NEW DELHI — “Coffee and cheesecake,” said Saboor Ahmad Sirwal, recalling the order that he and Safoora Zargar placed the first time they met at a Starbucks in New Delhi, two years ago.
“She loves coffee,” he said about his wife, a 27-year-old sociology student who the Delhi Police have jailed after accusing her of conspiring to instigate the communal riots that ravaged the national capital in February.
The Delhi Police was so eager to imprison Zargar that they arrested her on 10 April amidst a nationwide lockdown to stem the transmission of the deadly coronavirus. The Jamia Millia Islamia University student, three months pregnant at the time, was granted bail on 13 April, but re-arrested that same day under other sections of the law including murder, and booked under India’s draconian anti-terror law, and the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA) on 20 April. Almost two months later, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana denied her bail despite her lawyer explaining that incarceration, and pregnancy-related complications could result in a miscarriage.
For the Delhi Police, Zargar is a dangerous terrorist whose provocative public speeches sparked a communal riot that claimed at least 53 lives in north east Delhi. In court, her lawyer has noted that Zargar was not present at the site where the prosecution claims she gave her speech.
For her friends and family, Zargar is an intelligent and outspoken young woman, whose only crime is to dissent against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s repeated moves to tweak India’s Constitution to further Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. In their eyes, Zargar, and political activists like Umar Khalid — also named in the case — are being targeted for opposing the Modi government’s new citizenship law, the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, that critics say discriminates against Muslims.
Her continued incarceration, even as BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra who openly called for violence remain at large, is an indictment of the lopsided nature of the Delhi Police’s investigation into the riots.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said the nationwide protests against the CAA were a “truly historic and remarkable” civil liberties movement led by Muslim women in India, comparable to the Black Lives Matter movement underway in the United States. “You are now having activists of that movement being mistreated behind the smokescreen of a pandemic when people’s attention is elsewhere and when we can’t mobilise and demonstrate on the streets in the thousands,” she said.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Zargar’s husband Sirwal said he makes a conscious effort not to think about the day his pregnant wife was interrogated for seven hours and arrested in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dwelling on that moment, Sirwal said, might drive him “insane.”
32-year-old Sirwal, who works in a startup in Gurgaon, said that he was following his wife’s example of fighting an all consuming legal battle one day at a time and keeping faith in the judiciary.
The quiet dignity that has suffused how his wife is confronting this sudden crisis that threatens her life and liberty, while enduring a difficult pregnancy, has deeply affected him.
“I love her even more. She is a source of strength for me even though she is the one in jail,” said Sirwal. “She is my life partner, the mother of our child. Our lives are intertwined. To go through such a horrid experience together only strengthens our relationship.”
“I love her even more. She is a source of strength for me even though she is the one in jail.”
In separate conversations, Zargar’s family and friends said that a big part of her life was about helping others and taking a stand against what she perceived to be unfair or unjust. These principles manifested themselves in a myriad ways, from lending her lecture notes to coaching her classmates before examinations, from lobbying for extending hostel timings for women students to joining a protest against human rights violations in other countries.
For her to join the Jamia Coordination Committee, a group of students who came together to manage the anti-CAA protests, was only natural, and looking at her involvement in isolation from all her other activism would be a mistake, they said.
“She always had a flare in her. She never backed out of anything, no matter the pressure or limitations. Anything that seemed unfair or biased to her, she would speak up. My father instilled this upon us to never stay silent if you see something unfair,” said Sameeya Zargar, her 24 year old sister who works as an account manager. “We were taught to be unapologetically verbal. Be it a doubt in school to hostel timings in college, she was never afraid to voice anything.”
“We were taught to be unapologetically verbal.”
Zargar, who was born to a homemaker mother and a father who worked for a public sector company, went to school in Faridabad, Haryana. She attended Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi after school, and then joined Jamia for her postgraduate studies.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic meant that Zargar’s family could not visit her in prison or send her clothes and personal hygiene items. With Covid-19 cases detected in all three Delhi jails, and cases in the national capital rising after the lockdown ended this month, her family is always worried.
For 45 days after she was arrested, Zargar was allowed only one five minute phone call every week. Sirwal recalled writing down 20 questions before those calls, and never getting past the third or fourth.
