Gods, Goddesses, Kathak, and Humanity
There has been collective outrage amongst Indians upon the news of a pregnant elephant intentionally being fed a pineapple filled with firecrackers in rural Kerala. Naturally, I saw my social media flooded with calls for the nation to enforce more stringent animal protection laws. “Animals are just as valuable as humans”, I read multiple times over.
We later found out that the pregnant elephant was not intentionally fed the firecracker-filled pineapple. Farmers in the region commonly use such traps to keep wild boars away from their crops. The elephant had ventured away from her usual terrain and found herself victim to a cruel dead-end trap.
Similarly, at the other end of India, a pregnant woman, Safoora Zargar, had bravely ventured away from the usual path and has now found herself on the wrong end of law protection.
A lot of what I learned about the intricacies of Hinduism and womanhood came from my dance Kathak training. I was taught that the most beautiful women had the carefully measured and elegant gait of a majestic elephant, Ganesh Chal. I was shown that women were made up of fearless power and nurturing grace, Devi Stuti. And I was told that women and men were equal, Radha-Krishna Thumris.
One of the most well-known symbols of Hinduism is the elephant. “Oh yeah, you have the elephant-headed God right?” Yes, Lord Ganesha. The one that Hindus are taught to invoke at the beginning of every new path that we tread on, the remover of all obstacles, and the Lord of Good Fortune.
Alongside Ganesh, I grew up with stories about Hindu Goddesses. All powerful, fearless, and confrontational like the warrior Goddess, Durga (Devi). She rides a tiger or a lion, to symbolize her mastery over power, will, and determination. She is depicted with having between eight to eighteen arms, each holding a symbolic weapon so that she is ever ready to battle evil from any direction.
Due to their deep cultural and religious history, the protection rates of Indian elephants have been significantly higher than other Asian regional elephants. But somehow, despite being considered the embodiments of Devi, we can definitely say that Indian women are not delivered the same protection rates.
Safoora Zargar is an MPhil student at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in the nation’s capital, New Delhi. She was arrested on April 10th for allegedly organizing Anti-CAA protests and road blockades at the Jaffrabad Metro Station in February.
On April 13th she was charged for pre-planned conspiracy for the communal riots in Delhi.
On April 21, she was held to another charge under UAPA: Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. This charge pertains to offences of unlawful activity, commission of a terrorist act, collecting funds for a terrorist act and conspiracy for committing a terrorist act.
To understand the severity of this charge, we can compare it to normal criminal law. Under normal criminal law, the accused can be detained under police custody for a maximum of 15 days but under UAPA, it’s 30 days. Under normal criminal law, the police have to formally charge the accused (file a charge sheet) within 90 days, but under UAPA it’s 180 days.
On the same night that we heard of the tragic incident of the pregnant elephant in Kerala, Safoora was denied bail for a third time, on the basis that it cannot be said that there is no prima facie case (evidence required for bail against UAPA) against the accused. The court’s claim is that Safoora made an inflammatory speech at the Chand Bagh protest in Delhi. Her lawyers provided evidence that Safoora was briefly at Chand Bagh prior to any violence taking place and was delivering a speech on that same day in Khureji, a different part of Delhi.
Since April 15th, Safoora has been held in the overcrowded Tihar Jail, South Asia’s largest prison complex. She is 5-months pregnant, is more vulnerable to COVID-19, and is suffering complications due to her Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) diagnosis.
Safoora’s pregnancy has been used by some as a means to spark sympathy, and by others to dehumanize her by questioning her character and the legitimacy of her baby. Somewhere in between all of these external narratives, we seem to overlook the internal fearless Muslim woman activist that she is and the humanitarian cause that she ventured out to fight for.
It is not my place to assess the judiciary system, neither do I have the knowledge to. However, I can’t help myself asking what if her gender or religion were different? In times when there is a parallel narrative where the American judiciary and police systems are under scrutiny by its citizens via the Black Lives Matter movement, I find myself wondering: What is the difference between a woman and an elephant? And what answer to this question are we going to give Safoora’s baby?