De-radicalization in India will be the first step towards healing: Safoora Zargar - IAMC
Safoora Zargar - IAMC

De-radicalization in India will be the first step towards healing: Safoora Zargar

Safoora Zargar was one of the speaker at Indian American Muslim Council’s  (IAMC) 72nd Republic Day celebration. The virtual event took place on January 31, 2021.IAMC (India American Muslim Council) reproduces the transcript of her speech.

It’s been a very long time since I have come out and it feels good to meet people for a change. Today, first of all, I would like to thank everybody around the world who has spoken out for me and who stood by me. It definitely was a very hard phase of my life. It was unexpected. All over the world, people prayed for me. In India, activists, students, my friends, my family, my husband stood by me. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to everybody who stood by me during the hardest time of my life. Today, for me this Republic Day was a little different as it gave me so much to think about. Today, I would be talking about the need for healing in India.

To begin with, obviously there is a need for healing in India. When your jails are filled with scholars, students, social activists, farmers, intellectuals, professors, teachers you just need to take a moment and pause and think that something is certainly wrong. In fact, it is terrifying that mere words can put you behind bars and can shatter your life and your career. As students or as citizens of a country, as an aware citizen of a country, as an active citizen of a country, which we all should be, you have a right and a responsibility to speak on any issue that is happening around you. I frankly did not expect that it would lead me to jail because what I was thinking was that I am just doing my part. It is a movement and everybody is participating in the movement and I am just trying to do my part but yes it did put me behind bars and it just changed the course of my life. I was very lucky that my case blew out of proportion and I got so much support and people stood by me. However, there are many cases in India right now which are not known, although a section of the media has been picking up these cases. There are so many people around us and so many good human beings who are now prisoners of conscience. All this makes me think that there is a need for healing in India.

Everyday violence is one thing but when you are lifted from your place and you are debased and suddenly you have no floor under your feet and you are just at the mercy of other people. You are at the mercy of a very Islamophobic state who just hate you in all aspects. As a student, as a Muslim, and as a woman, hate is a very strong word that I use but all people who have been going through this in India are experiencing a lot of hate and it is very difficult to deal with it.

Now to talk about the healing process, I feel we all know that there is a need for healing but how do we come about this healing. As a scholar, I would like to highlight that de-radicalization is the first step towards healing in India right now. You know mostly when we talk about de-radicalization, I think across the world it’s like ‘oh Muslims they are so radical, they need to be de-radicalized’ but nobody is talking about the radicalization in India against the Muslims – the hatred that is being spun against the Muslims and how the institutions have completely failed the people of India. Due to this radicalization, the majority community is made to feel unsafe in their own country, they are made to feel under threat from a minority community and it has happened over a period of time and over a number of years. Obviously, de-radicalization (of the majority community) is not going to happen overnight.

We need to learn our history as Indians. Our history is embedded in what we in Delhi call the Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb. The Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and all religions in India have lived as a community together. They have survived and lived in the same composite culture for so long. We need to introspect. A social introspection needs to be done and we need to ask why have we come to this point. Obviously, there is a major role played by a certain political party. But to name and blame only one political party, which just came into power, for all the mess is an overstatement. It has been many years since Muslims have been isolated. We have been moved to the fringes. My research is on urban social-spatial segregation and I have studied this phenomenon of how Delhi was a state of composite culture and how segregation slowly happened in the cities. The Muslims really moved out of the city centre and survived on the fringes. This did not happen in the last ten years. It is a process that has happened in the last 60-70 years that has brought us to this point. A certain de-radicalization process needs to start now among the majority community who are made to feel threatened and which is actually not the case. Obviously, this is going to take a lot of time.

Coming back to healing. Can healing happen without reconciliation and can reconciliation happen without justice is something we need to understand. The process of healing definitely requires reconciliation. When two people fight, they are made to talk and they are made to accept the wrong they did. They are asked to right the wrong and makeup. They are required to talk and have a dialogue and solve the problems and clear misconceptions about each other and move on. However, that is not happening. Justice is at the core of the healing process. With so much injustice and denial of justice from all institutions and layers of the society, a community is bound to feel left out and it is bound to feel betrayed. With betrayal and trust deficit among communities in India, how can there be reconciliation and in turn how can there be healing? This is the question that we need to introspect.

