Accused Of Sedition, Terrorism For A Speech, JNU Student Steadfast After 535 Days In Jail

A software engineer who turned to history to make sense of modern politics, Sharjeel Imam, 33, is accused under 73 sections of the law in cases filed against him by five state police forces. He spoke to us from Tihar jail about his ideology, his opposition to nationalism and his identity as a dissident Indian Muslim.

Sharjeel Imam/REHAN KHAN

New Delhi: Political power in India has been monopolised, and one aspect of this monopoly is its anti-Muslim nature, Sharjeel Imam, 33, a political dissident who has been imprisoned without trial for 535 days and faces a raft of criminal cases, told Article 14 in a telephonic interview from Tihar jail.

A masters in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology- Bombay, and a PhD student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Imam has been accused under 73 sections of two laws, including sedition and terrorism, first filed on 25 January 2020 by the police forces of five states.

Police action against him came after a video of a speech he made at the Aligarh Muslim University in western UP on 16 January 2020, when he urged protestors to “cut off Assam from India”, which was a reference, he said, to no more than a road block as a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019.

Imam’s speeches at anti-CAA protests at the South Delhi site of Shaheen Bagh and other cities made him a poster boy for a movement that echoed with the slogan, kaagaz nahi dikhaaengay (we will not show our papers).

In an interview to Article 14, Imam said there were “successive blows” against Muslims in various regions after 2019, included the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya where the Babri mosque once stood and the passing of the CAA.

Imam said in the case of the destruction of the Babri mosque, “the Muslim masses acted instinctively”. As far as he was concerned, he said, he had been writing on the anti-Muslim nature of India’s polity for a few years, abandoning his career as a software engineer to study history and politics.

Imam, who the Delhi police arrested on 28 January 2020 from his home village in Bihar, said he was driven to protest by “the inherent flaws in the constitutional setup of India in recent times”.

The arrest came after police in five states, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur—four states are either ruled or controlled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in the fifth, Delhi, the police report to the union home ministry—filed charges of sedition and terrorism in seven first information report (FIRs) against Imam.

Five FIRs were filed on 25 January 2020 by state police officers. There was no public complaint against Imam, and there has not been one, even 15 months later. Police in India, often, do not file FIRs unless there is a public complaint, although they are empowered to do so.

If they end in conviction, the charges against Imam could carry terms that extend to life, but the conviction rate for sedition was 3.3% and for terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, 29.2%, according to National Crime Records Bureau data for 2019, the latest available.

As a July 2020 Article 14 analysis of the UAPA’s provisions showed, guilt is often irrelevant. The UAPA specifically disallows anticipatory bail not only for alleged terrorist acts but for all offences of alleged terrorist activity punishable under the UAPA, including attending meetings and protests, making speeches, giving loans or conspiring to do any of these.

As for sedition, analysis of data from an Article 14 database shows a 28% increase in sedition cases filed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s time in office between 2014 and 2020 compared to the yearly average over the previous four years, the second term of the previous government, Much of this increase is due to a surge in sedition cases after protest movements, such as those against the CAA.

A year and five and half months or 535 days after his arrest (as of 15th July 2021), Imam has been incarcerated in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for crimes that are yet to be proven. In July 2020, he tested positive for Covid-19 while in Guwahati Central Jail.

Of the seven FIRs against him on 25 January 2020, the first five quote violations of 22 sections of the law; all five accuse him of sedition and three invoke the UAPA. The first of the other two FIRs was filed on 6 March 2020 and added 35 more sections, accusing him of conspiracy under section 153A (promoting enmity between classes) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, in the Delhi riots of February 2020. The other FIR on15 December 2019 linked him to violence in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in December 2020 and uses 16 sections of the law, including sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 148 (rioting, armed with a deadly weapon), and all of the first five FIRs accuse him of sedition under section 124 A of the IPC.

While the police forces of Delhi, UP and Assam have acted on their FIRs, Manipur has not. In May 2020, Imam was granted bail in Arunachal Pradesh, as the police failed to file a charge sheet against him within 90 days.

The Assam police have invoked the UAPA’s sections 13 (1), which includes advocating, abetting, inciting or advising “unlawful activity”; 15 (1)(a)(iii), a “terrorist act” that disrupts supplies or services “essential to the life of the community in India” and 18 for “conspiracy”.

