By Majid Alam
While people throughout India have been protesting for the last three months against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) believed to be against the Muslim minority, the brain behind one of the largest agitations remains in jail.
Little was known about Ph.D. scholar Sharjeel Imam before a video showing him allegedly talking of cutting the Northeast India from the mainland became viral on the internet. The Ph.D. scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the man behind organising the Shaheen Bagh protests in New Delhi surrendered before the Delhi Police on 28 January, 2020.
Three weeks after the arrest, things appear turning worse for Imam as the Uttar Pradesh Police has slapped the National Security Act (NSA) against him. The course of action against Imam raises some pertinent questions: Does Imam’s provocative statement amount to sedition? Is slapping harsh laws like the NSA justified in cases of problematic statements?
Imam is an engineering graduate from IIT Mumbai, one of the premier technical institutes of the country. After working as a researcher in Amsterdam, Imam joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to study modern history. His research is about the Muslim minorities in colonial India. As a prolific writer, Imam is a critic of the left-liberal organisations, mainstream Islamophobia and the Muslim exclusion in the post-Independence India.
The organisers of Shaheen Bagh and the Jamia Coordination Committee managing the protests at the university were quick to distance themselves from the activist. Not only the organisers of the protest against the CAA seem to distance themselves, but also the majority of Muslims fail to show their resentment on the issue. The protests throughout India against the CAA has mostly been peaceful and well-organised. The protestors have so far stayed away from any such controversial issue where the credibility of the protest might be questioned and their legitimacy put to stake. However, the silence of the Muslim community and the civil society give leverage to the government to act in a vengeful manner against Imam.
While the ruling BJP government has left no stones unturned in attacking Imam, the opposition leaders have remained silent on the issue or have supported the BJP. The Home Minister, Amit Shah said, “Watch Sharjeel’s video, listen to his speech, he has spoken more dangerous words than Kanhaiya Kumar (another student activist charged with sedition).” While another BJP leader, Sangeet Som, said that people like Imam should be shot publicly.
As the agitation started after some protesting students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia were beaten by the Police on 15 December, 2019, Imam and a group of other students organised a sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh, one of the largest Muslim populated locality in the capital. The protests, unpopular at the start, had blocked off the road leading to the neighbouring city – Noida – from the capital. The Shaheen Bagh protest later became an iconic sit-in which has been replicated throughout the country.
“After the violence Sharjeel was part of the protest at Jamia, but due to his unpopular opinion and difference with the Jamia Coordination Committee he sided away from the protest at Jamia. That was when he started mobilising people at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh,” said one of the protesting students who wished to remain unnamed. When the judgement on the disputed land of Babri Masjid was delivered by the Supreme Court of India in favour of a temple for Lord Ram, Muslims in India largely remained silent. The construction of a Ram Temple at the site of the demolished Mosque in Ayodhya was on the agenda of the ruling BJP government for three decades. While the nation remained silent over the issue, Imam with a few other JNU students organised a protest meet against the judgment.
The government which is adamant to stop the protests sees its biggest enemy in Imam, who is behind the agitation going on for months. His statement, that created a controversy, has been opposed from all quarters. But does that amount to sedition? It was irresponsible and uncalled for, but slapping draconian laws only shows the vengeance of the government.
Such resentment from the side of the government against dissidents is not new. Kanhaiya Kumar, a PhD scholar from the same university, considered a left-bastion in the capital, was arrested under sedition laws for raising what the government called ‘anti-national’ slogans in 2016. Later the video of Kumar raising slogans was found to be doctored and he was released. Since then there have been many incidents where the dissidents or those vocal against the government have been met with same repression.
Through Imam, the government wants to delegitimize the idea that a Muslim should either protest or assert his identity at the same time. While the minorities struggle for justice against what they call a communal citizenship law, they are scared to demand justice for Imam who stood with them. With the silence of the Muslims over Sharjeel Imam’s issue, the government is successful in sending a stern message to the minorities to fall in line.
Majid Alam is a journalist who has worked with CNN-News18. He has written for Vice, The Wire, The Quint, Diplomat and The Statesman. He is currently studying International Affairs at Sciences Po, Paris.
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