January 28, 2024, marks four years in jail for Sharjeel Imam, IIT-graduate-turned-PhD-scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Imam was arrested in 2020 after police in five different states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh – filed first information reports against him in connection with speeches he made during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC). Among other charges, he was charged under sedition and subsequently under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and also named as an accused in the Delhi riots “larger conspiracy” case.
Imam has spent four years in jail, despite not being convicted in any of the cases. Of the total eight cases against him, he has been given bail in five, never been arrested in one, and has only the UAPA cases against him remaining.
These four years have also seen his bail petitions pending in various Delhi courts, including one petition filed last year in which he has sought immediate bail on the grounds that he has completed more than half the maximum punishment (seven years) under Section 13 of UAPA.
“Four years of his life have been wasted. If he was out, he could have studied more, he could have researched more. He is yet to complete his PhD. But his morale is not low. He keeps smiling and gives our mother hope as well saying ‘Ammi, sab thik ho jayega’ (Mother, everything will be alright),” his younger brother Muzammil said to The Wire.
“For any political prisoner who is in jail, a sense of stability is lost for their family. For my mother, it’s just the two of us. In a way life has come to a standstill since that sense of stability is lost.”
Four years since he was arrested, the Delhi high court has listed Imam’s bail plea 46 times, and is now set to hear his plea afresh next month in connection to the Delhi riots case under FIR 59/2020. His bail plea under the first FIR 20/2020 under which he was arrested in connection with his speeches, will also begin afresh next month in a lower court in Delhi.
Muzammil said that when Imam went to jail, the family knew that it would probably take a couple of years for him to get bail.
“But we did not think it would go on for so many years. After his arrest, the north east Delhi riots took place. Yet he was implicated in that for no reason,” said Muzammil.
According to his counsel Ahmad Ibrahim, Imam was arrested on January 28, 2020 just days after his speech at Aligarh Muslim University during the CAA-NRC protest in which he asked for Assam to be “cut off” from the rest of India went viral.
“The speech is dated January 16 but went viral on January 25, 2020. By January 26, 2020 there were five FIRs registered against him in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Two days later on January 28, he was arrested by Delhi police when he was going to surrender along with his counsel in connection to the Delhi FIR. Some months later when the Delhi riots case was registered he was named in the supplementary chargesheet with Umar Khalid in the FIR 59/2020. He was also made an accused in two more cases-which relate to the violence near Jamia Milia University in December 2019. Of the total eight cases against him, he has got bail in five, never arrested in one and only the UAPA cases against him remain,” Ibrahim said.
While he has been charged under Section 13 of the UAPA in FIR 22/2020, he faces multiple charges under the UAPA in FIR 59/2020 which relates to the Delhi riots “larger conspiracy” case.
In August last year, Imam moved court seeking immediate bail under Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) in connection with FIR 22/2020 in which he has been charged under Section 13 of the UAPA along with 124A (sedition) and 153A, 153B, 505 of IPC.
In his bail application, he stated that the sedition proceedings had been stayed after the Supreme Court ruling in 2022 put a hold on the sedition law.
The application states that bail is sought on the grounds that “he had completed a period of 3 years and more than 6 months under incarceration and has undergone incarceration extending up to one-half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for the concerned offence by law.”
Imam’s lawyer Ibrahim said that his bail plea under Section 436A has been pending for over four months as the judgement was not passed for a variety of reasons, including the transfer of the presiding judge Amitabh Rawat whose transfer was announced in December and said in the last date of hearing that the next judge will hear the matter afresh.
“Even though it is statutory bail, as he has completed half the maximum punishment, still he has not been given bail. Now on February 7 the matter has been listed in front of another judge who will consider the matter afresh and then pass an order,” said Ibrahim.
“His bail under FIR 59/2020 is pending before the Delhi high court for twenty months now and has been listed for hearing on February 22. His regular bail under FIR 22/2020 is also pending before high court but when he completed half the punishment we requested the court that let me get released on interim bail under Section 436A but that also was not granted and were asked to approach the trial court. So we approached the lower court where again the matter was kept pending for months.
“We are hopeful somewhere some judge will pass the order where bail is a mandatory provision under Section 436A,” he added.
According to Delhi-based advocate Sarim Naved, delays in deciding bail petitions is a “tragedy” that goes against criminal jurisprudence.
“It is a tragedy, no bail application should be pending for two years. If you don’t think the person is suited for bail then please dismiss it so the person can try their luck in the Supreme Court or a higher court. But keeping a bail application pending for two years is contrary to all expectations from criminal jurisprudence,” he said.
‘Delay thanks to directions of the government’
Muzammil said that the delays show that the “judiciary is working under government pressure”.
“The delay is on the directions of the government. The judicial system is working under the pressure of the government. This is not happening for the first time in India. This used to happen when the Congress was in power at the centre as well and now it is happening under the BJP. His (Sharjeel Imam’s) bail hearing has been postponed 46 times across two years in the Delhi riots cases, this clearly shows that this is political,” he said.
Muzammil said that unlike other political prisoners, like Khalid, Imam has not received support from civil society groups and prominent political activists.
“They choose people who they want to support and who they don’t want to support,” he said.
“Sharjeel has been absent from posters of all leading organisations. I am not generalising but the general approach in all organisations is that they want to victimise the person who is behind bars. My brother is not a victim. He is a fighter and I don’t want to victimise him. We are not extraordinary. But we want to fight back on facts. Sharjeel’s way of talking, his speeches have always been different. Umar Khalid has a lobby behind him. But Sharjeel was just a person who nobody knew before CAA-NRC. He was just a person who was doing his PhD from JNU. He had no lobby behind him,” he said.
In jail, Muzammil said Imam has been reading legal books to study the law and has also taken to helping other underprivileged undertrials in helping them get legal aid who don’t have access to legal recourse.
“We have no option but to keep hope that someday he will come out. It’s just that someone’s life’s precious years are getting wasted. They can keep postponing his bail but how long will they keep him in jail? As the saying goes, ‘Har urooj ka zawal dekhna hota hai (every rise has a fall).’ This will be true for us as well as them,” he said.