On April 10, 2020, authorities arrested Safoora Zargar, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), in apparent retaliation for her participation in protests against a controversial citizenship law. Authorities have since accused Zargar and others of conspiring to incite violent riots that began on February 23.
Zargar, an MPhil student, is the media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, a group comprised of current and former JMI students that was reportedly actively involved in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a controversial law enacted in December 2019 that excludes Muslim migrants from a pathway to citizenship. Students at JMI and other major universities frequently protested the CAA, which has widely been described as discriminatory, since it was introduced in bill form. While anti-CAA protesters were by and large peaceful in their actions, reports indicate that police frequently used violent force and arrests in order to quash their activities.
Zargar’s arrest is a part of a case implicating two other activists, Meeran Haider, a PhD candidate at JMI and president of the student wing of the leftwing political party Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Umar Khalid, a prominent former student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Authorities have accused the three of conspiring to incite violent riots that overwhelmed New Delhi for several days starting on February 23, 2020. While it is unclear whether Khalid has been officially charged as of this report, Zargar and Haider, who was arrested on April 1, have been charged with violating India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which has routinely been used to punish activists. The two also face charges of sedition, murder, attempt to murder, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and rioting, as part of the same case.
The February 23 riots occurred shortly after a member of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held a rally in New Delhi calling on authorities to clear the city of demonstrators protesting the CAA. While some clashes broke out between alleged Hindu nationalists and anti-CAA activists, reports indicate that the riots were largely marked by reports of Hindu nationalists violently attacking Muslims and destroying their homes and businesses, and reports of police refraining from intervening and even stoking anti-Muslim violence. The three days of riots left more than fifty people dead and hundreds injured.
Zargar was initially arrested on April 10 for a her alleged participation in a February anti-CAA protest in the town of Jaffrabad, in northeast Delhi; few substantive details are available regarding that case brought against her. On April 13, a court granted her bail; however, police rearrested Zargar before she could be released, charging her with violating the UAPA in connection with the Delhi riots. Evidence supporting the latest charges has not been disclosed.
As of this writing, India, like most countries around the world, has been grappling with a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. Supporters of Zargar have expressed concern that the student-activist, who was reportedly three months pregnant at the time of her arrest, faces heightened vulnerability in prison. Indian authorities have been accused of taking advantage of a countrywide lockdown, intended to curb COVID-19’s spread, and the extensive media coverage of the pandemic in order to detain or take other measures to silence activists, like Zargar, as well as journalists, and human rights defenders.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of a student in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have an obligation to respect and refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent expression, assembly, or associations. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests and prosecutions intended to restrict or retaliate against such conduct undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.