Sharjeel Usmani is a political prisoner now released on bail an undergraduate at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and National Secretary of the Fraternity Movement. He was 'arrested' by plain clothes men who claimed to be Crime Branch officers but carried no warrant. He was released on 1 September when the Court declared his incarceration as pointless and noted his bright academic record.
He spoke to Tazeen Junaid in the Conversation Series "The Fight for Justice Must Go On" conducted by University Collective - a group of university students and alumni from amongst others AMU, Hyderabad Central University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Tazeen Junaid: Your arrest was uncommon. You are the first Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protester arrested by Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) which is not party to your cases. They have no right to question or arrest you. What made you such a nuisance that the state invested so much effort in arresting you?
Sharjeel Usmani: All activists, including me, were prepared to be arrested by police but then I was shocked to know ATS, which deals with terror cases, arrested me. The fact that ATS arrested a student who participated in a student movement inside a university means that 'Every Muslim youth is a potential terrorist in the eyes of the state' as I had said. ATS has nothing to do with CAA protests unless the state views Muslim youth protesters as potential terrorists. It shows state's prejudice towards Muslims who refuse to be victims. All my cases are around AMU protests. The state says I was the mastermind of the protest that turned violent on 15th December. It didn't say ATS played a role. ATS shouldn't arrest me but it did, and that shouldn't just be condemned but fought. ATS should answer and the state must answer -Why Muslims are being arrested by ATS. I'm not a special case. When witch-hunting of Tablighis started, Jamaat members in Bihar were arrested by ATS. It looks like ATS has been made to witch-hunt Muslims who're protesting or Muslims whose work is apolitical. This shows any Indian Muslim who speaks about his or her rights is a potential threat to national security for the state.
TJ: How were the 24 hours between the arrest and being produced before the court like?
SU: I was blindfolded when I was arrested. I was taken to a car and made to sit between two guards who pointed guns at me. I couldn't see but I heard everything. We hit the road. I was being taken to Lucknow which I learned when I slightly removed my blindfold to see road signs. They started asking me random questions. None of the questions had anything to do with CAA protest or AMU violence. The asked strange and absurd questions as: the ATS officer asked me "Do you know Shadab Munna? He was arrested by us with the help of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) from Nepal. He's an Indian mujahedeen recruit. Do you know him? How do you know him? He was talking about you."
I'd answer that I don't know him. Then he'd change the question. He'd ask why do you have so many Kashmiri friends in AMU. I'll say that I've friends from every place. I've a few Kashmiri friends who're my classmates. I've some friends from Kerala and UP and other states as well, so it's not as if I've only friends from Kashmir. Then he'd change the question and say on February 26, 50,000 rupees were deposited in your account, where did that money come from and who deposited it? Then he'll goto some other name – "Asadullah was arrested from some other country with the help of RAW. How do you know him?" These were the type of questions but it was a casual conversation; it wasn't an interrogation. He'd ask me about Sharjeel Imam and how I know him. He had our chat history. He knew things like he came to AMU on 11 December and I was the one who invited him. He'd also inquire about other students. He'd ask me about the Students Islamic Organization. Who was funding Shaheen Bagh? Then he'd go to some mujahideen recruiter.
I was taken to ATS facility. I suppose it's their UP headquarters and they called it campus. I was still blindfolded and taken to block two, third floor. On the right side, there was a room. I was made to sit on a chair. Then the blindfold was removed. It was a big room like a hotel room. It had an LCD TV, a sofa set, a coffee table, bed and two black commandos standing on each side with guns and then the formal interrogation started. They started asking me questions like earlier ones. They didn't ask me about CAA protests or why I participated in it. They talked to me about Kashmir, about certain terrorists they claimed I was in touch with. Then towards the end, they started asking about how I know some people. Since I was under surveillance, they were privy to my messages and phone calls. They'd ask "How do you know Colin Gonsalves?", "How do you know Rebecca Jones?" and "Why and how did you meet Asadduddin Owaisi" because I posted a picture with Owaisi on his birthday. Then the questions shifted. But that was all and I was treated like other Muslims in police custody. I wasn't given special treatment.
TJ: I watched your interview on Quint where you said that prison inmates called you 'A Terrorist From Shaheen Bagh'. It must be a hostile environment. How did you endure it?
