between 23 and 25 February 2020, leaving 58 dead, 38 of them Muslim.
Safoora is among several vocal opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) arrested in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh during a nationwide lockdown, when access to courts is limited, citizens cannot mobilise and overcrowded prisons are potential hotspots for the spread of COVID-19.
Safoora’s husband, 32-year-old Sirwal (who prefers we use his surname), is a human-resources professional with a Gurugram startup. When she joined the anti-CAA protests that broke out across the country from mid-December to 24 March (when a sudden nationwide lockdown was declared), he was worried for her but never imagined that she would be arrested on charges of terrorism.
“Almost everybody from the campus was trying to raise awareness about the Act using a peaceful and intellectual approach,” said Sirwal. “It seemed to be the right thing.”
For Safoora’s family, fellow protesters and friends, her involvement in the protest was only natural.
Jamia Is Home
As a Muslim woman from Kashmir, Safoora was at ease in Jamia.
When she was a first semester M.A. student, Delhi-based independent filmmaker Yousuf Saeed interviewed Safoora for his documentary film Campus Rising (2017). Explaining why she felt at home at Jamia, she said, "People listen to my views and opinions and if they disagree, they will not bully me and question my loyalty for the country."
Her ongoing research is on urban Muslims. “She believes that the community is partially responsible for its condition,” said Mujeeb Alam, scholar at JMI’s international relations department and one of Safoora’s closest friends.
She would wonder, how come Muslim students at English-medium schools are not fluent in spoken English. “What is it if not failure of the community?” Alam remembers Safoora telling him. “We cannot expect the government to help us with everything.”
The reformer in Safoora was anxious in Jamia. During her Bachelors in sociology at Delhi University’s Jesus & Mary College, she was a member of the Women Studies and Development Cell (WSDC) and launched the campus magazine Still I Rise, inspired by American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s poem by the same name.
“She has lots of ideas and knows how to implement them,” said Richa Sharma, former WSDC president.
At Jamia, Safoora explored ways to channelise her creative energies into something meaningful.
“It was shocking to discover that there is no students’ union in Jamia,” Safoora told Saeed during the documentary’s filming. “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,” she said in the video, as she pushed back the hair from her forehead.
As a member of Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and alumni of colleges across the country, she helped revise the curfew timings of the women’s hostel from 8pm to 10pm.
Safoora joined the National Students Union of India (NSUI) and remained a member till its Jamia unit was dissolved in 2018.
The afternoon of 18 December, 2019 was an opportune time for what was brimming inside Safoora. It had been 10 days since the JMI students were protesting against the CAA, first on campus and then at a makeshift facility outside Gate No 1.
On 15 December, the protests turned violent leaving more than 60 people injured. “Until then, All India Students Association and Students Islamic Organisation were calling the shots. Safoora was nowhere on the scene,” said Alam. “But that day, police entered the campus breaching the sanctity of the institution.” After the violence, members of students’ bodies, independent student leaders, and Alumni Association of JMI affiliates came together to form Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC), a united forum to represent the University during the protest.
The JCC met for the first time on 18 December. Safoora’s strong, forthright, courteous voice proved the perfect ingredient for the varying groups and organisations to work as a cohesive unit. “When she spoke, everyone listened,” said Al Ameen Kabeer, joint secretary, sociology department, JMI, who was present at the meeting.
Safoora became the Committee’s media coordinator.
Bhumika Saraswati, a convergent journalism student at the university said that she was inspired by Safoora. “I did my undergrad at the University of Delhi which does not have a culture of protests,” said Saraswati. “As a first-timer, I used to look up to her.” By the end of February, as the crowd of protestors outside JMI began thinning, Srijan Chawla, a mass communication student, said that Safoora didn’t lose hope. “She was exploring ways for us to continue the agitation,” said Chawla.
One day, during the peak of the protest, JCC members were discussing whether or not different communities were getting adequate representation. “Safoora was clear that Muslims had started the protest and other communities joined in solidarity,” said Kabeer.
“She never felt embarrassed about this.”
On 1 April, police arrested Meeran Haidar, a PhD student and JCC member. “No one in JCC anticipated that the police would start picking our members individually and that too, in the middle of the pandemic,” said a JCC member requesting anonymity.
More than 1,000 activists and scholars have issued a statement demanding that the “Delhi Police must immediately make public all FIRs, arrests and detentions with their legal status and conduct a free and fair investigation into all the incidents of violence”.
While Delhi police launched a clampdown on anti-CAA voices, none of the 88 charge sheets filed in the Delhi violence case—including the 2 June chargesheet which has a detailed chronology of events—named Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra who delivered a hate speech and led a rally in northeast Delhi on 23 February.
