When Sharjeel Usmani was invited to speak at the Elgar Parishad event on January 30 in Pune, the 23-year-old did not think twice before saying yes. He was undeterred by the fact that over a dozen activists and thinkers had been jailed since the event was first held on December 31, 2017, to mark 200 years of the historic battle in which the Mahar regiment of Dalit soldiers defeated the Brahmin Peshwas. He was undeterred by the fact that he had already been charged for attempt to murder, rioting and promoting communal disharmony, following the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and spent two months in jail last year.
Whether his decision to speak at the event in Pune was down to youthful exuberance or folly, Usmani could not say. All that the former AMU student said was if he made a habit of playing it safe so early in his young life, he would be throttling his own ideals and aspirations, hopes and dreams, as a Muslim citizen of India.
“All my life, I’ve seen us being reduced to biryani and kebab or qawwali at best,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location. “I’m an Indian. I’m fighting for my fair share in Indian society. We are fighting to save our dignity and self-respect as a community in India. That is what my fight is about. Give us our fair share.”
If he shied away from the Elgar Parishad event, Usmani felt he would be helping those who had tried for three years to vilify a platform of Dalit assertion. He spoke of his own community feeling the weight of slow-burning vilification while he was growing up in Azamgarh. He said Muslims would remember the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu extremists in December 1992 every year. But as the years rolled by, they were made to feel as if they were doing something regressive. The practice of mourning the Babri Masjid slowly ceased to be a community affair.
“Remembering Babri was about expressing sadness, not anger. It started feeling as if most people were okay with what had happened, and it was just our community that was being looked down on for mourning it,” he said. “With Elgar, the state is saying that the people associated with the event are radical and it is okay to criminalise them. By not speaking, by staying away, we are also letting the state legitimise its repression.”
The first Elgar Parishad event, organised by the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan’ – a coalition of 260 organisations led by two retired judges B.G. Kolse Patil of the Mumbai high court and P.B. Sawant of the Supreme Court – triggered one of the largest crackdowns on activists and academics. The case was initially probed by the Pune Police under the Maharashtra government, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, before the Narendra Modi government took over the investigation in January 2020.
Capitalising on the violence between Dalit and Maratha groups that had marred the bicentenary celebration of the Bhima Koregaon battle on January 1, 2018, the Pune Police claimed that the event was organised by members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Initially, lawmaker Jignesh Mevani and political activist Umar Khalid were booked for making “inflammatory speeches” and “promoting enmity” between two groups.
So far, 16 people have been arrested in a terrorism case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, including lawyers, academics, human rights activists, and an 83-year-old Jesuit priest.
Following the second Elgar Parishad event on January 30 this year, Usmani was slapped with two cases of sedition, one in Maharashtra and the other in Uttar Pradesh.
In his speech, Usmani said that there was a “rot” in Hindu society, speaking about the “constant attacks” against Muslims in the past six years. He said it was for the Hindus to fight the hatred that they felt towards Muslims.
Recalling his speech, Usmani said, “I was not mincing words. I was not hiding. I said what I was feeling, with dignity and in public. Who is it going to help if I tone it down? It has not helped us in the past 73 years.”
That a young Muslim man went to Maharashtra, the bastion of two right-wing political parties, and critiqued Hindus infuriated its leaders so much that both the BJP and Shiv Sena wanted to be seen taking Usmani to task. First, BJP leader and the former chief minister of the state Devendra Fadnavis wrote to the current CM Uddhav Thackeray, demanding action. Then, the state home minister Anil Deshmukh announced that a first information report (FIR) had been registered and the police were planning to arrest him. Next, Maharashtra BJP state president Chandrakant Patil wrote to the Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, asking the latter to arrest Usmani in his home state.
The FIR registered against the complaint of one Anurag Singh, son of Yogendra Singh, at the Hazratganj police station in Lucknow on February 3 lists ten alleged crimes, including sedition, promoting enmity between different groups and outraging religious sentiments.