SU: Jail was easy for me. Going there and coming out did one good thing. It has pushed my boundaries. When we start doing activism inside a campus, we define our boundaries. We'll do everything to the point that we aren't suspended but when we're suspended we say that we'll do anything. We can do anything because we're already suspended. At the most, we'll get suspended again.
Inside jail, the situation turned hostile once.There was a television in my barracks so they put movies every night after seven. One day there was a movie on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in which Anupam Kher plays a chef at Taj Hotel. On that day almost all the inmates had a very heated debate amongst themselves. "Musalmaan to aise hi hote hai, in log ka to yehi kaam hota hai, maarne se pehle sochte nahi hai" (All Muslims are of this type, it's their work, they do not think before killing) I wasn't part of the debate but I was being referred, "Ye bhi to wohi karke aaya hai" (He has come after doing all this.) It wasn't hostile because I just used to to go to them directly, "Jo bhi bolna hai mu pe bolo." (Say whatever you want to my face)
It's a jail, in the outside world you can lynch Muslims easily. In past week, there were three cases of lynching Muslims to death but you can't do it inside jail. You're under surveillance for 24 hours so you're under cameras all the time and you have security guards moving around. I knew I had that immunity. I could fight them off. It was only a verbal conversation, it wasn't hostile. I stood up to them.
There's one bad thing about the Indian state. Although our population's 14 percent, jails have an astonishingly large number of Muslims. I think 40-44 percent against our population are in jails so there were many Muslims who were supportive and took care of me so it wasn't hostile. But jail's not a good place to be. The room I was in, it's an old barracks constructed by the Britishers and there's a plate at the entrance of that barracks. It reads the length of this barracks to be 120 feet, the width is 30 feet, providing 600 cubic space to its prisoners and it's constructed for 42 prisoners. The barracks' capacity is 42 prisoners and there were 145 people inside it so we got as much space to sleep as we'd get in a coffin. That is the living condition there. There's just one bathroom inside our barracks for 145 people. Everybody used the same facility. But the worst thing is that it has every social evil of the society in its rawest and most original form. The people charged with making prisoners work would proudly say "Jiska jo kaam hai usko wohi karna chahiye" (Everyone should do their work). According to them, a Valmiki's work is to clean toilets so only he'd do it. Pundits were not given any work and in case they were given any work. it was only to distribute roti during meals.It wasn't a bad experience and I'm prepared to go again.
TJ: I can see that.
SU: If it's the cost of carrying the movement forward then it's a small price to pay.
TJ: Definitely. Your friends and family alleged that you were arrested because of your writings. Your articles threatened the state. You were putting a narrative behind the CAA movement. The state couldn't counter it. You were arrested to be silenced. Is it your writing in general or some pieces the state finds concerning?
SU: I don't think any of my writings was so threatening that the state would've to literally put me inside jail because there are many who were writing much more important pieces and are more critical of the government than mine.They are still free. I believe my arrest was part of the larger witch-hunting going on against all CAA activists. I was part of that witch-hunting but one thing I stressed on in my writings and speeches was that the CAA movement wasn't a fight between good India and the bad India or the BJP and everyone. For me and for many others, it was a struggle for our self-respect, our dignity as a community. It was a fight for justice. It was a struggle between the state and the Muslim community. All the brokers or middlemen talking on our behalf to the state were sidelined. We were the community talking and negotiating directly for our rights, respect and dignity with the state.
I believed that is the one thing I wrote which turned a bit controversial but I still stand by what I said. It was in solidarity with one accused in Delhi violence - Shahrukh Pathan. It depends on how you look at the thing. I'm saying that I advocate and support Shahrukh's right to self-defence. It's everybody's right to defend. It's a law and a right given not just by the constitution but also as human rights. There's one thing, you've all rights to charge Shahrukh for carrying an illegal weapon and if his gun was illegal, frame him for that. Try him for that in your court but you can't call him a terrorist. You can't call him an aggressor. There was an ongoing riot. Shahrukh had to defend himself and his fellow men who were being killed during the riot. There's a judgment from the Bombay High Court, Nagpur Bench in 1953. There was an anti-Muslim riot in Madhya Pradesh and Sindhis were killing Muslims. Two brothers were locked inside their shop, the mob reached them and started banging the door. One brother had a pistol and shot in self-defence, killing one and injuring another. Later he was tried for murder and the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court ruled that he had the right to kill in self-defence. That is the real judgment, so maybe if our judiciary and police system werren't this changed, Shahrukh would've his right to self defence.