I would like to give a small example. India has many examples of this, but I would like to give the example of Babri masjid. Injustice has happened. Leave the debate about whether there was a masjid or a temple. Leave all of that aside. The fact is that there was a mosque and it was broken down, it was desecrated, it was violated and it all happened in front of the country and everybody, including the majority of the country, was rejoicing. Following this, what happened was that so many Muslims were put into jail for inciting hate. First a wrong was done to you and then you are denied justice and then more injustice is perpetrated against you. In such a scenario, how do you reconcile and do you reconcile for the lives lost, for the lives shattered, for the loved ones lost? Healing comes much later.

When we talk about Muslims as a community, not just in India, but all over the world Muslims are put at a very high pedestal and we have to subscribe to very high morals and ideas which are not applied to other people. In the case of Babri masjid, many people say that Muslims should not be revengeful. They say it’s all just politics and we should all move on and how do you move on when there is no acknowledgement of injustice to you. Acknowledgment is very important for the reconciliation process and that is not happening in India right now.

People who are being jailed are booked under UAPA, NSA, sedition and what not. The state is using all kinds of laws to clampdown on dissent and especially on Muslims. It is easy for the people to say, ‘Oh, it’s against a Muslim, this person definitely must have done something, they are all born seditious. Indian Muslims are patriotic, nationalist, and want to be part of this country and have equal rights. The state is delegitimizing them as second class citizens in their own country. What does this tell us about the state of the country? When there is denial of justice, it leaves open wounds and this leaves us far from the healing process.

In my case, I would say even now there is no acknowledgement of whether I was wronged. I was an accused but I was treated as a convict. Everybody treated me like a convict. Your life changes due to this. This has become a new normal in the country and this needs to stop.

Yesterday, we saw an attack on journalists like Mandeep, who is behind bars. Police are arbitrarily arresting people and cases of illegal detention are filed. No process of law is being followed. This leaves too many scars on your soul and on your mind. You cannot heal from this without acknowledgement and without reparation – leave alone justice, and trust me justice is different from revenge. To want somebody to be punished for a wrong they did to you is not revenge, it is a demand for justice and it is the reaction of every single human being when they are wronged. When we are wronged, we feel an immediate need for justice and for the punishment of the person who has wronged us. It is normal to feel that way but in India, our community has stopped even dreaming about justice. A mere acknowledgement, a mere reparation, and guilt on part of the perpetrators seems far-fetched to expect right now.

At the core of the healing process and the attainment of justice is the question of dignity. You can get away with a lot of things and people can forget and move on but when you hurt somebody’s dignity and when you make them feel inferior, when you make them feel powerless in their own country, there is no coming back from it. It becomes very difficult for a person to heal from it and it makes a person lose faith in the institutions of the country. I think that is what is happening right now in India. There is a trust deficit and there is loss of faith in democracy, and this loss of a dignified life – when it is smashed and taken away from you, it makes you feel very minuscule. It makes you feel very small. Even though you are fighting in a very institutionalized and legalized manner, you are not even being allowed to defend yourself. Unless there is guilt on part of the perpetrators, there is no coming back from this. If it doesn’t happen, it is impossible to forgive and without forgiveness, you cannot break this cycle of violence.

In India, there is a strong need for religious peacebuilding. It’s not just the Muslims but the Sikh community is being demonized. They are being dehumanized and when students dissent, they are labelled as urban Naxals and Maoists. When it’s about Muslims, they are terrorists, Pakistanis and ISIS agents and what not and when it’s about Sikhs, they are Khalistanis. There is no end to this demonization. It’s not just the Muslims facing this – it’s also the Sikhs, the Dalits and especially women. Violating women, invading their privacy, demonizing them, dehumanizing them is the favourite pastime of the top entertainment news channels. In the post-truth world of today, you cannot differentiate between truth and falsehood. The most-watched primetime news channels are engaging in violation. All the communities in India are saturated with this violence. Today, we have come to a saturation level where it is important to act right now – otherwise it is going to be a catastrophic situation. Matters can definitely escalate even further in India as it is definitely moving towards the Nazi way. We have time and again pointed this out.

I believe forgiveness, i.e. when you forgive somebody, does not include forgetting. I might forgive somebody only when that person shows guilt, which they acknowledge. I might be able to forgive them but I strongly believe we should not forget, we should forgive but we should not forget. Only when we remember can we look back at it and introspect and it opens a path for you. If we are forgetting injustices done to us, it will not help us. Many people say that you should just forget and you should just move on and ask us why do you keep going back to the past and why do you keep bringing up this issue, the Babri issue, and it has been two years and why do you have to bring it up again and again, it’s just for politics and they ask us to move on from it, I strongly disagree because it is only when you remember that you can introspect and you can avoid the same in the future. If you forget then it tends to get repeated again and again and there is no way out of this cycle. So, we must remember and at the right time we must also forgive because it can rid us of so many things. It may not be the end of the problem but forgiveness unburdens one’s soul and I strongly believe in that.

