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Safoora Zargar -- A Requiem for Indian Democracy

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Message Arshad M Khan

Imagine someone being jailed for organizing a demonstration -- under such rules hundreds of activists in the Black Lives Matter marches would be in jail. Unthinkable in a democracy? Then imagine a judge in India denying bail for such an offense so that the person is in jail without trial, without a preliminary hearing, and without the food necessary in her present condition.


Yes, the person involved is a young woman only 27 years of age, newly married and pregnant, a graduate student at a university in Delhi, and she hails from, of all places, repressed Kashmir where India's human-rights record has left a stink smelled around the world. Her name is Safoora Zargar. It is a case that intersects multiple planes of discrimination in the Hindu- nationalist agenda.


Since April 10, 2020, she has been in jail under India's new Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), all because she played a role in organizing a demonstration of women students to block a crossroads. Under this act, which covers a whole gamut of activities, the charges can include rioting, possession of arms, attempt to murder, incitement of violence, sedition, murder, and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. She is now also being trolled on social media. And yet, she did not call for violence as, for example, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kapil Mishra, has done, calling protesters traitors who should be shot. He of course remains at large.

The judge denying bail for Ms. Zargar chose a metaphor: "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." Judge Dharmender Rana, in reasoning beyond common comprehension, laid the blame for the Delhi riots on Mrs. Zargar's little shoulders, seeking to make an example. Some consider the judge's decision to be wrong in law as the UAPA is vague in many aspects.


What all the demonstrations and protests have been about is very simply Mr. Modi's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which for the first time in India's history uses religion as a basis for citizenship. HRW (Human Rights Watch) claims it "... violates India's international obligations to prevent deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin". It calls on the Indian government to repeal the law, and it has produced a detailed 82-page report titled, "'Shoot the Traitors': Discrimination Against Muslims Under India's New Citizenship Policy", backing up its claims.


The UN too is critical. Jeremy Laurence, a spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), thought it compromised India's claimed commitment to equality before the law. OHCHR also urged India to respect the right to peaceful assembly. Tell that to Judge Dharmendra Rana, who conflated Safoora Zargar's planned peaceful demonstration with the Delhi riots and packed her off to jail.


In these February 2020 riots Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, resulting in over 50 deaths. It might have been anticipated because BJP leaders had belittled protesters, some like Kapil Mishra describing them as traitors who should be shot. Worse, video evidence demonstrates police complicity with the mobs and a failure to intervene when help was sought. Students charged this happened when a protest at their university in Delhi was set-upon by a mob of Hindu BJP supporters. The police present can be observed doing nothing to help them.


Safoora Zargar continues to languish in a filthy Indian jail, in surroundings alien to a middle-class Muslim woman from the picturesque Vale of Kashmir. The tensions of prison life and the poor diet has her husband worrying for the health of their unborn child and the danger of a miscarriage, which under prison conditions with a lack of prompt medical attention could prove fatal.


Is it a tragedy waiting to happen, among others (enumerated in The New Yorker) in Modi's 'New' India?

 

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
 
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