What if Shahrukh didn't have a gun? Maybe he had a rod or a stick, shouldn't he use that in self defence? I'm not arguing for violence but I'm arguing for self defence. Every human has the right to defence. It's a natural law. If you're going to play with someone's life, he's going to fight and so did Shahrukh. I stand by what I said and I'm in solidarity with him. I support his right to self defence. All the controversies aside, I stand by my statement.
TJ: You gave a quote. It was "I don't see it as a legal victory for myself. Take the example of an innocent man walking on the streets. Somebody comes and puts a knife to his throat. After a while, the knife is removed and the man is asked to celebrate his newly found freedom. I can't. They should apologise for putting a knife to the throat in the first place." What's the idea behind it and the message it conveys?
SU: It's very natural. At the end, I'm not getting anything. I was incarcerated for two months, then I was told - you're free. Where's the victory part? It's truethe state failed but it's not my victory. I lost two months. I could not talk to my parents. How should I see it as my victory? The state should apologize for kidnapping me. The ATS should apologize for arresting me as a potential terrorist. The police should apologize for putting false charges on me. The judiciary should apologize for letting the police keep me in jail for two months. Only then can we think of there being some sort of victory. If you look at all the cases, say for example Safoora, she was charged with Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). It's the most stringent law used to keep someone jailed. The state did everything, used all resources to keep someone like Safoora imprisoned.We got her out because of the pressure made by us or by international agencies. When Safoora was released, what did she get at the end? She was illegally kept in prison and then after several months she was released, so how is that victory? I don't know how it can be one. For every person, every Sharjeel, coming out of jail there are at least ten unknown Muslims going inside the same jail. I don't know where the victory part is. I cannot see that.
TJ: For someone released, there are ten who're imprisoned or who're already imprisoned and they are not being documented?
SU: I have privileges. The media is quoting me, as you said, and you're talking to me. There are hundred others who're incarcerated illegally without real charges. They're just living lives inside jails and no one's talking about them. Nobody knows them. It's my privilege that people are talking to me. They're asking how you felt, taking my quotes and so on. But I've seen these people who've spent ten years, five years, inside jails not for doing anything, but for just being Muslims. There'll be more, this isn't going to stop. I came out but a dozen people will go inside and nobody'll talk about them. Bail cannot be a victory and we shouldn't see it as a victory. There's some philosopher who said 'If I cannot dance to it, it's not my revolution.' So that's it. It's not my revolution.
TJ: We don't know how many Tablighis are jailed or how many protesters were picked after the Delhi pogrom. Moving towards the end, will you give concluding remarks on the larger fight not only against CAA or the current government but more towards emancipation of Muslims from Islamophobia. Anything for people who are fighting this or who are victims?
SU: Our priority as a community should be to not forget those who're still in jail, who're kept in jail for raising our voice, for fighting our battle. We've done it in the past. We've forgotten people who're fighting for us. During the CAA movement, for the first time I felt a Muslim consciousness amongst us. A girl from Kerala who has a different culture from a North Indian Muslim, speaks a different language, has different experiences, and different ideas of life, dignity and freedom, I could relate to her. I could relate to her speeches. My mother could relate to her speeches or somebody from West Bengal was speaking, he was part of a CAA protest and my father's looking up to him.
Muslim consciousness shouldn't die and we need to work in that direction. Adding to that, I don't think there's anything to be afraid of because this is the last thing which can happen. After this stripping of our citizenship, there's nothing left to fight for. This's the last and the final battle. There's no going back and I'm very sure of that. We'll get back all leaders who're still in jail, be it Asif Bhai, Sharjeel Bhai, Meeran or others. Thefight will be fought with even more strength. The people who didn't come to the front in the first phase, I'm sure they'd now work proactively. I don't know, humara kaam bas koshish karna hai. (Our task is to only try)It's god's will but we'll try.
Talking to my mother, my neighbors.They're looking up to us - the students. My mother prays for Asif Bhai and Sharjeel Bhai. She hasn't met either of them, she has barely seen their pictures. The consciousness amongst Muslims is very valuable for us and the Muslim community. We need to keep it safe and intact, we need to let it live and Insha'Allah,victory will be ours.
*The conversation has been edited for length and clarity
(Tazeen Junaid is a Bachelors's student at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), writer and had been at the forefront of AMU students' anti-CAA protests)