Standing up to repression – A conversation with Safoora Zargar

10 February 2020

Aaquib Khan is a Mumbai-based media professional. He tweets at @kaqibb.

Safoora Zargar is an M.Phil student in Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

Aaquib Khan discusses with Safoora Zargar political passion, student activism, commitment and the “Kashmirization” of India at the hands of the Modi government.


Photo by Aaquib Khan.

Safoora Zargar (SZ): I am a member of the Jamia Coordination Committee, which is popularly known as JCC. It has been active since 16  December 2019, since the brutal repression by the police in Jamia Millia Islamia. There was much anger and people wanted to express themselves; sporadic protests started happening, people started gathering outside the campus without a protest call, just in support of Jamia: people from the locality, alumni, mothers, children, daughters, everybody was here. We decided to give it a shape and so the JCC was formed: we wanted to record and make people know about whatever protests took place.

Since we have no Student Union in Jamia, we made a list of all the parties active in Jamia and made sure to have an equal number of male and female representatives.

We are facilitating everything that’s happening, making people’s ideas possible and helping in whichever way we can to send a strong message.Those of us who could write came together and formed the media committee: we have people monitoring the news constantly and others getting in touch with various committees to support those who come to us with various requests, including legal aid. During protests there was no traffic management, so people started volunteering and the team kept increasing. As media was more and more present, we needed to send a strong message; that’s when somebody said: “We are a team of people and want to create customized posters.” We took them in and gave them a space to sit and work. And then somebody came and said that they wanted to read on the road, which would be a revolutionary thing as our library had been destroyed; we told them, yes, we will support you in every possible way. Some people from Fine Arts came and said: “Many people want to come and draw at Jamia.” We said why not and the turnover was great: there were graffiti on the road and everybody was expressing themselves in their own ways. Some music band approaches us, and so the song Chalo Jamia, Padho Jamia Zindabad (Keep moving Jamia, Keep studying Jamia. Long live revolution) came up. We are facilitating everything that’s happening, making people’s ideas possible and helping in whichever way we can to send a strong message.

Students from Fine Arts making graffitis and posters. Photo by Aaquib Khan.

Aaquib Khan (AK): This sounds like an organic protest. What do you think is making people come together?

SK: I think the love towards Jamia is connecting us. And as a student community at large what is connecting us is education. What is happening in this country is detrimental for the future: the constitution is getting bypassed; justice is getting bypassed; people are losing faith in the institutions of this country. Educated people understand this.

People feel for their alma mater here: there are generations who have studied here and an attack to the university is an attack to the whole locality. As I live nearby, I could clearly hear the police coming that day: they had decided to infiltrate the university and from there into the whole area like they have done in Uttar Pradesh (UP). But people started coming to Delhi Police’s headquarter at the Income Tax Office and that put pressure on the Police to retreat.

The attack on Jamia was a state sponsored act of terrorism. They thought that the nation would not stand with the Muslims, with a so-called Muslims university. But they don’t understand. Jamia has great body of alumni and that is what enabled us to go through this and stand-up again. We have stood the test of time and repression.

Photo by Aaquib Khan.

AK: So you think that Jamia was targeted intentionally?

SZ: Yes, I think so. It was a planned attack. Police knew how to enter. They knew the ways. They knew where to start and where to end. They knew that the largest crowd would be in the library and that’s where they chose to attack. And they knew where the hostels are. They knew everything. If the police intention was to disperse people, why were they catching people who were running away? They intentionally wanted to cause grievous harm to the community, and that’s what they did.

AK: As a member of JCC, what are the present challenges? How long can you sustain the protest?

We need to keep doing this, it’s part of our education. And being educated means being able to speak out and differentiate between right and wrong.

SZ: Activism in the campus has increased since 2014. Earlier people would get scared, now it is something to be proud of: when they send you a notice it means they are afraid of your voice, your words, and this is a big win in itself. In terms of administrative repression, we have fought it so many times and we are going to fight it again. We have stopped looking at it as a sporadic protest or a stray protest: for us it has now become a movement, which will take a lot of time consolidating. Jamia has become one centre of the movement; Shaheen Bagh another. People are waking up. Be it a sit-in protest in Shaheen Bagh or protesting at the UP Bhawan or a long march, we are going to keep doing this. As a student, in the current state of undeclared emergency in this country, I don’t feel anybody can stop us. We need to keep doing this, it’s part of our education. And being educated means being able to speak out and differentiate between right and wrong.

AK: Are you not afraid?

SZ: No, I am not afraid. I am from Kashmir; we have seen worst. So many people have come to me feeling bad for not being able to understand our pain after Article 370 was repealed. I have never expected that, because what you experience sometime may not be expressed in words. It is only when people see it for themselves, when the State inflicts something on you deliberately that you begin to understand. Now people in Assam understand what people in Kashmir already knew. People in Delhi are understanding; hopefully people in the South will understand; people in Mumbai will understand and then this government will have no place to run.

AK: Are we witnessing a Kashmirization of India?

