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

The real target of the BJP's campaign against the student is Shaheen Bagh and the spreading national protest against the CAA.

At the latest count, five states have apparently filed FIRs for sedition and other grave crimes against Sharjeel Imam, a student of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and one among the lakhs of Indians who have been peacefully protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for the past six weeks.

The police of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have already started looking for him so that they can arrest him. We are told that no less than 15 teams have been formed by the Uttar Pradesh police to nab him. The chief ministers of these states felt the matter so serious that they have also issued statements condemning Imam. One knows his fate once he is arrested. 

Is Sharjeel a dreaded criminal? Has he committed treason? Why are five states after him?

Because he delivered a speech calling for a chakka jam – a road blockade – on the highway to Assam, that would be so effective that the North East is cut off from the rest of India. He identified a spot called the ‘Chicken Neck’ – the narrow corridor which connects the North East with the rest of India – and asked his supporters to block it so that the government is forced to listen to them. 

Before we analyse what he said in the speech which was tweeted by a spokesperson of the BJP, Sambit Patra, let us read the transcript of the key portion, as reported by the India Today:

“Ab waqt ye hai ki hum ghair Musalmanon ko bolen ki agar hamdard ho, toh hamari sharton pe aa ke khade ho. Agar hamari sharton pe nahi khade ho sakte, toh hamdard nahi.

“Main pehle bhi keh chuka hun ki agar 5 lakh log hon hamare paas organised, to hum Hindustan aur Assam ko permanently cut kar sakte hain. Permanently nahi, toh kam se kam ek aad mahine ke liye toh kar hi sakte hain.

“Matlab itna mavaad dalo patriyon pe, road pe ki unko hatane main hi ek aad mahina lag jaye…Assam ko kaatna hamari zimmedari hai. Assam aur India cut ke alag ho jaye, tabhi ye hamari baat sunenge.

Assam main Musalmanon ka jo haal hai wo hum sab ko pata hai. CAA, NRC ho chukka hai wahan…detention centre main log dale ja rahe hain. Wahan toh katleaam chal raha hai…pata chalega ki cheh-aath mahinon main sare bangaaliyon…chahe Hindu ho ya Muslamaan…ko maar diya jayega.

“Agar humain Assam ki madad karni hai toh hamain Assam ka raasta band karna hoga fauj k liye…aur jo bhi supply aa rahi hai. Aur hum band kar sakte hain. Ye chicken neck Musalmanon ka hai…wo jo ilaqa hai, Muslim aksariyat hai.

“Yaad rakhiye, agar awaam ghusse main hai, toh us ghusse ka productive use karna chahiye. Ye zimmedari hai ki hum issey productively use kar payen…rather than waste it on photo sessions.”

Translated, it goes thus:

“The time has come when we should tell non-Muslims that if they sympathise with us, then they must stand with us on our terms. If they can’t agree to our terms, they can’t sympathise with us.

“I have said it in the past that if we can organise five lakh people, we will be able to permanently cut off Assam from India. If not permanently, then at least for a month or two.

“We should create debris on the railway tracks and roads so that it takes them (the government) at least a month to clear things on the ground. It is our responsibility to isolate Assam. They (government) will hear us only if we cut off Assam and India.

“The plight of Muslims in Assam is known to all of us. CAA and NRC have been implemented there. People are already being sent to detention centres. There is a bloodbath going on there. In six-eight months, you may find out that all Bengalis – whether Hindus or Muslims – have been killed.

“So, if we want to help Assam, then we will have to block the way for the army to reach Assam…and also stop the supplies.

“We can do this. The chicken-neck corridor that connects the North East with rest of India is inhabited primarily by Muslims.

“Remember, if the masses are angry, then that anger must be used for productive purpose. This is our responsibility. We should use this anger productively and not waste it on photo sessions.”

It should be evident that this is the irresponsible and angry rant of a young man who sounds exasperated with the insensitivity of the government which is stonewalling all the protests which have sprung across states opposing the highly divisive CAA and NRC. One can see that he is thinking aloud about ways to force the government to take notice of the grievance of the protestors.

Sharjeel calls for a long road blockade, which may last even a month or two. Whatever the rights and wrongs, a road blockade is a way of agitation that has been adopted numerous times across India over the past 70 years. In recent years, the United Naga Council has used this strategy in Manipur, sometimes for weeks on end. Never ever has the BJP or the big TV channels called those agitationists “anti-national,” unlike in the case of Sharjeel. 

He can also be blamed for exaggerating the situation in Assam when he says that all Bengalis may be killed there in the near future. Of course this is hyperbolic, even if the underlying fear is real.