When we talk about the cycle of violence, and mostly when we talk about conflict resolution, we talk about breaking the cycle of violence and transcending it. I feel that it is a one-sided cycle because there is this community – and many other communities, who for the last 70 years have been trying very hard to prove their nationalism. So much so that we have internalized all of this hatred and this dehumanization. Because of this, many times, although unconsciously, we become apologetic of our identity, we try to escape from asserting it and over a period of time it has increased and the situation has become much worse. I believe that in the healing process what is important is that we accept our identities unapologetically. Our identities need to be accepted and we must accept others also and know that these identities are not toxic identities. I am talking about the positive identities like the religion that you practice, or being a woman and your gender – these are positive identities that you need to carry with you, not as baggage but as pride, and as a badge of honour because you belong to a faith and if you believe in that faith you should not be apologetic about it. This internalization has, in turn, harmed us even more and we really need to come out of it and we need to heal ourselves from this violence and this internalization of dehumanization that we have experienced over the years.

The cycle of violence has made us apologetic. We have tried to prove our nationalism and tried to define our place in the country. But, I feel that even after 70 years, the situation has not improved. In fact, it has worsened. Therefore it is not the right way to do it. Then what is the right way to do it? The right way to do it is to keep asserting your identity till your identity becomes normal and till it is okay to be a Muslim in this country and it is okay to be a woman in this country and it is okay to speak up. Until it is okay to talk about the pain of others as if it is your own pain and to stand up for people – unless all of these things are normalized and you keep asserting your identity and speak up and never back down. You will feel that you will have to face so much but it is also a part of your healing process because if these feelings are bottled up inside you, it is not going to come out in the right manner. Giving vent to one’s feelings and asserting and fighting for justice, equality and for your right to speak up for your identities is a very important part of the healing process.

Also, we should come together and we should forge alliances and we should clear misconceptions. We should keep clearing them till we get rid of them and this I believe is definitely a part of the healing process.

Finally, I believe that in the post-truth world, and I say this very sadly, there seems to be no space for facts and this is what lays the foundation for majoritarianism and populism that we are currently experiencing in our country. The majority of narratives, the populist narratives seem to be the reality people subscribe to and it stops to matter if they are true or not but does that mean you abandon the truth? We, sometimes, also fall into this trap and we try to create populist narratives. I might not have a solution for this right now but we cannot stop to endeavour to find that solution, which in future might open up and it might for some time seem like the victims are the defaulters and you are losing on all fronts, but I feel that in the future when history shall be written Inshallah it shall be kinder and much more softer to the victims than it is now in India.

I would, finally, like to say that why we should not stop fighting. When you see so much injustice, you realize that it is not just you and worse things are happening to people around you and people like you. Many things could have happened to you if people would not have spoken up for you and that makes your spirit soar. It does not scare you, in fact, it makes you stronger but I do not feel that this is true for everybody because sometimes the struggle is so hard that you might feel that I need to just sit back and I just need to get control of my life, which is also okay and you can take that time. I feel a lot of people overcome it and they emerge stronger and slowly it does heal you and that is the kind of feeling that India needs right now on this Republic Day.

I would also like to say that we must never stop fighting for justice, however much far it might seem on the horizon. It might seem too far away like the stars but you really need to keep fighting for justice because if Allah wills it, it shall be. You should never be hopeless and that is what is keeping me and so many people going on in India. Many people ask me why am I negative and why do I keep pointing out the bad things? My answer is that it’s not like that we don’t appreciate the good things but if we do not talk about the bad things, how are we going to make more good things and that is why you need to be critical of your own country. We talk about self-criticism and we talk about being critical of yourself for self-improvement. It’s the same with your country. If you are not critical of your country, how will our country grow? I have a very different opinion about development. How will the country progress? How will progressive thought come about is something we really need to think about. It is very important to criticize and it is very important to talk about the negatives and discern the negatives and put it out there for people to see. That is what I feel is the true spirit of the Republic and the world’s largest democracy has had a very long journey. This is the spirit that has brought us to a democratic functioning, which is being lost in the country today, and it needs to be revived more than ever.

So, happy Republic Day to everybody out there and thank you so much for having me here today.