On December 19, Sadaf Jafar, a well-known social and political activist in Lucknow and a teacher, was protesting against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Act in a Lucknow neighborhood.
The well-attended protest suddenly erupted into violence; a car was set on fire, public property was attacked. However, while the Yogi Adityanath government and the UP Police would like us to believe that the protestors had turned violent, Jafar’s presence of mind had ensured that the truth of the moment is now captured forever.
Jafar, a tech-savvy activist, uses the Facebook Live feature often, and on the day of the protest, too, she had broadcast three lives from the scene of the protest. In the videos, she can be heard repeatedly requesting the police to not stand around and stop the rioters, asking protestors to stand on the side together so as not to get hurt or pulled into the violence.
“Son, don’t go there. Please don’t. You will get hurt. Come over here. They are not protesters, they are hired rioters,” she is heard telling a young protester. She is also heard asking the media present on the scene to show the faces of the rioters. And in the third and last video, she is resisting her arrest. Her last words in the video are, “I am being arrested.”
Right at this moment, Naheed Varma, Jafar’s elder sister, who was also part of the protest, had called her, trying to locate her. “We were all locked up in one of the shops on the high street,” she says. “And I called her to find out where she was. And she just told me she can’t talk and hung up. If she had just said that I am being arrested, we could have gone to the police station immediately.”
For two days, Varma had no idea where Jafar was. “We saw her video and knew she has been arrested but every time I called the Hazratganj police station, they denied picking up any woman protester.”
Finally, after a spirited social media campaign and messages from Bollywood personalities like Meera Nair — Jafar has acted in a few Bollywood films and is part of the cast for Nair’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy — demanding her release, Varma was finally intimated about Jafar’s whereabouts and allowed to meet her.
“She was beaten up badly. She told me they kicked her in the stomach, hit her with a baton,” Varma says. “She had internal bleeding.”
Jafar was also the only woman out of the 150 people arrested on December 19. The police also slapped 18 serious charges against Jafar, including rioting and damage to public property. So far, she has been denied bail. Why was there so much secrecy surrounding her detention and arrest?
Is it because Jafar’s voice had constantly rang out from Lucknow, sometimes reaching thousands through her Facebook videos, resisting divisive politics, injustices, even arbitrary arrests? Jafar has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP CM Yogi Adityanath’s Hindutva politics, much before she aligned herself with the Congress. Her activism has been beyond party colours. She has raised her voice, put herself out against bigotry and injustice, without caring about personal consequences.
In July 2018, she had raised her voice in support of Pooja Shukla, a commerce student from Lucknow University (LU), who was detained and arrested by UP police in much the same manner as Jafar was picked up a year later.
Shukla’s entrance test results were withheld by the university and she was asked to submit an affidavit in the Lucknow High Court promising that she would never take part in any activity in the university, or engage in university politics, to receive her results.
A year before that, Shukla had hit the news after she blocked Yogi Adityanath's convoy, waving black flags to it, protesting about a fee hike and hooliganism in the campus by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Jafar had spoken up for Shukla and was scathing in her video message where she condemned the actions of the Yogi Adityanath government and their cowardice in picking up a young student. “They are scared of children now, children who are not yet into full time politics,” she said in the video.
“Our girls have no future under this government. They will not allow them to thrive, or study or work or have a life. They want women who toe the line, not women who can say no or protest,” she had added.
Jafar, who has also been a tireless champion of gender rights, certainly didn’t toe the line. She was contemptuous in her criticism of bigotry and staunch in her defense of liberal values. She spoke up, fought, and raised hell over the smallest of injustices.
She has been the voice and conscience of Lucknow for a long time now; a voice that makes governments and its machinery uncomfortable.Sadaf Jafar represents every woman in this country who refuses to be silenced.