Sharjeel Imam is a lonely man. No student union is marching for his freedom. No press conference by civil society. He has upset not only the secular society but also the liberal Muslims for having spoken as a “hardcore Muslim”. A politician who wanted him arrested is once again the Chief Minister of Delhi. Meanwhile, Sharjeel has been booked by the Delhi Police in connection with the violence at Jamia Millia Islamia. His present and future is uncertain — he is facing charges of sedition and also under the UAPA. Though highly unlikely, if some miracle secures bail for him in this case, four more states are after him. He has allegedly asked for the cutting off Assam and/or the Northeast, which is seen as a call to dismember India.
While Sharjeel braces for a long battle with a majoritarian state where Muslims are essentially suspect, he is also being isolated and deprived of any solidarity from outside. The ordeal that Urvashi Chudawala, a student of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, had to face for having raised a slogan in his favour in a pride parade organised by the LGBTQ community would deter anybody from loudly sympathising with him. The Bombay High Court thankfully rescued her from the orders of a lower court which felt that “ultimately the intent of the statement uttered by applicant in support of him… prima facie attracts ingredients of section124A (sedition).” The fact that Urvashi had “liked” a photograph of Sharjeel Imam was deemed sufficient evidence by the court to conclude that the charges framed by the prosecution are serious and that it could not ignore the effect that her sloganeering would have on the public.
Vijay Hiremath, Urvashi’s lawyer, made two important points. One, that the charges against Sharjeel are yet to be proved. Second, Urvashi’s arrest would have a chilling effect on the protests which are underway in the city. One is aware of the import of the charge of sedition, as the charge itself becomes proof for the courts.
Like Urvashi, Fareeda Begum and Nazbunnisa, the headmistress of a school in Bidar, Karnataka and the mother of a child involved in an anti-CAA play enacted by the students of that school, also got relief from a court and were released after spending 16 days in jail. Again, on the charges of sedition.
We must also take note of the news of the arrest of 19 people in Bilariyaganj in Azamgarh for sedition. What is worrying in both the cases is the alacrity with which the police is cracking down on Muslims or their supporters. These are two separate states but the mindset of the police is the same. The police in Bihar tried to stop Kanhaiya Kumar’s yatra and it took an intervention by the chief minister for it to relent. The seeming willingness, at times, of the judiciary to look away from the police’s biased approach is only emboldening the latter.
Urvashi, a trans person herself raised the slogan supporting Sharjeel at a pride parade. The organisers immediately distanced themselves from those, including Urvashi, who allegedly raised the slogans. They are right when they say that the purpose of the parade was different. But a queer parade is also about questioning the notion of normalness. All sexual orientations are normal. They have a right to be expressed. Similarly, the normal Indianness is disturbed by the likes of Sharjeel and his friends. They are faced with a nationalist bias and their right to expression needs to be defended against this oppressive idea of Indianness. Freedom, like justice, is indivisible. If you deny it to one kind of people, you should also not expect it for yourself. While disassociating with the slogans, the least the organisers could have done was to say that they stand for the right of free expression of Urvashi and her friends.
We may agree or disagree with Sharjeel’s statements but so long as he does not call for violence, he remains a free person. Sharjeel has not called for the dismemberment of India. He was talking about a long road blockade. Since when have road blockades become seditious in India? Would Sharjeel be wrong if he concludes that it is not the content of his speech, but his name, which goes against him? Also, one should not need to repeat that mere speech, however disagreeable to the state, must not be the basis for sedition charges.
In an India where open calls to violence against Muslims — that too by ministers and political leaders — and open propaganda against them are seen as a natural expression of sentiments, it is not surprising that people like Sharjeel are suppressed. To criminalise protests by Muslims and disallow them to even speak is to tell them that they are not part of the democratic universe of India. For what is democracy if not the freedom to have a view which could be contrary to the mainstream? Again, to exercise your democratic rights you need not always present nationalist credentials first. Muslims cannot be asked to talk about their rights only after pledging their commitment to the country. No other section of people in India is burdened with this expectation. Sharjeel is only one of the diverse voices within the Muslim community. He, as an individual and as one who identifies himself as a Muslim, has as much a right to have his views as other, so-called nationalist, Muslims.
What the police is doing to the Muslim protests and persons like Sharjeel effectively tells them that they are already second class citizens of India. Sharjeel should not be left alone to fight this battle. To secure his liberty, to ensure equality for him, to guarantee justice to him — ideas of fraternity and solidarity need to assert themselves.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 19, 2020 under the title ‘Content of speech, or name of speaker?’ The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
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