As the warm late winter sun sank to usher in the slight chill of a mid-March evening, many of us wondered who would be next. We were unsure if it would be the last time we were saying goodbye to each other; the fear of being subject to state terror thickened the air. It was right before the pandemic set in—before fires raged around posters, protests, and the homes of Muslims in northeast Delhi. A small group of students frantically traversed universities and offices trying to garner support for a young Muslim student who had multiple FIRs filed against him from four BJP-led state governments and by the Centre. Those efforts grew into a small wave of resistance, support and solidarity, eventually segueing into a support drive for the survivors of the Delhi pogrom. Students from across universities and social locations joined in, contributing in perhaps modest but meaningful ways. Even in that dark hour, there was intense euphoria. For many, it was the fabled second dawn of revolution as they celebrated the participation of Muslims as masses in the movement. All was not well, of course. The minute anyone from the nameless masses spoke, escaping anonymity and claiming agency, to challenge both the ruling dispensation as well as the not-always tacit Islamophobia of the progressive sections of society, the celebrations of resistance and dissent seemed to halt for elite liberal intelligentsia.
Proof was at hand in that freezing Delhi winter, as a slow storm brewed over on its streets that soon reverberated across the country. It was the call to action by a young history scholar from India’s premier university that set loose a cacophony of voices—each clamouring for blood. Sharjeel Imam, speaking from the grim trench-lines of the anti-CAA protests, was widely seen to have crossed a line in the sand. But what line? The only answers forthcoming were in the shape of the UAPA and sedition laws. The incident proved to be a pivotal moment for India for two contrary reasons. It was the first in a series of hard actions by the state that inaugurated a story of persecution of anti-CAA protesters, but it was also the one incident that proved the most vexatious outside that realm, the one speech act most difficult to get support for. People from various shades across the ideological spectrum swiftly condemned him and disassociated themselves from him. The left-led student union of Sharjeel Imam’s own university, JNU, itself condemned his words in the initial statement they released.
There onwards, it became a settled routine. Activists with social and political capital continued to maintain a careful distance from those marked out as ‘radical elements’, generally understood to be Muslims speaking from beyond the pale of a consensus in civil society. By emphasising their common membership in that consensus along with those adhering to the ruling ideology, the activist world was seeking to not incite the state’s wrath. However, very soon we learned that such ideological insurance policies did not hold much merit for the state. As long as you were part of a group demanding equality and justice for India’s Muslim citizens, your criminality was to be registered.
But that was later. As the episode rolled, many outright avoided speaking against the draconian targeting of Sharjeel, many offered watered-down testimonies of support, condemning his words and dissociating from him at once. Thus, we failed Sharjeel last winter, and by this winter we had paid its price. All those who furthered Sharjeel’s criminalisation and public trial by distorting his speech are now themselves living in the fear of criminalisation, all those who were silent have no way out except speaking up now, all those who dissociated from him are in need of association—to be backed, defended and saved when their turn comes. A solidarity in many ways refused to Muslims—Sharjeel being emblematic of that denial.
Sharjeel Imam surrendered to the Delhi police on January 28, 2020. Amidst calls for his limbs to be cut off and Republic TV’s dedicated segments on him, Sharjeel’s sharp and critical work as a scholar of history shone through the macabre atmosphere his public trial had set and reached young Muslims across India. This was a monumental consequence, which intelligence agencies could have scarcely foreseen. Videos of his speeches flooded the internet—they served as right-wing propaganda, but that was not all. They were also shared widely amongst young Muslims, and thus goaded thousands to read his articles on the marginalisation of Indian Muslims, his questioning of the normalisation of violence against them. Even as the Delhi police attempted to construct a case, Sharjeel’s erudition, bravery and honesty came through in his words—scores of youth flocked to read Paul Brass’s seminal work on riots, Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India, and read their lives in its light, even as it was cited as proof of Sharjeel’s ‘radicalisation’. In the span of time between Sharjeel’s speeches, his surrender and the production of a chargesheet, many young Muslims moved to reject not only the well-worn rhetoric of a mythical ‘minority appeasement’ but also the demands of secular, liberal intelligentsia which demanded that they ‘assimilate’ and eradicate signs of their Muslimness in order to appear more ‘secular’.
Thus, it becomes incumbent upon us today to examine the questions Sharjeel poses to India and how, in turn, India responds to it. For Sharjeel Imam poses the questions an entire community that has been cornered socio-politically is asking today. With his speeches, he represents that rupture in Indian history where Muslims, similar to the Bahujan Ambedkarites in India and the Blacks in the US, en masse made the choice to reject silence.