In the early days of the protests in Assam, I started getting desperate messages from a research scholar living in Delhi from Assam – a Hindu  Bengali – that his family and others were feeling threatened as there was violence against the community there. There were already attacks on their homes, temples and a wedding party. Remember, the people being targeted were ‘Hindus’ and those attacking them were also ‘Hindus’.

The memories of ‘Bongal Kheda’ are still fresh in the minds of the Bengalis living in Assam. To emphasise the gravity of the impending crisis, Sharjeel does use exaggeration, but it is the message that matters. 

Also read: Decades of Discord: Assam Against Itself

Is it not true that the lives of 19 lakh people in Assam – Hindu, Gorkha, Muslim –  are in deep uncertainty as they are out of the NRC? Go and ask them, they would tell you that it is worse than death for them. But we cannot understand their anxiety.

One must also not trivialise the fear of the Muslims in Assam. When you have ministers in the government openly spreading Muslim phobia, one can understand why Muslims fear another pogrom. So, the fear is real even if we cannot agree with the language Sharjeel has used here. 

It is very clear, however, that he is not advocating violence. He asks the protesters to channel their anger productively. And his call to action – the chakka jam – is also a staple of peaceful protest in India.

An example of a ‘chakka jam’ was also seen when the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangarsh Samiti, with help from BJP and allies, cut off the Kashmir Valley for several days after the Amarnath land row of 2008, stopping traffic on the Srinagar Jammu National Highway and effecting an economic blockade that heralded the collapse of the PDP-Congress coalition.

The five state governments which have filed cases of sedition against Sharjeel Imam need to understand the Supreme Court has decreed not once but several times that mere speech (or writings or statements) – however much we disagree with them or find them obnoxious or foolish – cannot be cause to file a charge of sedition unless that speech actually led to violence. That is the law.

A sitting judge of the Supreme Court recently delivered a public lecture reminding us of this reality. Yet, as we have seen in the past few years and especially the past few months, our police and state couldn’t care less about it.

Also read: Justice Deepak Gupta: Law of Sedition Needs to be Toned Down if Not Abolished

Going beyond concerns about the misuse of sedition law, one must see the larger and more sinister design behind the noise around Sharjeel’s speech.

First, it should have been clear right from the beginning what the BJP spokesperson’s aim was in circulating a clip of the speech of Imam. Its objective was not only to target him but to defame the protest at Shaheen Bagh as he was repeatedly called “the man behind Shaheen Bagh”. Some have even called him the “mastermind” behind the protest, as if Shaheen Bagh is a secret operation! The Shaheen Bagh protesters have made it clear that there is no one leader of the protest.

There is also another, wider agenda that has surfaced. Look at how Sharjeel is being described and one would understand the intent behind it: a JNU student, an organiser of the Shaheen Bagh protests. The tropes are so well known.

Thanks to senior ministers of the government, leaders of the ruling party and a complicit media, JNU has already been defamed so much that an ordinary Hindu believes it is a dangerous place and its students are ‘anti-nationals’. Here, the JNU tag comes handy in discrediting Sharjeeel but also in further defaming the university. 

Thirdly, by calling him the main organiser of Shaheen Bagh, the BJP and its leaders are also implying that Shaheen Bagh is essentially a violent movement where the women on the street are only the shield – the real mind is that of a Muslim man, again necessarily violent.

Also read: For the First Time Since Independence, Muslims Have Emerged on to the Streets

Fourth, the aim is also to delegitimise anti-CAA protests across India which are inspired by the Shaheen Bagh. The media campaign aims at creating suspicion in the minds of Hindus by repeatedly flashing a bearded young man with the ‘kaat do’ (‘cut off’) lines hammered repeatedly. 

Sharjeel’s is a typical identitarian position and there is no contradiction in disagreeing with, or even condemning, his stance while defending him against this sinister witch hunt.

Dalit politics often takes identitarian positions. Sharjeel is right when he says that the target of the CAA are Muslims and therefore they have risen against it. But he is wrong when he says that non-Muslims should join the struggle against the law only if they “agree to our terms”.

There is a simple principle which unites people, Muslim or non Muslim, and that is the right of equal citizenship. On the fight for equal citizenship there cannot be any other condition. To say otherwise is to deny the possibility of solidarity. And one knows the battle of the oppressed cannot be won if it is only they who fight it.

Sharjeel Imam’s voluntary support for the protest was of great help in the initial days of Shaheen Bagh though he later developed differences with the protesters and unilaterally sought to call the movement off even as the women of the area insisted on carrying on.

What he said in his speech at AMU on January 16, 2020 can be termed childish or wild but he cannot be arrested for that.

Nor should he be demonised.

The campaign against him takes one back to 2016, when another JNU student, Umar Khalid, was vilified by the media. Two years later, an individual driven by that hate propaganda tried to kill Khalid.

Today, the state machinery is after Sharjeel’s life. It is essential that common sense prevail.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.