Sharjeel Imam: Scholar Activist Accused of Treason

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Several rights activists and legal experts have maintained that the cases against him are fabricated.

Mohammad Alamullah | Clarion India

NEW DELHI – The Delhi High Court on Wednesday granted bail to Sharjeel Imam, a notable activist accused of delivering inflammatory speeches during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the national capital’s Shaheen Bagh. These speeches allegedly incited the 2020 riots in northeast Delhi. Imam faces treason charges in five states due to his involvement in anti-CAA activities.

Early Life and Education

Sharjeel Imam was born in 1988 in Kaku village, Jehanabad, Bihar. His father, Akbar Imam, was a politician and the Janata Dal (United) candidate from Jehanabad in the 2005 assembly elections. Akbar Imam battled cancer for several years and passed away in 2014. Sharjeel’s mother, Afshan Rahim, is a housewife, and his brother, Muzamil Imam, is a social worker.

His teachers described Sharjeel Imam as a “bookworm” during his early education at a missionary school in Patna and later at the Delhi Public School in Vasant Kunj. He completed high school in 2006 and pursued B.Tech and M.Tech in computer engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay).

After graduation, Imam worked in Bangalore for a software company for two years. In 2013, he enrolled at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi for a master’s degree in modern history and began his PhD at the same university in 2015.

Career and Activism

Imam’s professional career includes stints as a programmer at the IT University of Copenhagen and as a teaching assistant at IIT Bombay. He also worked as an engineer at Juniper Networks. Besides his technical career, Imam contributed articles to TRT World, First Post, The Wire, and The Quint.

Imam’s activism gained significant attention during the anti-CAA protests. He emerged as a leader in the Shaheen Bagh protest, a prominent site of resistance against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). According to the Delhi Police, Imam made two “highly inflammatory speeches” on December 13, 2019, and January 16, 2020, which purportedly led to the riots in Delhi.

In a viral video of his speech, Imam is heard calling for the “permanent separation” of Assam from India by blocking the vehicular route to and from Siliguri, a critical corridor known as the “Chicken’s Neck.” Imam later clarified that his comments were meant to highlight the possibility of a blockade at Shaheen Bagh and had no connection to the Assam route.

Legal Proceedings and Controversies

Imam’s arrest and subsequent legal battles have sparked widespread debate and condemnation. Several rights activists and legal experts have argued that the cases against him are fabricated. Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International India, remarked, “I did not find any part of Imam’s speech seditious. Imam is in jail because he is a Muslim.” Former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju also defended Imam, stating, “He has not committed any crime,” despite disapproving of Imam’s speech.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and Teachers’ Association denounced Imam’s arrest, citing “Islamophobia, selective amnesia, and bigotry” by the state. Students and alumni from IITs, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and other institutions signed letters in support of Imam. Additionally, students from Bihar studying in prestigious institutions wrote an open letter to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, demanding Imam’s release.

Cases Across States

Sharjeel Imam faces multiple charges across five Indian states — Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Delhi. On January 25, 2020, the Assam Police filed an FIR against him under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The same day, the Aligarh Police in Uttar Pradesh also registered a case against him for sedition and creating enmity between groups.

Manipur Police accused Imam of waging war against the Indian government, sedition, and conspiracy to commit crimes, registering FIR No. 16(1)2020 under several IPC sections. Similarly, on January 26, 2020, the Itanagar Police in Arunachal Pradesh charged Imam with sedition and promoting enmity between groups under IPC sections 124(A), 153(A), and 153(B). The Delhi Police registered an FIR against Imam for sedition and promoting religious enmity under Section 153 of the IPC.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Sharjeel Imam surrendered to the Delhi Police on January 28, 2020, in his native village Kaku. Before surrendering, he was live on Facebook, addressing his supporters. Following his arrest, Imam was transported to Assam and lodged in Guwahati Central Jail, where he contracted COVID-19 and tested positive on July 21, 2020.

A Delhi court issued a summons to Imam on July 29, 2020, in a case related to his alleged inflammatory speech. Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana took cognizance of the charge sheet filed against Imam under the UAPA and asked him to appear before the court on September 1, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the court allowed for Imam’s appearance via video conferencing if physical presence was not feasible.

In April 2022, a district court in Delhi denied Imam bail in a case alleging a “larger conspiracy” in the 2020 Delhi riots, including charges under the UAPA and IPC. However, in September 2020, Imam was granted bail in a case alleging a seditious speech near Jamia Millia Islamia in 2019.

Bail Fuels Debate

The granting of bail to Sharjeel Imam by the Delhi High Court marks a significant development in a case that has garnered widespread national and international attention. His involvement in the anti-CAA protests and the subsequent legal challenges highlight the complexities and contentious nature of the issues surrounding citizenship, nationalism, and free speech in the country.

Imam’s journey from a dedicated student and academic to an activist accused of treason underscores the profound impact of political and social movements in shaping individual destinies and national narratives. As legal proceedings continue, the case of Sharjeel Imam remains a pivotal moment in India’s contemporary history, reflecting broader struggles within the nation’s democratic framework.

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