Asif Iqbal Tanha and Meeran Haidar are the other JMI students under arrest apart from social activist Khalid Safi, JMI alumni association president Shifa Ur Rehman, Jawaharlal Nehru University students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita.
How Do I Look?
Despite bonding over endless rounds of Maggi and chai, Safoora’s fellow JCC members never got a chance to speak to her about family, dreams and love.
When she was in primary school, Safoora and her parents moved from Kishtwar in Jammu to Faridabad for her father’s job at National Electric Hydropower Corporation. She has a younger sister and a brother. “She considers herself a Delhi girl,” said Naaz. “She once told me that she wanted a spacious house in Delhi, like the one her family owns in Kishtwar.”
Safoora loved her collection of cosmetics and even considered becoming a makeup artist. “She always knows what shade would look good on you. She told me that I should call her for my bridal makeup," she said.
“She can spend hours talking to relatives over the phone or binge watching TV shows, from Kasautii Zindagii Kay to This Is Us,” Naaz added.
People in Safoora’s inner world said her plain-speaking nature could land her in trouble. “She has to make an effort to avoid confrontations,” said Alam. “She would just state things as they are before the proctor, teachers and family.”
After her Bachelors, Safoora worked with a Gurugram-based digital marketing firm’s operations and business development team for more than a year.
Jamia did not feature on her wish list when she decided to pursue a Masters, “Perhaps she thought she would get stereotyped,” said Naaz.
In October 2018, after finishing her Masters, she married Sirwal who is also from Kishtwar. “Safoora found him decent. She met him quite a few times and could not find a reason to say no,” said Naaz, adding that after marriage Safoora signed up for zumba classes, tried kickboxing and was quite disciplined with her keto diet.
The Case That Is Not
It was around 3 pm on 10 April. Safoora was sleeping. Her husband and in-laws were watching TV when around 10 police officers including one woman constable visited them at their Ghaffar Manzil flat.
Safoora was calm. She thought it was routine questioning. After 10 minutes, they said she had to accompany them to the police station for further interrogation. “We told them that she was pregnant hoping that they might give a kind consideration,” said Sirwal.
As he waited in the canteen of Delhi Police’s Special Cell office, Lodhi Road, the police interrogated Safoora for six hours. “At around 10:15 pm they called me inside and said that they are going to arrest her,” Sirwal said.
On 13 April, a district & sessions court granted bail to Safoora considering her pregnancy and that most of the offences were bailable.
Special Cell investigators immediately rearrested her under another FIR, adding 18 more offences including criminal conspiracy, murder, dacoity, attempt to murder and unlawful assembly. Arresting the accused under stricter charges after she has obtained bail in one case is an old police tactic to discredit the person.
On 21 April, Delhi police invoked UAPA (sections 13, 16, 17 & 18) in Safoora’s case. The only specific allegation against Safoora was that she visited one of the protest sites and delivered an ‘inflammatory’ speech. The court refused her bail on the grounds that the charges levied against her were of a grave nature and could only be tried by a sessions court.
On 2 June, a district and sessions court in Delhi refused her bail through an order that has come under severe criticism from civil rights experts and lawyers for criminalising the exercise of fundamental rights.
“One cannot ignore the case of the prosecution that the accused persons have conspired to cause disruption of such an extent and magnitude that it would lead to disorderliness and disturbance of law and order of an unprecedented scale,” the order read. “The order is disturbing because it takes the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a law so stringent that it precludes judges from granting bail if even a “prima facie” case is made out, and then stretches its provisions from one side, and the facts from the other, to ensure that the prima facie case is made out,” Supreme Court lawyer Gautam Bhatia wrote on the blog Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy. Writing for Article 14, criminal lawyer Abhinav Sekhri examined the offence provisions of the UAPA, which he said were criminally overbroad and excessively vague. “Not only does it (section 18, UAPA) proscribe inciting or conspiring the commission of these vaguely defined Terrorist Acts, but Section 18 goes much further and punishes persons for conspiring in acts preparatory to commission of a Terrorist Act,” wrote Sekhri.
Henri Tiphagne, Advocate and National Working Secretary, Human Rights Defenders Alert, India said that Safoora’s case is a classic reprisal against a student and woman human rights defender. “Right from her illegal detention, arrest and re-arrest, police remand and judicial custody, every possible provision of law and procedure were ignored or misused by the Delhi Police,” he said.
Amidst hope, anguish and chaos, Sirwar tries to think of his life with Safoora once she is out of prison. “We will talk about the future of our family,” he said, “And how we can give the best upbringing to our child.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identity
(Danish Raza is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. His work has been published at Hindustan Times, The Atlantic, Star Tribune and Firstpost. He writes on social justice, culture and the intersection of society and technology.)