We live in a time when disassociation can cost more than just lives, it can cost us our morality. As Ambedkar, inspired by John Dewey’s idea of democracy, wrote in the undelivered speech we know as Annihilation of Caste, “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.” This moment can be declared as a test of our democracy. Sharjeel stands in front of us as a test, asking if we truly deserve this democracy, whether our struggle can achieve the associated living or fraternity desired in a true democracy. This moment is especially a test because no political prisoner—whatever their strand of ideology or political strategy—has received as much backfire, condemnation and disassociation as he received, just for being vocal about and working towards an autonomous Muslim politics.
Sharjeel’s politics is rooted in our universal desire for association. While he vocally argues for an emancipatory politics of self-respect by Muslims, he is equally invested in maintaining solidarities between marginalised castes—recognising and challenging the double-fold discrimination Muslims of marginalised castes face from within the community as well as externally. This reflects a desire not just to unite oppressed groups against a Brahminical state but also to create a fraternal association between morally and ethically conscious people. In one of Sharjeel’s speeches, we hear him appeal to student communities to bring their non-Muslim, especially Hindu friends, and participate in the struggle for saving the Muslim right to citizenship and dignified living. What Sharjeel was thus seeking to cultivate is a general political morality, of which India is witnessing a severe shortage.
Ajay Gudavarthy recently contrasted the ongoing farm protests with the anti-CAA movement, criticising the latter as a failed attempt to appeal to a majority of Indians since its concerns remained uniquely centred around Muslims. Gudavarthy puts the onus and blame (for the anti-CAA movement allegedly not receiving wider ‘moral acceptability’) on its chief actors, forgetting that they are themselves victims and survivors of majoritarian Islamophobia. It’s always easy to blame the oppressed for not appealing to majoritarian morality, but not the secular majority for their loss of morality, for their heartlessness--indeed, the very idea that a movement for justice needs any other reason to create ‘moral acceptability’ except that it has to do with justice. This is where the figure of Sharjeel Imam becomes essential: he does not wish to cater to an existing morality governed by the BJP’s populist rhetorics, but to cultivate a new morality. He asked for different communities to hold protests in their own locations, away from Muslim ghettos. He also spoke about how the secular/left parties and civil society kept Muslims and others disenfranchised groups in the margins in the last 70 years.
We have seen how there was no difference in this respect between pre-Communist-era Bengal, ruled openly by privileged Hindu castes, and the later CPI(M) rule. The incarceration of hundreds of Muslims under the draconian UAPA in that CPI(M)-led government in Kerala didn’t in a exactly go unnoticed. And the Congress, of course, was the very name of the status quo—in its 45-odd years of rule, it never much wished to take down the feudal order of the ruling castes in India, not to mention its many casteist and anti-Muslim legislations, such as the beef ban. Any wonder then why everyone abandoned Sharjeel? And why he remains so vital?
There’s more to the rot. Two years ago, the (EWS) Quota Bill received opposition from only three Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha, despite being a bill that distorted a process of systematic justice—reservation. This shows the abysmal fall of political morality in this country. It sheds light on how violence against the marginalised is deeply systemic in nature and not an ideological side-effect of the BJP. Understanding this, it becomes incumbent upon the oppressed to cultivate morality through their social movements, instead of appealing to the morality of the secular masses for the recognition of their humanity.
A moral and political praxis
Sharjeel expressed his desire for a movement where the secular masses undergo a basic transformation—by offering support under the terms and conditions of the people for whom, about whom, and by whom the movement is articulated and led. This highlights his aim to cultivate public morality rather than negotiating with the secular masses on their old, unstated terms and conditions, compromising one’s dignity to achieve an immediate goal. That latter goal would only mean a restoration of the status quo ante. What he wished for was simply a movement that redefines the country, its citizens, their moral compasses and their zeal and quest for equality, liberty, fraternity and justice. He makes ground for a longer battle where, in the politics of the oppressed, there shall be no elite caste expert, leader or saviour, where the oppressed will refuse to be reduced to mere subjects or data. They shall, instead, be the experts and leaders of their own struggles which should be open-heartedly accepted by the secular masses—only that would reinstall their lost morality. This is precisely the vision a democracy requires, precisely the vision that caused great revolutionaries like Malcolm X or Periyar not to falter with electoral gimmicks but have the courage to envision justice.