SZ: On 13 December I was at Jamia, we were trying to approach the area the Police has barricaded. They were constantly firing teargas, but we just wanted to talk. The way they fired teargas and stun grenades, My God, the intensity! There was a moment when I became completely numb. We were just trying to approach them; I was raising my hands. And then suddenly all of these teargas shells came, and one went off two inches from me.

I am from Kashmir and I haven’t been able to go home for a while because we can only go when “normalcy” is restored. Suddenly all of those images from back home emerged in my mind. I sat on the roads with my ear closed. There were 2-3 friends who pulled me off the road. I just went completely blank for two seconds, I inhaled all that gas and couldn’t breathe: I was literally choking. And I ended with a throat infection because of that. When I was standing there, I thought that I had come to Delhi from Kashmir thinking I could escape violence because it really causes lots of stress. And now I felt like I was standing in Soura, Srinagar. And there was smoke around me and that is what made me blank out completely. The thing you are trying to escape follows you everywhere, where do we go now?

AK: Women are playing a big role in these protests. How do you see the whole movement?

Women have come forward and reclaimed to be politically educated. It is a major win that women taking the lead in protest. We have seen how after brutal attacks women have come out in support. It has been a phenomenal journey -for Jamia especially.

SZ: Women are coming out to reclaim their political knowledge and commitment. We will do politics. The government released a statement saying that students getting into politics will not be tolerated in this country. Then why does the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to ask students for votes? They have a political wing, called Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), present in every university and attacking protestors every time. But then they want other people not to do politics? We need to get in politicized. It is important to get politicized; our education should be a political education. It should be a gender-neutral and gender-equal education. We cannot compartmentalize, that we wish to be educated about ‘this’ part and not ‘that’ part. Why should we be politically uneducated? Women have come forward and reclaimed to be politically educated. It is a major win that women taking the lead in protest. We have seen how after brutal attacks women have come out in support. It has been a phenomenal journey -for Jamia especially. There was a hostel march and the road was blocked, there were women marching and men standing by and clicking photographs of these women: that for me was a phenomenal moment.

AK: What do you think about the student protest and student politics in India? Will the movement that started from Jamia lead to somewhere or will it fizzle out?

SZ: Every movement has an age: it starts and then ends. One of my teachers once told me that no movement goes waste. In the short span it lasts, it leaves a large impact on society. In 1968 students brought revolutionary changes in this world. The movement may last for a short time, but the repercussions last really long. In history, students have come out when other people have failed to do so, when civil society failed to do so, when opposition specially failed to do so. Right now, in this country, we have a government without opposition. But very proudly we say that we are the opposition. Students have to come out as an opposition force to the fascism of this government. Concentration camps have already been built, they call them detention centers, I call them concentration camps, because this is what history is going to call them tomorrow. That is what happened in Nazi Germany. All of this is happening here, if educated folks do not come forward in solidarity now, then when?

Students and people reading books outside Jamia. Photo by Aaquib Khan.

AK: Why is the government against students?

SZ: I feel they are afraid of educated people. For example, if people get educated and aware of Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, then they will oppose it. This government makes the most out of cheap internet. These goons use WhatsApp and like that whatever they will circulate reaches everybody and bypasses intellectual debates: only one-sided narratives reach every household. To counter this, we need educated people to come forward and debate about it. When that debate happens, it turns the table on them. That’s why they are afraid of the students, of educated people, of the intelligentsia.

AK: Whom am I talking to: a Kashmiri or a student from Jamia University?

SZ: A person has multiple identities. Currently I am a Jamian. I have been associated with Jamia for four years and, when I came to Delhi, this was the place that I felt like home, not because there are so many Muslims around, but because of the culture of the University. I have celebrated Diwali, Holi, Raksha Bandhan and Eid in this University. Every time of the year this place has given me a home away from home, which I couldn’t find anywhere else. I have been educated in Delhi University. It was also a great experience, but Jamia is something different: it’s the place where ideas come together. I met so many Kashmiris here who are fighting for Jamia. We have to keep all identities aside, we are Jamians right now. Our university, which has given us so much, is under attack and this is the time for us to give back.

AK: Will this protest will change anything?

SZ: Of course, we must never lose hope. Jamia was established in 1920 with the non-cooperation movement. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Gandhi ji they wanted to establish their own University. The movement that started in 1920 from Jamia culminated in 1947 – in the freedom struggle. And today this movement is “cooking;” it is crucial for safeguarding the democratic principles of the country as we are losing day by day the democratic and secular character of India. It may not be possible in a year or two, but surely one day we shall be able to achieve our mission: it is with this belief that people are sitting here right now in Jamia and in other universities.

AK: What is the biggest challenge you see in India?

SZ: In India our biggest challenge is communalism. BJP works on the same ideologies on which the British succeeded. For 200 years the British divided us into Hindus and Muslims. This government has no economic policy and no international policy. They do not have any strategy for job creation, health, women related-issues. Nothing. The only agenda they have is either with Hindus or with Muslims; every Hindu and every Muslim need to understand that and accept that when you are told that your Muslim friend is a threat to you or vice versa, that’s a political gimmick for somebody to stay in power.


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