Sharjeel Imam: Indian activist languishes in jail for a speech
Rights activists say Imam is being punished for opposing a controversial citizenship law pushed by the ruling BJP party.
New Delhi, India – It has been two years since 62-year old Afshan Rahim met her activist son, who is in jail facing sedition and several other charges under the ‘anti-terror’ law for making speeches during the mass protests against a controversial citizenship law.
“Each day is like a horror. I am worried for him, but I am not remorseful about what he stood for. He is on the path of haq [rights],” Rahim told Al Jazeera by phone.
“I am hopeful he will be out soon inshallah [God Willing],” says Rahim whose 34-year-old son Sharjeel Imam, a PhD scholar at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has been languishing in jail since January 2020.
Imam is believed to be the pioneer of the Shaheen Bagh protest, a 100-day-long peaceful sit-in in the capital organised in response to the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the Indian Parliament in December 2019.
The CAA fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries but excludes Muslims. The passage of the act, which the UN said was “fundamentally discriminatory”, triggered countrywide protests, particularly by the minority Muslim community.
“He was made a scapegoat, just to suppress the anti-CAA movement, but they [government] gave a message to the entire community, that if you dare to speak, you will face the consequences,” says Muzamil, Imam’s younger brother who now looks after the family.
Imam’s father had died in 2014 after battling cancer for several years.
“People think that only Sharjeel is suffering. Definitely, he is in jail facing worse conditions but the condition of my mother is no different at home. She doesn’t let me go anywhere fearing she would lose me too,” Muzamil told Al Jazeera.
“Sharjeel has cases registered in different states and I need to travel for legal procedures. I can’t be with my mother and brother at the same time. I don’t know what to do,” Muzamil says.
The ‘seditious’ speeches
Imam faces eight cases across five Indian states – Delhi, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and Uttar Pradesh – on charges including sedition and under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
UAPA is a stringent ‘anti-terrorism’ law that allows an accused to be designated as ‘terrorist’ and detained for months without bail.
Sharjeel was initially booked for a speech he had delivered during anti-CAA protests on January 16, 2020, at Aligarh Muslim University – a prominent minority institution in the country. He had called for a blockade of a narrow corridor that connects mainland India to the northeastern states to force the government to listen to the protesters’ demands.
The speech was widely castigated by India’s mainstream media and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which accused him of having intentions to’ break the country’.
However, Imam maintained that he had only called for peaceful protests. “It was basically a call for ‘chakka jam’ [road blockade]. They can put cases on me by editing these clips, but there is nothing that they can prove,” he had told English daily Indian Express two days before his arrest.
Since being sent to Delhi’s Tihar jail, he has been charged for giving several ‘seditious’ speeches at anti-CAA protest sites across India.
Even as courts have granted bail in four out of the eight cases against him, he has not been released.
“They continue to frame new charges against him. Whenever he secures bail in one case, he is arrested and framed with fresh charges in another case. They are so many cases against him at so many places just to prolong his time in jail,” Imam’s lawyer Ahmad Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.
“This is merely a tactic to weaken his resolve.”
Six months after his arrest, Delhi police also charged Imam with sedition and slapped him with UAPA in a case related to communal riots in northeast Delhi in February. The riots that led to the killing of more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, were triggered after Hindu mobs attacked anti-CAA protest sites in the national capital.
“Imam was already in jail when the riots happened. By any stretch of the imagination, how can he be planning Delhi riots or be a part of a larger conspiracy?” Ibrahim asks.
Last week, a Delhi court also framed charges against Imam for his ‘inflammatory speeches’. The court said that his speeches appear to “challenge the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India” and “create hatred or contempt for the lawful institutions through unlawful means”.
The court observed that prima facie, his speeches appear to have a tendency to create public disorder and incite violence.
“He is factually attempting to bring a complete anarchy by way of his speeches and published material,” the 92-page court order reads.
‘Jailed for being a Muslim’
However, rights activists and legal experts in the country feel cases against him have been fabricated by the ruling BJP, which pushed for the anti-Muslim citizenship law.
“He is in jail because he is a Muslim,” says Aakar Patel, rights activist and the former head of Amnesty International in India.
“I don’t think any part of his speech is seditious. There is no free speech in India especially if you are a Muslim,” added Patel.
Aasif Mujtaba, an activist who participated in several protests, including Shaheen Bagh with Imam, concurs with Patel.
“He is in jail today not for committing any crime but for resisting the pathetic behaviour of the state towards the minority Muslim community. He is not in jail for the content of his speeches but because of his religion. He is in jail for being an assertive Muslim!” said Mujtaba.
“Imam was a major pillar in the resistance against communal endeavours of the government. He had plans to sensitize the community and unveil the Islamophobic drape of the state, and he paid the price for it,” Mujtaba added.
Imam’s friends and teachers at JNU in New Delhi, where he was pursuing his research before being jailed, say that the state is ‘terribly prejudiced’ in his case.
“All these things with him are being done [by the government] with a clear aim to serve a certain end i.e. perpetuating their political power. The sedition charges against him aren’t persuasive at all,” Soumyabrata Choudhury, associate professor at JNU, told Al Jazeera.
“Sharjeel [Imam] in a sense is an emblem for what was to happen later. After his arrest, it became a norm to arrest dissenters one after the other. And many of them are anonymous marginalised poor people from Muslim society and other sections of the society, who are extremely vulnerable,” he added.
A number of students and activists at the forefront of the anti-CAA protests have been jailed, with most of them denied bail.
Meanwhile, Imam’s mother believes her son did not do anything wrong.
“He did not [do anything] wrong or [commit an] illegal [act], all he did was that he showed courage to stand for the rights of people. But it is painful to see him suffer for that,” Rahim told Al Jazeera.