A study of sedition cases by Article 14 showed that 96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to power in 2014. Of these, 149 were accused of making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, and 144 against Adityanath.
“I don’t believe in self-censoring because something bad will happen to me,” said Usmani. “The state is behaving in such a way that they can get anyone into trouble whenever they feel like it. There are two options. Either we let them bully us or we fight back. I don’t want to let them bully me.”
As for the possibility of going to jail again, Usmani said his first time inside the Aligarh district jail had reminded him of the school he attended in Azamgarh: Hindu and Muslim were civil to each other, but never friends.
Muslims constitute 14.2% of India’s 1.2 billion people but are 20% of the country’s prison population and 19.7% of undertrial inmates.
“I grew up in a Muslim ghetto,” said Usmani. “Jail was like a Muslim ghetto.”
Preparing a speech
In 2014, the year that Usmani first arrived at AMU to pursue a diploma in computer engineering, Modi had led the BJP to a sweeping victory in the general election, and the BJP in UP had tried to communalise the legacy of Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh, a Marxist social reformer, by insisting the University commemorate him as a donor. In 2016, the year that Usmani switched to political science, the Modi government told the Supreme Court that it does not consider AMU to be a minority institution.
Two years on, in 2018, the BJP lawmaker in Aligarh, Satish Gautam, made an ugly row over a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah inside the AMU campus even though the founder of Pakistan was made a life member of its student union before the Partition. In 2019, a violent face-off between the UP Police and AMU students during the protests against the CAA left scores of students injured, with one student losing his hand in a tear gas shell explosion. Last year, the Hindu Mahasabha, whose member Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, claimed that the AMU was “a seminary of terrorists.”
Ever since he arrived on the AMU campus, Usmani was determined to get better at public speaking. He joined debating clubs, read a lot of non-fiction, and started writing for media outlets. He became the most vocal student activist on Muslim issues. Although, he now shakes his head at some of the things he wrote in those early days.
“I get reminded of them when a post comes up on Facebook memories. I was such a huge ignorant fool,” said Usmani, laughing.
“When I started out, I was trying to make a point. Now, I’m genuinely fighting for our right to live as equal owners and stakeholders in society. The notion that Muslims should live as second class citizens has been normalised. I know there are many more influential and experienced people who are seeking answers, but I’m also someone trying to seek a solution that will allow Muslims in India to lead a dignified life,” he said.
Afreen Fatima, who studied linguistics at AMU, said that she met Usmani when he was in-charge of the journalist writing forum of the Literary Club. While he taught writing to other students, Fatima remembers him honing his public speaking skills in various debating forums.
Fatima, who is now pursuing her master’s in linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said, “My first impression of him was that he knew a lot of things and he shared them with us. Like an anecdote from history or things to read. He was not our senior but he had the aura of a senior. He was the wise kid.”
He is also a secretary of the Fraternity Movement, a student and youth organisation which aims to empower marginalised sections to fight against injustice and inequality.
While he was never in two minds about speaking at Elgar Parishad, Usmani thought long and hard about what he was going to say to his first audience with more Hindus than Muslims. He decided to drop the Islamic symbolism and phrases that came naturally when he addressed a predominantly Muslim audience. He spoke with close friends about how he should open, with suggestions like “adaab,” “Inquilab Zindabad” and salaam thrown into the mix. He asked them if there was anything in the speech that should not be said. Three of his friends, who are lawyers, told him that there was nothing “illegal” about his speech.
Prior to the event, Usmani said that he spoke to the organisers of Elgar Parishad about some of his anxieties about addressing a non-Muslim audience. They told him that he should speak freely. Usmani said that he spoke in Hindi to an audience of around 1,000 people. The next day, he woke up to savage trolling on Twitter, with people calling for his arrest.
“I spoke from my own experience about how I see society and what I had experienced in jail,” he said. “There is a rot in society and I showed them a mirror. If it hurts their ego, it is not my problem. As a representative of the Muslim community, in whatever sense I am, it is my responsibility to speak about the anxieties, fears and aspiration of the Muslim society. I don’t have to sugarcoat it. I’m not a qawwal or a ghazal singer.”
