That same evening, an Indian court denied the bail application of Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old Kashmiri student activist who is five months pregnant and has been in jail while suffering complications due to polycystic ovary syndrome.
Doctors fear a possible miscarriage that could endanger Zargar’s life. She has been in the dreaded Tihar Jail in New Delhi for two months for allegedly conspiring to obstruct law enforcement during February’s nationwide student protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill, which brazenly excludes Muslim migrants.
The judge scolded the activist, saying that “when you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind to have carried the spark a bit too far.” Now Zargar, who stood up to the tyranny and communal bias of the Indian state, has been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for terrorism and instigating riots in the national capital — all for exposing the country’s moral bankruptcy.
A country that rose in solidarity for a dead elephant looks the other way as Zargar waits in an overcrowded prison during a pandemic.
Zargar is in prison while the real intellectual architects of the recent anti-Muslim carnage that rocked Delhi in February, and took more than 50 lives, remain in the highest positions of power as officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Some have openly urged their supporters to shoot “traitors.”
As many Indians wear the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as a fashion accessory, they remain oblivious to the fact that the ugly faces of majoritarian privilege and discrimination have been present in their home country for a long, long time. As demonstrators around the world mobilized against the brutal killing of George Floyd and conversations on race spread, Indian celebrities found a safe cause. Indian actor Priyanka Chopra, who is a global icon, shared Floyd’s last words, “Please, I can’t breathe,” on her Instagram account to express her pain and anger.
But where have these celebrities been when Indian Muslims have been systematically targeted by a majoritarian regime and a prejudiced legal system? As an Indian Muslim, I see the use of #BlackLivesMatter not as an extension of real solidarity, but as a reflection of the moral disfigurement of a population that looks the other way when its own minorities are discriminated against and lynched. Where were they when, during the Delhi carnage in February, police officials thrashed and beat to death Muslim men while demanding they chant the national anthem? Do Chopra and Tata even know their names? What about solidarity with the 15-year-old who was lynched for wearing a Muslim cap? Where was the outrage when a cabinet minister honored a group of killers who lynched a young Muslim man?
In Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, Modi revoked the special autonomous status, leaving the valley in a state of military lockdown and isolation that has generated multiple human rights abuses. Soon after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, the Modi government pushed for the implementation of the National Register of Citizens, which has sought to delegitimize and erase Muslims in India. Students and activists have been attacked on university campuses. And when the capital erupted in an anti-Muslim pogrom in February, officials like powerful Home Minister Amit Shah said the violence was “unfortunate” and praised the police.
But the public voices now tweeting “Black Lives Matter” maintained a silence that was nauseating. When asked questions by the media, many chose to praise the government’s response.
Some Indian activists have started using the hashtags #MuslimLivesMatter, #DalitlivesMatter, #KashmiriLivesmatter to draw the world’s attention to the excesses being committed against marginalized populations in India. Within a day, one of India’s leading news channels, Times Now, distorted the tweets as part of an effort to destabilize the country.
On June 4, feminists across the world expressed solidarity with two activists from the feminist organization Pinjra Tod who were arrested, accused of causing riots in Delhi. But you’d be hard-pressed to find expressions of concern and solidarity from celebrities and regular people.
India has its share of heroes — students, activists like Zargar, and some journalists — willing to stand up to protect the country’s moral compass. As I write this column, journalists in Kashmir face terror charges for reporting the truth and criticizing the Modi regime. These brave voices are fighting a lonely battle — but, unlike in the United States, no significant part of the citizenry is joining their struggle.
It’s time Indians stop worshiping false heroes and correct the course of our languishing democracy. The events of the last week have exposed a brutal double standard, as we remain indifferent to the trauma of Zargar and thousands like her, who have faced systemic injustice for generations.