In the cases filed by the Assam police, Imam was granted bail on 22 May 2020, but he continues to be in jail primarily because of UAPA FIR filed for conspiracy in the Delhi riots, which invokes sections 15, a “terrorist act” that disrupts supplies or services “essential to the life of the community in India”, 16 (“punishment for terrorist act”), 17 (“punishment for raising funds for terrorist act”) and 18 (“punishment for conspiracy of terrorist acts”) within the UAPA.

In the case linking Imam to the violence in Jamia Millia Islamia, his lawyer Ahmad Ibrahim moved a bail application, but the second wave of Covid-19 led to the case not yet being heard for nearly two months. Ibrahim said the purpose of bail was defeated if the case took such a long time to be listed for hearing.

Seeking bail in a sedition case, on 15 July, Imam denied participating in or encouraging any violence during the course of any protest or demonstration. ASJ Rawat heard the arguments put forth by Imam’s counsel and the matter has been listed for 2 August for further hearing.

From Tihar Jail, Imam talked about lessons, learnings, the legalities of dissent in the BJP’s India and how dissent can only be curbed by shutting down the Internet.

How many days have you completed in prison?

I surrendered to the Delhi Police on 28 January 2020. I have spent almost 17 months in custody, including almost a month in police custody of various states and around 6 months in Guwahati Central Jail and over 9 months in Tihar Central Jail.

What was your first thought when you realised the charges against you?

There were two first thought moments. First, in January, 2020 when I was arrested for sedition, I was not expecting five FIRs in five states on the same day. I was expecting some reaction from the state vis-à-vis our protests, especially in Shaheen Bagh. I had anticipated some of this in early January, when I spoke and wrote about it. My arrest was the beginning of the clampdown, and that is what came to my mind: that with Delhi elections approaching this is an attempt to delegitimise the protests and cause communal disruption.

The second moment was in August 2020, six months later, when I was arrested for Delhi riots, which happened when I was in Guwahati police custody. When the riots happened in Delhi, I had already spent a month in jail. So, when I was arrested for riots and charged under the UAPA, the special act used for terrorists, I realised that the government had decided to makes examples out of us by giving us exemplary punishment, that is pre-trial detention, so that educated youth would not venture to take this risk, given the bail embargo in UAPA. It means pre-trial detention, unlike sedition which is a section of the IPC.

Sharjeel Imam at Shaheen Bagh/REHAN KHAN

How do you spend your time in prison?

In Guwahati central jail, there was no ward system, so one would wake up in the morning, roam around the jail and come back to one’s lodging in the evening. I would socialise there with thousands of prisoners. Apart from that, the library had a rich collection of books about northeastern history and culture. I read dozens of books while in Guwahati, brushed upon my Bangla skills and learnt some Assamese. I had started reading newspapers in both languages with time.

There was a mosque in the jail where I would often spend hours talking with other inmates, in the evenings I would play chess with the inmates lodged with me. Tihar jail is a more regimented and violent jail, and you can hardly venture out of your ward. I spend most of my time in my cell, with some books that I have, and I live alone in my cell. Recently, on court orders, I got to sit in the legal cell of the jail, on a computer to read the soft copies of my charge sheet, which is around 17,000 pages. I get to read the newspapers every day. Other than that, it is a solitary existence in Tihar; concerns for my safety also dictate that I shouldn’t roam around here.

What drove you to protest?

What drove millions of others to protests beside me? The realisation that this polity is becoming increasingly anti-Muslim, that power has been monopolised in a few hands. One aspect of this monopoly is its anti-Muslim nature. The 2019 was a watershed moment, it was the first time after 1984 that a party had won with this kind of majority. Then the successive blows against Muslims of various regions began; abrogation of Article 370, Babri judgment, the passing of CAA etc. After this the Muslim masses acted instinctively, however as far as I’m concerned, I have been writing on the nature of this polity for a few years now.

I left my regular job as a software engineer in 2013 and took up part time jobs to study history, partition and the structure of post-partition India vis-à-vis minority rights, federalism, elections etc. In the last two years, we can see that these terms are for namesake (sic) only and can be overridden by any strong party, be it Congress or BJP’; even the independence of the judiciary is compromised.

So, what drove me to protest was the inherent flaws in the constitutional setup of India in recent times. It’s the CAA which drove me from writing to speaking on the streets, it provided me with an opportunity to talk about the flaws in the system. How was this act conceived? How was this act passed? How could 370 be unilaterally abrogated? How could the Internet be shut down for months and years? Something is fundamentally wrong in the setup.

