New Delhi: Mumbai Police have charged at least 51 persons – mostly students – with sedition for raising slogans in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Sharjeel Imam at the Mumbai Pride Solidarity Gathering 2020 held on February 1 at the Azad Maidan.
Imam was arrested on January 28 for making controversial speeches at anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest sites in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh and is presently in detention in Delhi on charges of sedition. On February 3, a local court extended the police remand of Imam for three more days.
The Queer Azadi Mumbai (QAM) and Humsafar Trust held the solidarity gathering this year after the Mumbai Police denied them permission to hold the annual Mumbai Pride march at the August Kranti Maidan – reportedly on the grounds that the rally would also address issues surrounding the government, CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The pride march has been an annual event in the city since 2008.
The organisers later decided to hold a gathering at Azad Maidan, as suggested by the police under certain conditions. On its website, the QAM said, “It is not a celebration this time.” Some members of the queer community, who were looking forward to the annual event, expressed disappointment at the police’s directive asking them to be apolitical.
Reports said slogans were raised not only against the CAA at the gathering but also in support of Imam and what he had suggested (a chakka jam to block Assam and the Northeast from rest of India) in his speeches by a group of participants.
A day later, on February 2, former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya shared a video of the slogan-shouting in support of Imam, at the event, on social media.
I requested (complained) Mumbai Police to check whether objectionable slogans given at Azad maidan Mumbai demonstration (to support Shaheen Bagh)
“shargeel tere sapnoko hum manzil tak pahunchayenge”!!?? pic.twitter.com/JgzpZF7OyJ
— Kirit Somaiya (@KiritSomaiya) February 2, 2020
The BJP state vice president soon not only spoke of his opposition to it in another video – shared from his Twitter handle – but also lodged a complaint at the Azad Maidan police station against the “anti-national slogans”.
“The function, demonstrations were misused to support Shaheen Bagh/anti CAA feelings”, the complaint alleged. The BJP leader said he would sit on a dharna if no action was taken against the pro-Imam group within three days.
I filled complaint with Mumbai Police on anti national demonstration/slogans in support of Sharjeel Imam during 1 Feb LGBT program. Thackeray Govt asked police not to register FIR. I will start “DHARNA” at Azad Maidan Police Station if action not taken in 3 day @BJP4Maharashtra pic.twitter.com/u3L57PMiYL
— Kirit Somaiya (@KiritSomaiya) February 3, 2020
The video, which soon went viral on social media, was also shared by former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Twitter, asking why “the Maharashtra government is tolerating this”.
With the issue heating up, state home minister Anil Deshmukh told reporters that action would be taken against those who raised the slogan, “Sharjeel tere sapne ko hum manzil tak pahuchayenge (Sharjeel, we will fulfil your dream.)”
Later in the day, the police registered an FIR against 51 persons, including Kris Chudawala, a trans student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai (referred to as Urvashi Chudawala on the FIR). Chudawala was reportedly heard leading the group that raised the pro-Imam slogans at the event. Media reports quoting the police said she was called twice to the police station for “preliminary enquires but she didn’t come”. The Wire tried contacting Chudawala but failed to reach the student.
The charges pressed against Chudawala and others – they are mostly present and former students of TISS according to a participant who didn’t want to be identified – are under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code, aside from sections 153B, 504 and 34.
Meanwhile, the QAM, when approached by the police, denied any role in the raising of slogans. In a statement condemning the slogan shouting, it said, “We would like to reiterate that permission was granted by Mumbai Police on express conditions, which we communicated to all the attendees and visitors one day before, through social media channels. The responsibility of the gathering was taken by individuals who signed the permission, and we feel that irresponsible sloganeering under the garb of dissent not just affects the safety of individuals who signed the permission but QAM as an entity.”
It also said that the individuals who took to such slogan-shouting were not known to them personally.
A queer person who participated in the gathering on February 1 told The Wire, “Many people were raising many slogans. Some were against CAA and NRC too. This group also did slogan shouting. I was nearby but can’t say for sure who exactly suggested that slogan.”
Another participant, Aashish Mehrotra, said, “In the Mumbai Pride, since it is a rally, we walk and various groups raise various slogans. This time, since it was a solidarity gathering, people formed circles and were raising slogans, including anti CAA ones too.” Mehrotra told The Wire, “I am a bit upset with the QAM because on one hand, it said it did not know those who made pro-Sharjeel slogans personally, but on the other, helped the police identify them. They could have avoided it.”
Media reports quoting the police said the organisers have not been charged with any offence. So far, the police have not taken anyone into custody.
Last month, the Mumbai Police had charged a student with sedition for holding a placard that said “Free Kashmir” at an anti-CAA rally. The student soon clarified that by “Free Kashmir”, she meant the restoration of basic human rights and constitutional rights of people of Kashmir. The charges against her were later dropped.