Sirwal said that it was Zargar who was the “strong one,” the voice of reason, always trying to reassure her family that she was fine and things would get better.
“We only had time to ask if she is safe, is she eating, does she have medicines, in those five minute calls,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have no choice but to put our faith in the courts and the Constitution. The only thing we can do is hope and pray that justice is done sooner rather than later.”
“We have no choice but to put our faith in the courts and the Constitution.”
A sociology student
The first time that Zargar and Sirwal met in February 2018 was after they were engaged in snow-clad Kishtwar, their hometown in Jammu and Kashmir. Their parents attended the two separate engagement ceremonies, but they did not see each other until that day at the Starbucks in New Delhi.
Their parents, who were hoping to find them marriage partners with roots in Kishtwar, had introduced them while Zargar was studying at Jamia and Sirwal was working in Mumbai. They decided to get engaged after speaking with each other for six months over the phone. They married in September 2018 and settled down in Ghaffar Manzil, near the University campus.
While the amount of snow that had accompanied their engagement ceremonies in Kishtwar was all they could talk about when they finally met, Sirwal says that it was their first phone conversation that left him well and truly smitten.
“I remember her talking about her studies and what it meant to her. She had just given a presentation and she told me all about it,” said Sirwal. “She was extremely intelligent and that was enough for me. I just wanted a good, educated and smart person.”
“The most passionate I have seen her is towards her feel of studies. She wants to teach,” he said.
“She was extremely intelligent and that was enough for me.”
Zargar, who is pursuing her M Phil in sociology, is researching how people living in urban societies interact with each other. One of her professors at Jamia, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that she was not only an “A plus” student, but a “thinking” and “sensitive” young woman.
Two years after their marriage, Sirwal says there are no remonstrations or reproaches from their parents about the situation they find themselves in. “They only have love and prayers,” he said.
Her sister Sameeya said, “She has two sets of parents — our parents and her in-laws. They have been supportive in one way or the other.”
“Helpful,” is a word that Zargar’s friends used a lot while narrating stories of how she would share her lecture notes, find the source material for their presentations, and coach them for hours before examinations.
Her sister Sameeya said Zargar, the eldest of three siblings, was nurturing even when they were growing up.
“As a sister she introduced us to a world of reading and made us watch all kinds of historical movies. She was in-charge of our holiday homework and set straight any bullying at school. She’s been a career counselor to a birthday party planner — everything,” she said.
As someone who routinely raised issues inside her University as well as half around the world, Zargar protesting the Modi government’s citizenship law did not surprise her friends or family.
After the Modi government abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and demoted the state to a Union Territory, last year, a former classmate Ayesha Aziz said that Zargar pushed the University administration to extend the admission deadline for students who were not able to apply because of the lockdown and internet ban that followed.
Aziz described her friend as the “quintessential Jamian.”
“She is like Jamia’s daughter,” she said. “Every university has an essence. She is the quintessential Jamian. Someone who is extremely brave, someone who speaks up, someone who does not adhere to the stereotypical gender roles, and goes beyond for others.”
“She is like Jamia’s daughter. Every university has an essence. She is the quintessential Jamian.”
The case against her
In Zargar’s bail hearing on 4 June, the Public Prosecutor Irfan Ahmed argued the Jamia Coordination Committee had organised most of the anti-CAA protests in Delhi, and then decided to escalate their agitation, resulting in the riots.
The Delhi Police alleged that Zargar, a member of the JCC, gave a provocative speech at Chand Bagh on 23 February, which led to the violence in the neighbourhood on 24 February — a day later.
Her lawyer Trideep Pais argued that tracking Zargar’s movements on 23 February through her phone signal and WhatsApp message revealed that she had only passed by Chand Bagh and not even spoken at that location.
Merely protesting the CAA and holding a differing point of view from the Modi government was not illegal, he argued.
“They are trying to weave a false narrative and making people like Safoora pawns,” he said.
Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana, while denying her bail, said there was at the very least prima facie evidence of there being a conspiracy to organise a roadblock (chakkajam), and “mere absence” from the scenes of violence did not help Zargar if there is prima facie evidence of the existence of conspiracy.
“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,” he said in the bail order.
