Safoora Zargar and trial of Indian democracy

Aijaz Zaka Syed

When the history of these extraordinary times is written, the BJP may go down as a ‘great leveller.’  It has succeeded in razing to the ground every constitutional institution and democratic tradition that India’s founding fathers created. The chief of these casualties has to be the rule of law.  If respect for the rule of law goes, everything else soon follows. 

No eyebrows are raised when those peacefully demanding their rights are put in jails as terrorists and plotters of religious riots, as the Muslim students protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act have been by the Delhi Police. 

Those who openly purveyed hate and threatened violence against Muslims, standing shoulder to shoulder with the upholders of law as the BJP’s Kapil Mishra did on the eve of Delhi carnage in February, find no mention in the nine charge sheets filed by Delhi Police.  Also missing is the honourable central minister Anurag Thakur who egged on his supporters at a rally right in the capital to “shoot down the traitors” (desh ke ghaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko!)  

No mention of BJP MP Parvesh Verma either who warned the voters that the Muslims would break into their homes and rape their women. 

Even those two men who fired at the anti-CAA protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and students of Jamia Millia Islamia in full view of men in uniform haven’t made it.  No charge sheet against the ABVP thugs who attacked the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and terrorised its students and faculty on January 5.

Instead the ever-vigilant Delhi Police, reporting directly to Home Minister Amit Shah, chose to incarcerate students like Safoora Zargar, a PhD scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, and numerous other activists. 

How prescient the inimitable Faiz had been when he noted with characteristic irony:

hai ahl-e-dil ke liye ab ye nazm-e-bast-o-kushād

ki sañg-o-ḳhisht muqayyad haiñ aur sag āzād

(A new order has come into being for the faithful
Locked away are stones and bricks and dogs are free)

By the way, Zargar is 6-month pregnant.  At such an advanced stage of pregnancy, women need constant medical care and physical and emotional support.  Instead, the 27-year old researcher has been condemned to the dark confines of the Tihar Jail, home to India’s dreaded criminals, murderers and rapists.  It is all the more dangerous at a time when India — Delhi in particular — is battling a deadly global pandemic.   

Zargar was first arrested on April 10 on charges of “obstructing traffic.” After securing bail in that case, she was immediately re-arrested on April 13 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 accusing her, along with others, of plotting the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in February. She was accused of delivering “an inflammatory speech on February 23 that led to the riots in Northeast Delhi,” whereas in fact she never even visited that part of Delhi in the run-up to or during the carnage. 

On June 4, denying the activist’s bail for the third time at Delhi’s Patiala House court, Judge Dharmendra Rana observed: “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”.

The court said it was “not concerned with the sanctity of the material available on record. However, considering the material available on record, it cannot be said that there is no prima facie case made out against the applicant/accused”.

Zargar’s lawyers even appealed for bail on humanitarian grounds, given that she is 23 weeks pregnant and is suffering from an ovarian disorder. They told the court that her condition had become all the more vulnerable because of the COVID-19 pandemic pointing out that inmates in all of Delhi’s jails had contracted the coronavirus infection. Still, the judge dismissed the plea, magnanimously asking the jail authorities to provide “adequate medical aid” to the accused.

What is this if not a classic case of punishing the victims? And since when have peaceful protests and blocking of streets become an act of terror in a democracy? 

While the real architects of the worst anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi since the Partition killing 53 people and destroying hundreds of businesses, homes and properties still roam free with the blessings and protection of their powerful friends in high places, these Muslim activists are facing the full force of the law accusing them of plotting mass murder of their own people!

Where do you go when the courts fail to protect the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable sections of society and protect them against the vagaries of a vindictive state? In democracies around the world, the courts go out of their way to protect individual freedoms and the underdog, especially when pitted against a reckless, power-crazed state.

The Indian judiciary was also once known for its fierce independence of spirit and resolve to protect the Constitution and fundamental rights.  Under this order though, the courts are increasingly bending over backwards to propitiate the powers that be, rather than look out for the vulnerable and most dispossessed sections of society.     

The real crime of Safoora Zargar and her friends is staging the spontaneous and what turned out to be one of the most iconic protests in recent history at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia, largely by women and students.  Within days, those historic protests inspired thousands more across the country, turning the global spotlight on the egregiously undemocratic Citizenship law brought in by the BJP.   

They exposed the sheer hypocrisy and breath-taking duplicity of the regime and its facetious slogans like ‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas’ (Progress for all!) to fool the people at home and around the world.   

That organic movement sparked by the free-spirited students of Jamia Millia Islamia gave a new lease of life and unity of purpose to a near comatose community and encouraged tens of millions of Indians to come out on the streets across the country in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters. 

That democratic movement and the new-found quest for self-respect and the willingness of young Muslims to take to streets to demand their equal rights was a red rag to the regime that does not accept them as Indians, let alone as equal citizens of the country. 

Even before What’s-his-name arrived to take charge of “new India,” the good Indian Muslims were those who silently suffered in their ghettoes and were barely tolerated on the margins of the world’s largest democracy. 

So how dare they challenge the status quo and dream of equal rights?! It’s all the more intolerable when it is done by the likes of Safoora Zargar, a Kashmiri.  The state with all the brute force and resources at its disposal must therefore make an example of a defenceless young, pregnant woman and all young, educated and restless Muslims like her. 

However, on trial is not Safoora Zargar but the great Indian democracy itself and its claim to ensure the rule of law and equality of all citizens before law. The incarceration of Safoora Zargar raises fundamental questions about the very future of India as a constitutional democracy.

In the words of Kalpana Kannabiran, “when Safoora Zargar protests against the carceral, Islamophobic, Hindutva regime that passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, she is fighting to protect India’s soul.”

As she asks in Scroll: “What does the brutality of the state towards a pregnant Muslim peaceful resister tell us about the deep perils in which our Constitution is mired at this moment? We have reached a nadir!”

We have indeed. 

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and former editor.

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