Why Indian democracy needs more Sharjeel Imamstext_fields
It is one year since the unjust prosecution of Sharjeel Imam, a former computer science student from IIT Bombay and currently a research scholar at JNU. Imam had surrendered to the Delhi police a year ago i.e, on January 28th 2020, when charges of UAPA and sedition were imposed upon him by five Indian States. Despite the severity of the charges, he believed that allegations based upon false media trial and viral clips circulated without context would be difficult to sustain, a year later I hope he still believes.
When I write this, to rekindle our memories, to foster our remembrance, I'm overwhelmed by the powerful images his name brings to my mind. I remember when on August 5, 2019 article 370 was repealed and an indefinite curfew was imposed in Kashmir he was amongst the handful Indian Muslim to register his protest. When the entire nation was basking in the glory and strength of Akhand Bharat, Imam spoke for the humanitarian rights of the Kashmiri people and provided them an iota of security in an otherwise hateful environment.
I remember Sharjeel Imam for his courage to speak on November 9th 2019, when Babri masjid's demolition was lawfully justified by proclaiming the Supreme Court's preference for majoritarian sentiments above the illegal demolition of the Babri and the nation was celebrating this majoritarian domination. When the persecution of the Indian Muslim community was mandated by the judiciary and even our capacity to dissent was confined and not a single Muslim across the country registered his protest against this blatant injustice and we were forced into silence, Sharjeel Imam claimed his space to protest in the premise of an Institution that breeds Islamophobia. Even when warned against the possible catastrophe of his action, he refused to be subdued. I remember him as one of the few people who have the courage to walk and lead, indifferent to the size of the crowd behind him. Given how he was abandoned by his own peers and is forgotten by his own community, it gives me respite to know that Sharjeel Imam can stand alone.
I remember Sharjeel Imam for the stand he took against the NRC-CAA on 11th December, 2019 immediately an hour after the bill was passed in rajya sabha and the discriminatory citizenship amendment act came into being. I remember, the panic that engulfed us, the fear and ignorance of what the future entailed and the helplessness of being an Indian Muslim. I remember when the nation had submitted to this tyranny and the otherisation of Indian Muslims was conceded upon, Sharjeel Imam dared to defy, he dared to not be subservient to the oppression of the Indian state.
I remember his efforts to enlighten the community from within and sensitise them to their true plight, instead of appealing to the conscience of the acclaimed muslim leaders. When on the evening of 15th December, he had called for an indefinite sit-in at Shaheen bagh with the intent of temporarily blocking the road and halting normalcy, we were apprehensive of what this movement might turn into and the chaos it might unravel. But under the leadership of Sharjeel Imam and Asif Mujtaba, Shaheen bagh blossomed into a nationwide movement led by Muslim women.
I remember when a two minute clip from his speech at Aligarh Muslim University went viral, and his idea was taken out of context how the champions of free speech vocalised their condemnation against Sharjeel Imam. Their solidarity if any were coupled with too many ifs and buts and his arrest was made to appear natural. The idea that a man who looked muslim, did not have any alliance with the left liberal circles and spoke for the representation and leadership of Muslims was too much of a burden upon the secular ethos of the nation. The idea often propounded by them, that sedition itself is a draconian law fluently translated into condemnation against Sharjeel's opinion.
Sure the state and its agencies were falsely targeting muslims, but a muslim boy who also spoke against the hypocrisies of the left and the systematic exclusion of muslims under the Congress regime, naturally appeared as too radical. When on the eve of Imam's arrest, the bearers of secularism openly abandoned him and imposed an unsaid constraint upon the political freedom of an Indian Muslim, Sharjeel's critique of the left stood accurate.
I remember how the Indian Muslim community in their fear or subservience to the state, in their political ignorance and their undue conviction upon their left liberal allies abandoned Sharjeel Imam, questioned his motives and went as far as to call him an agent of the state. The man who was perhaps the first one to realise the calamity that NRC CAA was and persevered to sensitise the community to their trials was forsaken by his own community. With no political alliance or guardianship, Imam went on to initiate the Shaheen bagh protest but in order to appear a little more legitimate, the same protest site deserted him. A community that has been systematically oppressed since the last seventy years such that survival and a fragment of security is all they could ask for, feared the idea that Imam harboured. The idea of a dignified life, the idea of a democracy where a muslim had some negotiation power and his identity wasn't reduced to a subservient slave. Imam dared to dream of a community that nurtured its own leaders, who spoke for them on their terms. He resisted both against the oppression of the state and submission to mere survival. The idea of freedom and emancipation was alien to a community who's been either subjugated or merely patronized. Needless to say, Sharjeel Imam's ambition were too surreal for people who have never dared to defy.
I remember Sharjeel Imam as I witness the historic farmers protest and their bold resistance against crony capitalism. For about two months now, the farmers have successfully managed to sustain their protest on the borders of Delhi, occupying the highways and causing road blocks. I remember how Sharjeel Imam had advocated the same method a year ago, but the idea of Muslims blocking the road appeared too undemocratic then to those supporting it today. Sharjeel Imam has often been criticised for confining the Shaheen Bagh protest to Muslim identity, for not garnering wider appeal and isolating the community. People do not shy away from comparing the Shaheen Bagh to farmers protest, praising the latter for its mass public appeal as opposed to the Muslim character of the former.
However the frailty of this argument is exposed when they themselves are hesitant to stand behind a protest led by Muslims. They're apprehensive to lend us unconditional solidarity, and believe that our ambition and ideas must be kept in check. The thought that Muslims might harbour sentiments which challenges the idea of a national identity has been internalised within them. Even though our allies stand against our oppression, they continue to view us as potential threats. Thereby the idea of a Sharjeel Imam who vehemently spoke against the hypocrisies of our allies and emphasised the need for leadership from within the community, was seen as a potential threat. He realised the need to fight your own battles and his efforts to challenge the naturalized belief that Muslims are incapable of being their own representatives, was seen as an attempt to isolate a protest on religious grounds.
While it is extremely difficult to raise and sustain a protest when a particular community is under attack as opposed to the case when the attack is upon an economic class as the terms of contract and redistribution in the former is not know to the participants, Imam did manage to consolidate people belonging to marginalized groups and gave them a sense of belonging. He knew that Muslims hold no bargaining power in the country's political or economic landscape and any form or resistance will eventually be curbed, yet he dared to imagine an existence of dignity. He refused to be subdued by our harsh reality, or bullied into accepting the crumbles of security. His defiance no wonder made him an oddity in his own community. But I dare say, that as long as he dreams beyond his reality and aspires for dignity, his existence will embody his resistance
Imam refused to succumb to this reality of an Indian Muslim constrained by their allyship and our leadership and that's where the resistance that many of us claim to be a part of fails me and millions of the Indian Muslims. If at all India needs to be more democratic in its struggle against the onslaught of the Sangh parivar, we need more Sharjeel Imams.
(Khadija Aslam is a research scholar at Delhi School of Economics. Views are personal)