In Prison for 'Sedition', Sharjeel Imam Explains His Idea of India

An account of the young student’s views on the NRC, CAA and the movement against these official policies, as told to his brother.

Ali Sardar Jafri, the prominent progressive Urdu poet from India, wrote a poem addressing another progressive poet and a leader of the communist movement, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, when the latter was imprisoned in Pakistan. 

In the poem Jafari asks Faiz:

Aaj magar tu qaid hai sathi
Kaisi hai ye qaid ki duniya?

(‘But, comrade you are imprisoned today
How is this world of prisons?’)

Whenever I read this poem, I try to feel the helplessness Jafari would have felt as a friend and comrade, for not being able to talk to Faiz. Now, I can feel that pain and helplessness myself as my own brother, Sharjeel Imam, languishes behind bars, and when I met him recently at Guwahati Jail, my question to him was pretty much similar.

Interestingly, Sharjeel faces the same charges of sedition and waging war against the state which Faiz was facing when that poem was written. 


Here, my motive for writing is similar to that of Ali Sardar Jafari. As he further says in the same poem:

Ye meri awaz hai lekin
Sirf meri awaz nahi hai  

(‘Though it is my voice
The voice doesn’t belong exclusively to me’)

My brother, Sharjeel Imam, had been instrumental in starting the now famous Shaheen Bagh protest and was later falsely branded as ‘anti-national’ by the police. 

In the past few weeks, there have been TV debates, articles and statements from politicians where he was portrayed as Islamist, anti-secular and anti-national. There are people who have accused him of being an agent of the ruling dispensation while those people affiliated with the ruling party have called him an Islamic fanatic who wants to turn India into some kind of Islamic state. Whenever I heard either narrative I could not help laughing. 

Also read: Charged by the Police in Five States, But Who, Indeed, Is Sharjeel Imam?

Though I wanted to reply on behalf of my elder brother a long while back, I wanted to meet him first and discuss again his ideas about the National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Population Register. On March 9, I met Sharjeel at Guwahati Jail and asked him to elaborate on his now controversial ideas. Whatever time he had he used to explain his understanding of the problem in the NRC and CAA.

Sharjeel told me that he believed India is secular and that its secularism should not be tampered with.

People living in this region of the world had always respected the religious beliefs and cultures of each other. What the CAA intends to do, in his understanding, is to tamper with this very feature of Indian society. The Act presumes India is a natural home to all religious groups but Muslims, and interestingly atheists too. 

The CAA welcomes persecuted religious minorities only from Muslim majority countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while leaving out the countries where Muslims live in a minority like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. 

For a secular country like India, the very belief that Muslims are oppressors in all the Muslim majority countries and thus cannot themselves be oppressed is dangerously problematic. It rests on historical as well as sociological fallacies. India officially took a stand in support of Bengali Muslims when they were being oppressed by the Pakistan Army. At that time, the oppressor as well as the oppressed both belonged to the Muslim community in a Muslim majority country. 

In present times, the ‘slow genocide’ of Shias in Pakistan is no secret. The persecution of the Hazara community in Afghanistan is before us. So, the very idea that in these countries only non-Muslims can be persecuted is a false one and reeks of a political agenda – to damage the secular fabric of this country.

Also read: Sharjeel Imam’s Speech Was Wild and Irresponsible, But Was It ‘Sedition’?

Sharjeel further pointed out that while talking about the persecution of minorities, India, as a responsible country should be talking about minorities other than religious. 

As we all know, the creation of Bangladesh was a fallout of a linguistic, not a religious, movement. He said he had pointed out in his own research how Muslims from Bihar, who migrated to East Bengal during the 1946 riots, had to bear the burnt again in 1947, as they were Urdu speaking Muslims. This idea can be furthered to ethnic and gender minorities as well. As a responsible country India should do justice to all those facing persecution in its neighbourhood. 

Imam further added that by specifically identifying the religious identities as either oppressed or oppressor, we are giving in to the narratives which divided our society along the religious lines. What we need is to secularise the writing of history rather than reinforcing religious communalism in our understanding of history. It is our duty that we stop looking at nations and societies through the prism of religion only.  

About the idea of ‘cut off’, Imam specifically said that what he meant was to use, through peaceful means, the economic importance of Assam as a lever to get the government to roll back the all-India NRC exercise and scrap the CAA – which is also a demand of the Assamese people and society, who feel, quite rightly, that they should not be held accountable for the refugee problem which arose in 1971. It is a political and administrative problem which should be solved by India and Bangladesh in such a way that no section of the people in Assam or elsewhere in India should be burdened or targeted.

Also read: The Barbarity of False Equivalence

In a civilised world there should be no place for detention centres.

The plan to hold the NRC exercise elsewhere in India is aimed at causing anxieties as there is no refugee or. migrant crisis in other parts of the country. As an Indian we should resist any official exercise which may fan communal passions in the country and damage the secular fabric of our society.

As his younger brother, I wanted to bring to a wider audience the ideas of Sharjeel Imam, which have been misinterpreted by different people as they wished. What I know about him is that he is a serious scholar who wants this world to be a better place. As Ali Sardar Jafari writes:

Teri bulandi-e-fikr-o-nazar ka kya kehna
Wo dekh past hui jaa rahi hain diwaare.n

(Praise be upon your ideas and perspective
Look these walls are crumbling down)

Muzzammil Imam is the younger brother of Sharjeel Imam and has pursued a Masters degree in journalism.