Others who spoke at the event included author Arundhati Roy; former Indian Administrative Service officer Kannan Gopinathan, who quit after the Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019; Aysha Renna, the Jamia Millia Islamia University student who saved a fellow student from a police beating during the anti-CAA protests; Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist who has been arrested twice by the UP Police over his social media posts; and Abeda Tadvi, mother of the Payal Tadvi, a Muslim Bhil Adivasi medical student who took her own life after being harassed by upper caste doctors.
Gopinathan told The Wire, “If the same comment had been made by me or some other Hindu, the same action would not have been taken. Rather than what was said, I think the case is being made out against who said it. That is not how the law works.”
Renna recalls a thin crowd and a heavy police presence at the Elgar Parishad event. “FIRs and cases have become normalised when Muslim youths are speaking against atrocities in our country,” she said. “It is expected.”
The date of the Elgar Parishad event, January 30, marked the birth anniversary of Rohith Vemula, a 27-year-old PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad who died by suicide in January 2016. Its organisers, the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan,’ have stuck by Usmani.
In an 11-page statement, they say the “one tiny bit” of his speech – “Hindu society within Hindustan has been rotten” – which has been used to attack him, is 10 seconds of a 26-minute speech, and refers to the collective apathy towards lynchings of people from minority communities.
One organiser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was nothing “unconstitutional” about the Elgar Parishad speeches, which are available on YouTube for everyone to hear.
On why Usmani was slapped with two FIRs, the organiser said, “Sharjeel is a target because he is Muslim and he is an assertive Muslim. He has his own opinions, intellect, perspective, and the ability to put his perspective into words. That makes him a soft target for the casteist, communal and Brahmanical forces.”
Long time in the making
The anger driving Sharjeel Usmani’s politics has been in the making for a long time. While he may have come of age in the era of a virulent BJP led by Modi, Usmani says he was defined by his religion from the day he was born into a lower middle class Muslim family from Azamgarh. The bias, suspicion, and insults – spoken and unspoken, bore into his subconscious for 20 years before he found the words to speak up for himself.
Every city in India has two cities: the city and its Muslim ghetto, Usmani said. His city was Rehmat Nagar, where his father, Tariq Usmani, who has a PhD from AMU, taught geography at the Shibli National College. They lived alongside other Muslims – lawmakers, doctors, engineers, businessmen, craftsmen, butchers, bakers and beggars.
“Ghetto was natural for us. I thought everyone lived like us only. I had that idea for a long time. But when I grew up, I saw the ‘posh’ things of a city. The malls, lavish hospitals and hotels are not in Muslim areas. You will find dirty musafir khanas in our area,” he said.
His father, Usmani said, was a disciplined and health conscious man who never compromised on two things: fulfilling every desire his six children had when it came to eating good food, and ensuring they get the best education.
His father worked very hard to send him to Jyoti Niketan School, a Catholic school which was four kilometres away from Rehmat Nagar and regarded as the best in Azamgarh. When he started going to school, Usmani shared a rickshaw with eight other boys. A few years later, his father bought him a second-hand bicycle.
When they were very young, Usmani said the Hindu and Muslim boys played together in school. But things changed by the time they reached middle school. In classrooms where there was a cross with Jesus Christ mounted on the walls, Hindu and Muslim boys were classmates, not friends.
The school he attended was run by Catholics but Usmani recalled that the teachers were “upper caste Hindus.” He recalled one teacher calling him a “terrorist” when she caught him making a paper gun in Class VII. He recalled teachers telling the Hindu boys to study hard because unlike their Muslim classmates, their families did not own businesses and have jobs in the Gulf and the Middle East. He recalled teachers referring to the Muslim boys as “bad apples who would spoil the others”.