Conversations at home
As the protests against the CAA intensified, Sirwal said family members were concerned about Zargar’s safety, but no one thought about asking her not to get involved.
Sirwal said that his wife cared deeply, but was not “obsessed” with the anti-CAA movement.
Like families across the country, they too discussed the protests at home, but they also talked about groceries, take-out, and how to entertain their relatives who were visiting them in those tumultuous weeks.
“We were worried that she might get caught in the crossfire or get injured, but that was the only issue,” said Sirwal. “She has a mind of her own. She would not say silent if she felt something was wrong. You can’t tell her this how things are, this is how things should be, or this is what she should do.”
“She has a mind of her own. She would not say silent if she felt something was wrong.”
There was, however, a collective realisation of the gravity of that moment and those feelings only deepened as hundreds of students and then millions of Indians came out to protest the CAA, said Sirwal.
The CAA allows people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, living without documents in India, to apply for citizenship as long as they are not Muslims. This, for the first time, makes religion the basis for granting Indian citizenship. When read along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to identify, detain and eventually deport people living without documents, critics say the new law will only disenfranchise Indian Muslims who cannot produce the documents to prove their citizenship.
15 December, the day the Delhi Police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia University after a march led by its students turned violent, brought home the anti-Muslim sentiments that had become normalised in the six years since the BJP came to power in 2014.
Sirwal said that he and Zargar — like other middle class Indian Muslims — have talked about whether it was safe for them to continue living in India. Sirwal said that his friends and colleagues never said or did anything that made him uncomfortable, but they rarely said anything about issues like the CAA, which to many Muslims feels like an existential threat.
Then, his wife’s University, the one place she believed was a safe space, came under attack.
The policemen who entered the University campus on December 15 lobbed tear gas and beat students with their batons. They entered the library that she frequented and beat up students who were not in the protests. On 30 January, a Hindu man brandished a gun at the protest site that she helped build and said, “Yeh lo azadi” (take your freedom).
After Zargar was arrested, right wing trolls including Kapil Mishra, the BJP leader who had openly called for violence on 23 February, flooded social media with lewd comments and lies about her marriage and pregnancy.
Political activist Kavita Krishnan said, “They are slut shaming her to create a miasma of distrust around her because they don’t want people to see her as a young defender of our Constitution, a courageous woman, and a would be mother.”
Sirwal said that he did not want to waste 10 seconds discussing the trolls who were trying to “hurt and demean” his family.
He then added, “We were hoping that the majority community’s collective conscience and morality would come to the fore and help us tide over these problems. The silent majority do carry some blame in letting these things happen. You never know, this could just be the beginning. We don’t know what is coming.”
“You never know, this could just be the beginning. We don’t know what is coming.”
When the riots erupted in February, Sirwal said that Zargar devoted herself to relief work, bringing food and clothes to those whose homes were looted and burnt. When complications arose in her pregnancy in the following weeks, her sole preoccupation was taking care of her health.
The first time that Zargar heard the Delhi Police was investigating her in connection with the Delhi Riots was on 10 April, the day she was subjected to seven hour long interrogation at the Lodhi Road Police Station and arrested.
Zargar was suffering from nausea and taking an afternoon nap when “eight or ten policemen arrived in three or four jeeps” and took her away, said Sirwal, who went with them to the police station.
When they spoke a few times in the middle of the interrogation, Sirwal recalled his wife looked visibly shaken, but she could say very little because they were always some policemen around.
While he waited in the canteen of the police station, Sirwal said that he kept repeating that his wife was pregnant, while promising to return the next day for further interrogation.
Sirwal said that his wife, who had been so strong that whole day, could no longer hold back her tears and emotions when they arrested her at around ten in the night.
Now, Sirwal begged the policemen not to arrest her.
“I tried my best to stop it. I said whatever I could think of in those five minutes,” said Sirwal. “I said that she was pregnant and unwell. I said, ‘we will come back tomorrow, please don’t arrest her.’ I said, ‘we will report here every day.’ I said, ‘we will do whatever you say.’ It did not matter. They said it’s done.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that Safoora Zargar was booked under the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act on 13 April. She was booked under the UAPA on 20 April. The error is regretted).