With the kind of cases against you, do you believe that India is entering a phase of restricted freedom of expression?

There are two aspects of freedom of expression, institutional and cultural. The judiciary has to play its part, as far as the institutional deterrent against clamping down of speech is concerned, but, sadly, the monopoly of a party at Centre, a clique or a group at Centre, affects the judiciary in perceptible ways. This institutional weakness has to be remedied. However, this points towards a deeper malaise, as the cultural standards of freedom of expression [are] increasingly being defined by one group using mass media and social media.

This sort of nationalism or hyper-nationalism has to be checked and checked vigorously by those who consider themselves liberals, democrats, whichever shade of progressive politics one associates with. That is why I speak against nationalism as an ideology; it curbs thinking and freedom of expression. When people from Scotland and Ireland can talk about independence from the UK in a democratic way, why can’t we Indians tolerate such discourses without invoking the term traitor? There was a time in 1950s-60s when socialists like Ram Manohar Lohiya could write in mainstream newspapers supporting the right to self-determination of Kashmiris: he could write this and still be considered a mass leader in north India. Jyoti Basu (former West Bengal chief minister) could claim neutrality with respect to the Indo-China conflict of 1962. He could say that I don’t know what is happening up there in the Himalayas. These things seem impossible right now.

What are your views on the silencing of dissent and consequences of the indiscriminate use of UAPA against anti-government voices, with you yourself being charged with the same?

UAPA was passed in 1967 to ostensibly deal with separatists and secessionists. However, the real teeth were added during the Manmohan Singh regime after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, when dark sections of POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act) which were repealed in 2004, were inserted in the UAPA, chapters 4, 5, 6. Now for a statement deemed unlawful or separatist, Chapter 3 is invoked, and there is no bail embargo, it would mean at least 6 months of incarceration, but no bail embargo after that. But in a situation like the Delhi riots, where there is death and violence, then the other three chapters can be invoked.

Previously, organisations were deemed terrorist, but after the 2019 amendment brought in by BJP, individuals can be deemed terrorists as well. This amendment has increased the ambit of UAPA manifold. From separatist organizations, it has become separatist/terrorist organizations/individuals, and the courts have still not told us whether they consider this as constitutional or not. The definitions of unlawful activity and terrorist activity are very vague and hence can be arbitrarily applied now on individuals as well. 2001 was an important year in this respect, after the 9/11 attack, the ‘war on terror’ gave governments around the world the license to criminalise dissenting Muslims. It is very easy to call me a terrorist if I say I’m a Muslim and I wish for systemic change.

The government of India has also used the war on terror to curb dissent and legitimate aspirations of Muslims; for instance, separatists became terrorists in popular parlance after 2001. However, interestingly UAPA could not be invoked against farmers, because it’s easier to label Muslims as anti-national and terrorists, while for farmers even if anti-government, they cannot be labeled as anti-nationals. In my case, peaceful blocking of highways and roads has been portrayed as a terrorist conspiracy by the prosecution. None of my speeches or statements encourage violence, yet I am being accused of conspiring for a terrorist act and this goes to show how vague the provisions of this act are.

What are you currently reading?

I have just finished Elif Shafak’s Forty Rules of Love, a novel inspired by the meeting of Rumi and his mystic mentor, Shams Tabrez. I have read half a dozen Premchand novels here. Right now I’m reading C.A. Baileys’ Empire and Information and A History of Islam, in Urdu by Akbar Najibabadi. I’m also trying to get my secondary reading done for my thesis while in prison. My topic, both in MPhil and in PhD, interestingly revolves around communal riots in relation to partition, and I’m in custody under the allegation of masterminding communal riots (Delhi riots). On a lighter note, my charge sheet is also acting as a primary source of research material for me for the same reason. Another book that I keep reading is the Delhi Prison rules book.

Do you feel that your arrest is aimed at delegitimising the CAA protests?

Yes, as I earlier said, my arrest was the beginning of the clampdown. They wish to show that these protestors are traitors, they are against the nation and against the government no matter what. In the contest of Delhi elections, the other objective was of communalising Delhi as well as I had been associated with the Shaheen Bagh protests since day 1, since 15 December and had become the face of it before I withdrew. Targeting me was tantamount to targeting Shaheen Bagh. I had anticipated this in January 2020, when I had called for ending the roadblock till Delhi elections, but a lot of people called me a traitor to the cause. In any case, I shifted to Bihar, spoke in UP and Bengal, [but] it is interesting that I was booked for a speech in Aligarh, UP, arrested from Bihar in order to target a protest in Delhi and eventually accused of conspiring in the Delhi riots that happened a month after my arrest.

