‘Indian state is afraid of strong women’: Activist Safoora Zargar

Nearly a year after she was charged under a stringent anti-terror law and jailed for weeks despite being pregnant, Zargar shares her ordeal in prison.

Safoora Zargar [courtesy of Safoora’s family]
Zargar says she still lives in fear of being separated from her infant son [Photo courtesy: Safoora Zargar's family]

New Delhi, India – It was almost a year ago when 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, a student at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, was arrested and named as one of the key conspirators in the worst religious riots the capital witnessed in decades.

She was charged under the stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, and thrown behind bars in April 2020 despite a lack of evidence.

Zargar was three months pregnant at the time. She was granted bail on humanitarian grounds 74 days later after protests by Indian activists and criticism by international rights groups.

As she spends her days looking after her infant, Zargar told Al Jazeera she still lives in fear of being separated from him.

Here are the excerpts from Zargar’s interview with Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera: You were named as one of the key conspirators in the northeast Delhi riots conspiracy case. Were you involved? Did you attend meetings and give speeches?

Safoora Zargar: I think anyone can go to any meeting and give solidarity and that shouldn’t be a problem. There were so many people like me and I just went there as a student of Jamia and gave solidarity to the protest.

Al Jazeera: Why do you think were you singled out?

Zargar: I think the [Indian] state is afraid of strong women which is why I was targeted. The voices of women is not something the state had anticipated coming out so strongly. They wanted some scapegoat to pin everything on. Randomly picking up students without any reason and without any proof is something they have been doing and it’s not something that is new in our country.

Al Jazeera: Did you see your arrest coming? 

Zargar: I didn’t. I don’t think I was doing anything even remotely wrong to even be called for questioning. I was just participating in a protest like so many other students in the country. So I did not anticipate anything of the sort and it came as a very big shock to me.

Al Jazeera: You spent 74 days in jail. What was that like? 

Zargar: I don’t know how it is usually, but because of COVID-19, what I experienced was exacerbated. I think the most difficult part of it was the isolation, the confinement. I was kept in a separate cell. Initially, I was told it was for quarantine purposes. I was taken to a separate ward at the corner of the jail. It had huge walls with barbed wire. There were only 4, 5 cells there. I didn’t think it would be that scary but it was very scary.

I had made up my mind that I could have a miscarriage at any moment.

They don’t tell you anything. They don’t feel you are worthy of an answer to anything you ask. What will happen to me next is something that they don’t believe they need to tell me. Why are you here? What is the protocol? What is the procedure? What will happen to me next? They think I don’t need to know the answers to these questions. I kept asking them: ‘Why are you keeping me here?’ They said: ‘Be quiet and stay wherever we are keeping you.’ I thought this is how I am going to spend my life now. This is the end.

But sometime later I had a nosebleed because of my blood pressure. I kept ringing the medical bell but the cell was so far away from the rest of the jail that nobody came. I panicked and kept ringing the bell. After a long time, somebody came in a full PPE (personal protective equipment) suit, checked my blood pressure and told me the nosebleed was because of high blood pressure and gave me a medicine. Somehow I got through. They would open the door of the cell and let you walk in the ward. It was a small space. They would let you go and fetch water as there was no provision of drinking water inside the cell.

They kept me in isolation for 15 days. And they kept saying it was COVID protocol. But I started noticing slowly that people who were coming after me were moving about but I was still locked up. I raised a huge hue and cry about it. When I was presented before the magistrate, I told him this was happening and I was immediately unlocked.

I had no idea what was happening outside. Newspapers were shut. I couldn’t watch TV because I was isolated and I couldn’t speak to my lawyer. I was new in the jail so I wasn’t talking to anyone and nobody was telling me anything. Most importantly, I was worried about my family. They didn’t know how I was. I am very sorry to have put them in this situation. My parents, my husband, my in-laws, and especially since I was expecting they were all the more worried about me. I just wanted to tell them I am OK, but even that I was able to do after 20 days.

Al Jazeera: You were three months pregnant at the time, were you worried about the safety and wellbeing of your unborn child?

Zargar: I had made up my mind that I could have a miscarriage at any moment. Every time I had to go to the washroom, I would dread it. I would think: ‘It’s happening, it’s happening.’ My heart wouldn’t beat normally, I was able to hear my heartbeat. I kept thinking something was going to go wrong. I hadn’t taken so much care even during my first trimester. So I was all the more stressed about that.

Al Jazeera: Did you have any idea about the kind of charges being framed against you?

Zargar:  No. Actually, I did not even know which FIR (first information report) I had been arrested under. They detained me and sent me somewhere at 11:30pm in the night. I kept asking them: ‘Where are you sending me?’ I thought they were going to kill me because they didn’t tell me where they were sending me.

I saw my husband when I was going to the police jeep and I looked at him like I was looking at him for the last time. I thought I would not be able to see him again. And there was COVID, there was a lockdown, and this was the only car on the road. I did not know the way to northeast (of Delhi) and I didn’t realise we were going to Jaffrabad, because I had never been there. The roads were completely empty. There was not even a single car or person out and that added to the panic. I was taken for a medical examination and then to the Jaffrabad police station. Then, in the middle of the night, I was taken to another police station. When I now look back, I think so much could have happened at that time. Whatever happened to due process of law.

I didn’t want (my son’s) birth certificate to say he was born in Tihar jail.