Referring to the terrorist remark, Usmani said, “It was very natural for me at that time. It did not register. It was just one of the scoldings that she gave me. It was only later in college did I realise that it was f****d up.”
The Batla House encounter, which claimed the lives of two young Muslim men and a police inspector on September 19, 2008 in Delhi, made things much worse. The dead men were from Sanjarpur village in Azamgarh. The police said they were members of the Indian Mujahideen, responsible for the three blasts in Delhi that left 67 dead and 200 injured. The encounter took place six days after the terrorist attack. The families of the men who were killed said they were students, living in the primarily Muslim neighbourhood of Jamia Nagar. Human rights activists said the encounter was staged and the two men were summarily executed. Muslim homes in Azamgarh were raided and young men were taken away for questioning. There was a backlash against Muslims from Azamgarh in other parts of the country, with landlords and employees turning them out of their homes and jobs.
The BJP was not in power then, either at the Centre or in the UP. It was the so-called secular parties which held sway: the Congress party at the Centre, while Azamgarh had an MP from the Bahujan Samaj Party and an MLA from the Samajwadi Party.
Usmani was just 10 years old at the time, but he remembers the media started calling Azamgarh, “atankgarh” — a hub of terror. He recalled families asking young men who were studying and working in other states to come home. He recalled the fear and humiliation that overwhelmed his community.
When his father took his students to Rajasthan on a field trip not long after the encounter, Usmani said they could not find a hotel that would let them stay. They spent one night on a railway platform.
More than ten years have passed since his father was humiliated in Rajasthan, but Usmani says nothing has changed. Earlier this year, when he was paying for a packet of cigarettes using PhonePe, Usmani said the shopkeeper in Noida saw his name and started whispering to the other men, who were milling around. Suddenly overcome with fear, Usmani said that he ran back to the cab.
“There is a trust deficit and it is not from our side. The Muslim community has been carrying the bogey of Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb, of coexistence and purity and love. The other community does not even want to know about us beyond biryani and kebab,” he said.
A close knit-family
The conversation that he was having with his family before the two new FIRs were registered against him involved his youngest brother, Akbar Usmani, and whether he should join humanities or science after Class X. His teenaged sister, Heba Usmani, had made up her mind about studying psychology. His mother, Seema Usmani, who has a BA degree in Islamic Studies, wanted to know why none of her six children were interested in pure science.
All major decisions were discussed in their family, and as the eldest of five brothers and one sister, his vote always counted, said Usmani.
His siblings had always looked up to him and everything that has happened since the anti-CAA protests had made them fiercely protective of him. Usmani said that he does more than exchange names of shows and Netflix passwords with his brothers. For Rahim Usmani, an engineering student, he hunts for internships. Areeb Usmani is a budding poet whom he connects with other poets. He encourages Aadil Usmani, a law student at AMU, to pursue debate. His sister, Heba Usmani, who he called “the smartest in the family,” is reading Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Guy de Maupassant, A.G. Noorani and Paul Brass; they have started discussing Muslim identity politics.
His father joined AMU as a geography professor in 2016, around the same time when Usmani was becoming a vocal activist. Even though he was teaching on the same campus, Usmani said that his father did not stop him, but sometimes asked him to use his words judiciously.
Now, after multiple FIRs, Usmani said that his father reads everything about him, and he is the first to know when something gets posted about his son on Facebook or Twitter.
After Usmani was arrested in Azamgarh in July 2020, and stood before his family members with his hands tied and head down, they too were photographed and questioned by the anti-terrorism squad of the Lucknow police.
Learning to live with the perils of challenging an authoritarian regime, Usmani said that his strength comes from the love and support of his family.
“My family is proud of me. My mother once said, “Every family wants a son like Sharjeel, but in the neighbour’s house.” He continues, “It is not a political act. I have chosen this fight for myself. I believe in it. I don’t know if it will do me any good but at least I can say that I genuinely tried.”
Betwa Sharma is an independent journalist who covers politics and civil liberties. She was the politics editor at HuffPost India.