Sharjeel in Jail: 600 Days of Injustice

Sharjeel Imam.

Since Sharjeel was born in a particular religious community, he was made an easy target. His grass-roots activism, deep scholarship and critical thinking were all erased

Dr Abhay Kumar | Clarion India

SIX hundred days of injustice have passed since JNU research scholar and young historian Sharjeel Imam was arrested in anti-terror cases. While his relatives, friends, well-wishers and all right-thinking persons feel pain about his confinement and several hardships he might have been undergoing in jail, Sharjeel Imam is worried about something else: there is an urgent need to do a “systemic change”.

A few days back, Sharjeel Imam talked to his younger brother Muzzammil Imam over a video call. His brother was expecting him to talk about himself, but Sharjeel had the larger issue in his mind.

“You should tell the young minds”, Sharjeel told his younger brother, “to study the history of Indian politics and the constitution. Then only they would come to realise the inbuilt injustice in the system”.

In the last week of January 2020, he was arrested from his home town Jehanabad, Bihar. He was booked under Sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and cases were lodged against him in several states.

Having spent so much time in jail in his youth, any normal person, made of flesh and blood, would have broken down. But Sharjeel appeared an exception. For him, personal pain and suffering are less important than the suffering of the people at large, particularly the marginalized communities.

His hunger for new ideas and his dream for making a society just have kept him motivated against all odds. In jail, he has been voraciously reading books.

When asked about how he was, Sharjeel’s brief answer to his younger brother was “fine”.

As far as Sharjeel’s cases, three are under-trail at the lower courts of Delhi, while one is being heard by Allahabad High Court. It is expected that around October 10 next month, the courts may take a significant decision regarding his bail.

Human Rights activists have often expressed concerns about the stringent provisions in the UAPA. Charged with a UAPA case, an accused is assumed terrorist before he is convicted. That goes completely against the spirit of jurisprudence. But such a black law finds a place in the largest democracy of the world. No wonder then, granting of bail to the accused is made very tough in the UAPA cases.

The ruling elites have shamelessly justified the stringent provisions of UAPA on the ground that they are needed for fighting terrorist acts. But as a matter of fact, the UAPA has been grossly misused to silence the dissenters and punish opposition leaders. Muslim youths have been one of the main targets of anti-terror laws and both secular and communal governments have been involved in violation of human rights.

For example, the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — while inaugurating the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Conference in 2002 — blatantly justified human rights violations: “We have to sometimes make tough decisions, even infringing some of our freedoms and abridging some of our human rights temporarily, to firmly counter-terrorism (Manisha Sethi, Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, Year: 2014, p.111).

The Vajpayee government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002 that “allowed the admission of confession made before a police officer – otherwise inadmissible under the Indian Evidence Act – as evidence to be used against the accused”. POTA turned out to be a worse remedy than the malady which destroyed liberties, jettisoned criminal jurisprudence and was used for malignant political motives.

Ironically, the opposition secular parties, which once opposed draconian laws like POTA, soon became supporters of another anti-terror law when they came to power. In 2004, when the center-left UPA was voted to power, thanks to overwhelming support by the most deprived sections, including Muslims, it repealed POTA but brought in a new anti-terror law, namely the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Originally promulgated in 1967 and amended twice in 2004 and 2008, UAPA invests the Centre with so much power that it can declare any organization as “unlawful” at will.

In 2019 the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed by the Parliament that made the law further draconian. Against the amendment, petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court that allege that such an amendment gave the Centre “discretionary, unfettered and unbound powers” to condemn a person as a terrorist.

Instead of paying heed to human rights violations, the Hindutva government has indiscriminately thrown UAPA charges on its opponents for just expressing disagreement with the government policies. The government accepted in Parliament that there has been a sharp rise (72%) in the cases of UAPA compared to 2015.

Worse still, the false narrative of “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” has blurred the difference between the criticism of the government and the criticism of the country. People opposing farm laws and privatization, which are just government policies, have been called “anti-nationals” and “terrorists”.

The arrest and demonization of Sharjeel Imam should be seen in the same context. His call for chakka jam cannot be a ground for slapping a case of sedition. Nor did he commit an act of terror. What Sharjeel did was merely a call for agitation against the wrong policies of the government. Such a call has been given in the past and it will be given in the future as well.

The reason why Sharjeel was harassed is his opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Act was clearly against the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Sharjeel was one of the protesters against the CAA. Since the Indian Constitution gives us the right to protest and dissent, Sharjeel was operating within the same framework. He was also linking the CAA to the wider questions. He was going back to history to understand the present. He was raising sharp questions about systematic bias and injustice against Muslims.

It is not correct to say that he was not opposed to secularism. Nor was he against Hindu-Muslim unity. Similarly, he was not an enemy of Left ideology. Nor was he an upholder of Islamic supremacy, as alleged by his opponents.

In simple language, he was going beyond popular rhetoric and confronting the problem head-on. His critics had little answer to his questions. Nor were they honest and brave to engage with him in open and honest debate.

Since Sharjeel was born in a particular religious community, he was made an easy target. His grass-roots activism, deep scholarship and critical thinking were all erased and the thing that was only highlighted was his name and his religion.

Six hundred days after his confinement, the relatives of Sharjeel are running from one court to another court for his bail, while hate mongers and rioters are given state protection and hailed by mainstream media as great “Hindu” leaders. This is the sorry state of India under the Hindutva regime.

But like you, I am hopeful. Sooner or later, the long night of injustice will be over and the walls of prisons will break down.

To experience such a moment, we have to play our part, as Sharjeel played his own part. We should never forget that Sharjeel has always said that he is in jail but nothing has stopped others from carrying forward the work for justice.


Dr Abhay Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist and writer. He did his PhD (Modern History) from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also teaches Political Science and Urdu. His broad areas of interest include Minority Rights and Social Justice. The views expressed are author’s personal. You may write to him at [email protected]


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