Al Jazeera: When did you realise that a charge as serious as something under the UAPA was being levelled against you?

Zargar: I didn’t get to know before my lawyer told me. When I spoke to him last, I was being booked in the Jaffrabad road-block case. On the day I was supposed to get bail, I was arrested in the riots conspiracy case. One more student before me had been arrested, so I had some idea that it was difficult to get bail in this case. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know what the details of the charges were. My lawyers told me they are doing all they can. They told me: ‘This is the day the bail plea was going to be heard.’ When I was sent to judicial custody, they told my lawyers that I will be produced in Mandoli jail (a jail in Delhi). But they presented me in Tihar jail before the magistrate. I kept asking for my lawyers, but they wouldn’t give me my lawyers. I was completely lost. Until then, I had a little bit of hope.

Al Jazeera: Was all due process of law violated?

Zargar: I got to know that later on because I didn’t know what the exact process of law was. Even when I asked for my lawyers in court, everybody said that details of these hearings were public and your lawyer should know. So I thought maybe because I didn’t know anything. So everything was violated and I was sent to judicial custody.

Al Jazeera: Did you know then that UAPA was being invoked against you?

Zargar: No, I didn’t. I was waiting for the day of my bail hearing and wondering why I hadn’t been granted bail. I had no information and I didn’t know what was happening. Because they don’t tell you anything. I kept hoping that my lawyer would find his way to me somehow. But nothing happened. After 15 days, I was told I had been charged under UAPA. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe I was going to be here for another 2-3 years. And that is how hopeless I was.

I was disturbed that day. Initially, I thought it was some other bad news, something bad has happened with my family. Then I realised that everybody else is OK but this is still there and I have to be here. And I was most concerned about my baby. I wanted him to get the best. I wanted him to be born at a good hospital with his family around him. I told my lawyer to leave everything else and make sure that my delivery goes well and deliver him in a place of my choice. I didn’t want his birth certificate to say he was born in Tihar jail. Later I realised the birth certificate has the name of the hospital.

Whenever a woman speaks up, it doesn’t matter what she says. What she is wearing, how she’s looking, is she fat, is she thin, whether she’s divorced, married, or single, how many times she’s having sex in a week, how many kids she’s having, how much of lipstick she’s wearing – this is all that people can see. And this really angers you. But I have chosen not to be suppressed by it.

Al Jazeera: What kind of medical facilities were extended to you given that you were pregnant?

Zargar: So, there is a medical room in the jail because they don’t want you to die there. It is just enough to not make you die. To keep you alive. But the kind of medical care that pregnancy requires, that is definitely not there. So they would send you out for that. To a hospital. What they started doing was they would say: ‘We are going to send you out for an ultrasound, so will quarantine you five days before going for the ultrasound so that you’re not a threat to the doctor, and we will quarantine you after you come back for 15 days so that you’re not a threat to the staff and other people in the jail.’

For a two-hour appointment, I was quarantined for 20 days. In that appointment, the doctor would not even see you. He or she would make me stand at the door and ask the police officer accompanying me what my problem was. That was the kind of appointment for which I had to quarantine myself for 20 days. This happened twice. So all in all, I spent 40 days in quarantine during the entire period. After that, I dreaded going to the hospital. You have so many hormonal changes going on. And I am a very talkative person. I am very social. I like to have friends. I have never been alone for so long. Never. And I have always had my family. It was very difficult for me to cope with that loneliness. Other people in jail were nice to me. There were people who took a lot of care.

Al Jazeera: Did know you were being trolled on social media while you were behind bars? Your husband said your family is not bothered about what anyone was saying.

Zargar: He would have never told me because he knows how much I get affected. There was a policewoman who asked me if was married. And I looked at her like: ‘What kind of question is this?’ So I joked and said: ‘I am not married.’ One of my cellmates told me you should take these seriously so I said: ‘Yes I have been married for two years. Why are you asking me these questions?’

She said they were saying all kinds of things on social media, including that I wasn’t married, that I used to go to Shaheen Bagh and got pregnant there. I was like I have never been to Shaheen Bagh. What the hell? Why am I getting trolled for things and places I have never been to. I have never been to Jaffrabad but I have been arrested in the Jaffrabad roadblock case. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Someone else who came to jail from outside also told me that there is a woman who everyone is talking about – she’s pregnant, unmarried and she’s a woman from Shaheen Bagh.

Al Jazeera: When you came out of jail, did you look at the things that had been said about you? 

Zargar: Yes, I had good look at all of them so that when times turn, I can actually be satisfied. I looked at it from a very different perspective. I wanted to know what all has happened behind me and I felt strong enough to take it. I am strong enough to see how things are. I didn’t want to come out and say: ‘Look, I have a husband and a family.’ In fact, I was angry at people who had posted my wedding pictures because I didn’t want my private life to be out there. And I am saying this without any disrespect for those people.

I was put on trial for something I shouldn’t have been. Fine, you have a problem with my activism, you want to suppress my thoughts, curb my dissent. You do that. Give me counter-arguments. Talk about what I have said, malign my political image however you want to. But whenever a woman speaks up, it doesn’t matter whatever she says. What she is wearing, how she’s looking, is she fat, is she thin, whether she’s divorced, married, or single, how many times she’s having sex in a week, how many kids she’s having, how much of lipstick she’s wearing – this is all that people can see. And this really angers you. But I have chosen not to be suppressed by it.

Source: Al Jazeera