By Muzamil Yaqoob and Kaushiki Arha
A revolution is brewing in India, it is one that has taken over universities, newsrooms, wedding receptions, airports, malls, public parks. After decades, the streets seem to have been occupied, literally, by the people. As much as one would want to think of it to be a pan-society phenomenon, one that cuts across religions, class, caste and genders, it does not, at least not yet. The movement is led by the marginalised communities, by Muslims and Women as of now. Dalits and Adivasis have been at the forefront of a larger movement against the present regime for the last 4 years now.
Movement against CAA
The unprecedented movement against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India has caught a new limelight. The widespread movement across the country, mostly led by the women and students has been the biggest challenge the right-wing ruling party has to face since 2014, when it actually came to power. The current movement after sustaining a brutal repression of the state forces has now strengthened its resolve and gained cross-cultural solidarity. In the face of it, the country-wide sit-ins and road-blocks have been greatly inspired by the agitation which was started by the women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.
In its recent crackdown on the protesters and anti-CAA activists, the govt has imposed draconian charges on one of the most prominent faces in this protest, Sharjeel Imam, an eyesore to the current ruling dispensation. A man who has not sugar-coated the oppression Muslims have been subjected to since decades. A Ph.D. Scholar in History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a prolific writer, he is everything the ruling party despises: Muslim Identity, knowledge of history and politically informed opinions which he is not afraid to put forth. Sharjeel Imam caught the national attention last week when members of the ruling regime accused him of ‘masterminding’ the Shaheen Bagh protest and delivering a provocative speech allegedly at Aligarh Muslim University against the CAA and the proposed National People’s Register (NPR). Consequently, the police forces of Delhi, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Uttar Pradesh registered cases against him on sedition charges, and arrested him under the ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act’.
Following the charges against Sharjeel, the democratic voices from across the country sprung up in unison seeking the revocation of the charges. Different groups protested against the govt’s move and termed the charges ‘draconian’ and ‘colonial’, used to suppress the assertive voices of the marginalized groups. In the meantime, Sharjeel Imam clarified his position to The Indian Express that what he intended to say was “to peacefully block roads wherever possible. In that context, I said you have to block roads going to Assam. It was basically a call for chakka jam.” However, the media outfits distorted and misunderstood the hour-long speech and framed him as a ‘conspirator’ and ‘instigator’.
Upholding democratic rights
Different student groups within JNU came in support of upholding the democratic rights of Sharjeel and demanded the immediate revocation of all the charges. While condemning the witch-hunting of activists, BAPSA said that the Muslim voices have always been the “easiest and ever-ready target of the fanatical Brahmanical Hindutva forces.” In addition to this, Fraternity Movement JNU also opposed the charges vehemently saying, “Sharjeel Imam has been at the forefront in the fight against the regime’s attempt to make an apartheid law legal which targets to render Muslims stateless. He is in line with several others (including students of Jamia and Aligarh) who have been targeted by the state for their unflinching stand against this unjust law.” Apart from these student groups, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union and Teachers Association and several academicians and renowned jurists and other political outfits condemned the charges against him and demanded that the government quash all the charges against Sharjeel and other activists throughout the country, who have been arrested in connection with the anti-CAA movement. Students at different institutes organized marches to raise their voice in solidarity with the detainees.
What separates this movement from all others which have sprung up against the government in power is that it is being fought on an existential question, said a protestor at Shaheen Bagh. The socio-economic and political discrimination faced by Muslims in India for the last 70 years has finally found expression at a mass level in the public domain and unapologetically.
The participants in the protest continue to say that “an assertion of their religious identity has found space in public arena, all talks of secularism seem to disappear as the protests are not attended at a mass level by those with tilaks who claim to be progressive and liberal, none of the Hindu or any other religiously dominated colonies have women sitting for night vigils.” Shahin Baghs across the country are dominated by those in burqa and skullcap braving the ever-present threat of lathi charge, and as AMU and Jamia have shown us, even bullets and stun grenades.
The politics of hate and vengeance
This movement against the draconian CAA-NPR-NRC nexus has reached a critical juncture as all social movements do at some point. A voice from the movement is being targeted by forces from across the political spectrum. What we must not forget is that the statements made by Sharjeel Imam can be and are most likely to be taken out of context and distorted to suit the right-wing media-led political narrative. Even if we believe otherwise and encounter a person who did make a statement to cordon off a state and mean it in that particular sense, it is upon us people who believe in democracy and freedom of speech and expression to reflect upon the nuances of our own politics, to differentiate between hate speech, in inciting violence towards a community and in having a contested political opinion.
Those who do not agree with Sharjeel have a right to disagree but to divert all energy in criticising him is to fall into the political narrative the ruling government has built hitherto. In criticising Sharjeel we have a political obligation in opposing sedition charges against him, in defending his right to present his understanding of how the movement should proceed. We can and must argue otherwise, but to demonise and delegitimise Sharjeel Imam is to give a tacit approval to sedition charges on him in particular and state repression against dissenting voices at large.
Muzamil is currently working with CSDS and a post-graduate from JNU, and Kaushiki is currently pursuing her masters from JNU.
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