While the Covid 19 situation in India continues to get grim with each passing day, the country is also witnessing the rise of unchecked executive power of the Center that has resulted in the incarceration of a student activist named Safoora Zargar who is five weeks pregnant. The memories of the Delhi riots that took place in the last week of February are still fresh in our minds. Safoora, a 27 year old researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, has been booked under the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967. She has been alleged to be a part of the ‘conspiracy’ and for making inflammatory speeches that sparked off the violent communal riots in Delhi. She was initially arrested on April 10, on charges of blocking a road and obstructing traffic. After the court granted her bail in that case, the Delhi Police Special Cell slapped fresh charges under the sections of UAPA and re-arrested her on April 13.
In reality, Safoora was a part of the anti-CAA protests that rocked our country since December 2019. She is also a member of the media wing of the Jamia Coordination Committee. According to Delhi Police, the protests were a part of the premeditated conspiracy that incited the Delhi riots. Safoora has been denied bail for the third time on 4th June by the Patiala House Court in Delhi. The judge, Dharmendra Rana found ‘no merits’ in her bail application. What makes Safoora’s case heart-wrenching is that she is five months pregnant and prone to contracting the Covid 19 virus if she continues to stay in jail for long. She is also reported to be suffering from Polycystic Ovarian Disorder and urgently needs the care of her family members.
The case of Safoora is yet another example of Modi government’s total apathy for student activists and other dissident groups who speak up against the unjust policies of his regime. From time to time we have witnessed how the executive power has been unleashed on students and social activists who have been critical of his policies. Zargar has been deliberately denied her right to personal liberty through the exercise of state repression. The brutal attitude of the state towards a peaceful protester who is five months pregnant, vindicates the fact that our Constitution faces grave threats from the onslaught of majoritarian Hindu Nationalism at this moment.
Background of Anti-CAA Protests
The Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed in December 2019, creates a path to citizenship for immigrants of different faiths except Muslims. This law blatantly violates the Right to Equality as enshrined in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, it doesn’t allow the recognition of the citizenship of an individual based on his/her religion. Protests rocked the national capital after the enactment of this law, students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University made demonstrations in their campuses and other public places. Police lathi charged the students of Jamia brutally and video footage of students being hit by the police inside the library went viral. A peaceful sit-in protest took place in Shaheen Bagh, a locality in South Delhi district, where protestors, mostly Muslim women, occupied the street in response to the passage of CAA and police intervention against students agitating in Jamia Millia Islamia. Safoora was a face of this unique resistance that was built by the students of Jamia and the women of Shaheen Bagh.
The BJP led government at Center kept poking at this peaceful protest and left no stone unturned in discrediting it. It threatened the protestors and also demonized them by claiming that they were working on behalf of Pakistan and were not ‘true patriots’ of this country. A lot of this was done to garner political support of the majority Hindu community keeping in mind the Delhi Assembly elections that took place on 8th February 2020. Home Minister Amit Shah in one of his speeches before the elections, asked the voters to “press the button so hard that the current would be felt in Shaheen Bagh”. Apart from this, several media channels did their bit by running extensive campaigns to defame the protests as it continued to attract global attention and support from renowned public figures. Finally the protest site was cleared by Delhi police when a nationwide lockdown was announced by the government in March 2020 to tackle the Covid 19 Pandemic.
What the Government is Trying to Indicate Through Such Arrests
The government aims at achieving two things through the arrest of Safoora Zargar. One, this provides them the opportunity to delegitimize the protests that took place in the universities and in Shaheen Bagh of Delhi by branding the protestors as ‘terrorists’ and anti-nationals who were conspiring against the state and two, they want to send out a strong message that anyone who dares to show dissent and question the government should be ready to face the consequences. This has been happening since 2014, the Modi government has crushed any barrier that comes in the path of making India a Hindu Rashtra. The charges of ‘terrorism’ are a lesson for all the dissenting students of this country that democratic protest carries heavy cost. The government has continuously tried to portray such spontaneous protests as unlawful and terrorist activities and tried to convince the public that the protestors are part of a ‘larger conspiracy’ against the state authorities. This also helps in creating hatred in the minds of the common people against the protestors. The IT cell of BJP has continuously floated fake videos in social media with regard to such protests. The reality has never reached the common people; misinformation, deformed and fake news has helped the ruling elite in ‘manufacturing consent’ as Noam Chomsky calls it.
UAPA- The Most Potent Weapon of the Executive
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was enacted in 1967 with the aim of dealing with activities that were considered to be a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of India. It is true that such laws are required to empower the executive to protect the nation from subversive activities. But at the same time it is also important to ensure that such executive power doesn’t go unchecked and some kind of accountability is maintained. Subsequent amendments over the years have added draconian provisions to this Act. In the recent amendments that took place in 2019, the Central government has vastly expanded the powers of the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Now the government can declare persons as ‘terrorists’ without any such evidence. Section 25 of the Act even goes against the spirit of ‘Cooperative Federalism’ as an official can now seize any property which he/she deems to be associated with terrorist activities without any prior written approval from DGP Police of the state where the property is located. Now even officials of Inspector Rank in the NIA can investigate cases related to ‘terrorism’ after amendment of Section 43 of the Act.
These are indications of making an all powerful Center without any kind of fetters or accountability. The rein of the political executive is entirely unchecked at the moment. Historically it has been proved that UAPA has acted as a potential tool in the hands of the executive to silence the critics in the opposition or the common citizens who raise their voice against the unlawful policies of the government and Safoora Zargar’s case is no exception. As it has been mentioned above, initially Safoora was granted bail by the Court but later the police charged her under the sections of UAPA and this made it difficult for her to apply for bail in future. This is clearly a case of executive vindictiveness that deliberately ruins the career of a student and also puts the life of a pregnant lady under risk, just because she dared to stand up and fight for the rights of her fellow citizens.
Rule of Law and Democratic Secularism is the Casualty
Day by day it is getting quite clear that rule of law and democratic secularism is dying a slow death in ‘New India’ that is being led by the Modi government. A matter of concern is that the media, which is considered to be the fourth pillar of democracy has started to act in a biased way and yellow journalism has become the order of the day. The hypocrisy of the law enforcement officials gets exposed if we take an unbiased look at the events that took place before the Delhi riots. A number of hate speeches were given by an active member of BJP and a former MLA of Delhi named Kapil Mishra, inflammatory speeches were also given by a Union Minister. A young man fired at the anti-CAA protestors in Jamia University. Police hasn’t taken any kind of action against these people who actually communalised the environment and instigated the Delhi riots. This proves the partiality of the majoritarian administration that is hell bent on implicating young protestors belonging to the minority community in ‘terrorism’ related cases by fabricating false charges.
It is indeed dark times for India when people who spread hatred roam around freely and those who are opposing it are being labelled as a threat to the nation. Apart from the pandemic caused by Covid 19 virus, India is also suffering from another pandemic known as Communalism and it has been deeply entrenched in the polarised society. Those supporting the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in the USA should also speak up for the release of Safoora Zargar, not just because she is pregnant but because protesting against a fascist government doesn’t make her a criminal. It is time to let the government know that Dalit and Muslim lives matter in our country. Dissent is contagious and it cannot be curbed by suppressing the voices of young and resolute student activists like Safoora Zargar.
Dhritiman Mukherjee (M.Phil.), Ph.D. Research Scholar, Department of Political Science, Presidency University