My case specifically was made to cut off the support of progressive non-Muslims by portraying me as a Muslim fanatic, almost a fundamentalist or a Hindu hater, as if one cannot be a believing Muslim and a democrat at the same time. Even some Muslims thought that I was initially helping the BJP when I spoke out about systemic issues, by talking about the Congress’ dubious role in the democratic history of India.

I was portrayed as a Muslim fanatic leading an illiterate mob. While if someone goes through my speeches, they consist of subjects like non-violent modes of protests, minority rights, elections in a democratic framework.

What has prison taught you, if anything?

Prison teaches us to be patient, it also teaches us to stand up and say ‘no’ if you wish for your rights to be enforced. For instance, we sat on a hunger strike in Guwahati Prison demanding covid tests and subsequently half the jail was found positive. Also, it gives you a clear picture about policemen, lawyers and judiciary, not many of them know much about prisons. We learn how innocent people have to plead guilty for petty offences because they have no bailers outside. You value the 5 minutes that the authorities allow you to speak with your family. Prison teaches you to stop fearing prison.

Does it ever strike you that it may take longer than you expect to get bail?

Yes, first it was sedition, but in five states, so I thought maybe six months or a year. Then it was UAPA, section 16,17 and 18, which generally means five to seven years of pre-trial detention. Everything depends on the courts now, one can’t speculate.

Do you ever regret being an active voice for the causes you believe in?

No, I don’t regret it. There might be specific moves that I could’ve avoided or worked on better alternatives. But as far as the overall trajectory of my life is concerned, I do not regret it at all. Graduating from IIT-Bombay and then joining JNU to become a historian. The die had been cast in 2013, the trajectory had been decided. In all these years people questioned my decision of giving up a lucrative job in order to read and write history.

One has to take up a job which challenges one’s linguistic and analytical skills, leading to the progress of mankind. The cause of Muslims of India, India’s largest religious minority, is a challenging issue. In Guwahati jail, an officer once told me, “You’re probably the only computer science graduate from IIT in prison right now.’ I replied, ‘I’m the lucky one’. He did not understand my response initially, but understood it later. If by being incarcerated my words have reached a wider audience, if these years of my thinking, reading and writing have reached millions, then what is there to be regretful about? Besides, when millions protest, few hundreds will have to pay the price.

Dissenting against a particular narrative is considered anti-national in today’s India. Is this the India you grew up in?

I was born in 1988 and grew up in a Mandal-era Bihar and in an India with a relatively weak Centre. The last large-scale massacre of Muslims of Bihar happened in 1989, the dominance of central parties ended in Bihar in 1990 and a shift towards backward castes and Pasmanda (In Persian, ‘those who have fallen behind’, a reference to Muslims from disadvantaged sections) discourse happened, and regional parties achieved power in Bihar. My late father, Akber Imam, who passed away in 2014 was also a part of this transformation, as a politician and as an advocate of minority empowerment. The Bihar I grew up in had a weaker centre and had a regional bent to politics and had ‘affirmative action’ as the catch word rather than nationalism; in that context room to dissent was not as limited as today. However, the same period also saw RSS gain in national politics, consolidate in Gujarat and the movement for Babri demolition, worst bloodshed and army rule in Kashmir.

However, as I talked earlier about freedom of expression, qualitative change is to be noted. The Internet has given us the freedom to talk and to be listened to, so it is not that dissent can be clamped down easily. Yes, the state is more vigorous in checking our words and declaring them anti-national, but our words are even more vigorous in escaping the censors of the state. Dissent cannot be curbed in the Internet era, can be called anti-national but not be curbed. Dissent can only be curbed by shutting down the Internet.

You have been charged with an act that questions your patriotism. Do you think patriotism is quantifiable? How would you prove your patriotism?

Patriotism is a vague term. As it is a vague term, there is no point in proving if I possess it or not. I’d rather prove that I’m honest and contributing to a discourse which seeks to make the democratic setup more robust, just and representational. Rather than being vague, patriotism would talk about the rights of religious minorities like Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, rights of linguistic minorities, rights of regions vis-a-vis the Centre. I do not wish to be called a patriot, I would rather be called a democrat trying to work his way through the South Asian puzzle. At the same time, I’m a Muslim trying to understand Islamic history.

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