When Gudavarthy, amongst others, argue that the anti-CAA movement failed to ‘appeal’ to a larger cause since it remained focused on the concerns of Muslims, it returns us to the question of association. Do we not associate with others, and share their concerns, for reasons of justice? Out of innately human compassion, a love for justice and sense of fraternity? Or does the moral conscience of the country require marginalised groups such as Muslims to overlook and sublimate their particular concerns? Hard, material concerns such as disproportionate incarceration rates, lack of educational infrastructure and systematic discrimination? All for the sake of abstractions? What Sharjeel reminds India of is precisely that a besieged minority has every right to reject the normalisation of violence against it, to reject appropriation of their voice and to also reject silence and complicity.
Morality: More than a document
We all stand in a moment of realisation of Ambedkar’s warning, in his Constituent Assembly speech on November 25, 1949, about a basic ‘contradiction’ between political equality and socio-economic inequalities. At this moment of realisation, Sharjeel is one among the few who figured out that the Constitution cannot be debated, implemented or amended in Parliament alone anymore, as parliamentary democracy has failed its citizens. That edifice, rather than being a change-maker from on high, has itself become a microcosm of Indian society. What Sharjeel was saying, in its essence, is: merely reading and pledging on the Preamble, or waving the tricolor, wouldn’t save the citizens until they know the history, the technicalities, the intricacies of the Indian Constitution. Sharjeel sought to bring the Constitution to the people, to be deliberated upon, debated, thought about in its basics, opened up as a formal means of rethinking justice, articulating that the Constitution must be a document of the people instead of a royal document; from the lowest among the lowest rungs of society to the so-called ‘second class citizens’, all can and must have all the rights on decisions regarding the Constitution.
Many can argue that Sharjeel put the Constitution, which has been a source of justice to many oppressed in this country, at the risk of being mocked, disrespected or rejected, but we would argue that he knew it was worth a calculated risk. ‘Bringing the Constitution to the street’ is not an act of disrespect but one of reclaiming and owning. That debate would be a serious, committed affair, requiring a knowledgeable critique, a means of securing the rights it was meant to grant—that way, the Constitution would turn into what it was meant for, not into its own antithesis in a democracy waylaid by the old elite.
Sharjeel understood that justice, at the juncture of state and society, cannot be just a legal quest, but essentially a moral quest. In a way, we can say he was cultivating constitutional morality, he was helping people think about equality, liberty, fraternity and justice from the streets itself. And as he thought of a nation-wide chakka jam, where the streets become the site of philosophy and politics, this would help rebuild the country’s Parliament, justice system and democracy, with the actual participation of people.
The essence of action
If we believe in constitutional justice and morality, then Sharjeel has every right to his speech, his protest and his politics just like every other person; he has the right to life and dignity. To have our basic constitutional rights sanctioned to us doesn’t need theory, or arcane morals. It must not take us a debate and a negotiation to agree that Sharjeel must be free. One may disagree with Sharjeel, one may also proffer from various perspectives that he made mistakes, but boiled down to their basics, one must ask: what mistakes? One must question what it is that Sharjeel said that unsettles the status quo. What does the utterance of a chakka jam from a Muslim signify?
In a democracy, we do not just have the right to dissent against the state, we must have the right to disagree with each other; on strategy, on ideology, on politics and philosophy. But the disagreement must go through a democratic practice, it must not be the reason for disassociation, rather it must enhance our capacity for association, it must encourage our participation in the said democracy. Sharjeel’s deeply upsetting questions to the status quo, his strategy to build a democracy that this country never really was, must not deserve the disassociation and condemnations he has received. Instead, a democratic practice of communication and debate should be initiated, which itself is what Sharjeel’s politics stands for.
It is a widely noted fact that the participation of Muslims in India as unabashedly Muslim has been widely stigmatised, whether by the state with frequent, easy and farcical charges of terrorism or the socially sanctioned boycott by liberal intelligentsia. The common response to attempts by Muslims to politically organise as a community has been to declare any assertion as ‘communal’—i.e. the opposite of what is considered secular. Therefore, Sharjeel Imam’s basic declaration that Muslims should organise comes as a necessary gesture. And it is revolutionary in a positive, fulfilling and creative way as it destigmatises the association of the oppressed, while also speaking for the dismantling of social hierarchies.
Consequently, many in India speak of the dangers the current regime may pose, and the instilled fear of such certainty often stands as an obstacle for action. Often with fear we take reactionary measures, or engage in battle for an immediate way out, but we fail to understand the need to ensure not just survivability, but justice and dignified living in the country. We have to build a long-term movement to civilise this cruel democracy, to moralise, to democratise its citizens who have lost their humanity in the continuation of Brahminical privilege and control. Sharjeel’s call for a chakka jam, as much as it sought immediate effects, was essentially meant to lay the foundation for a moral, democratic mass movement led by the oppressed. That resort to a mode of political action was meant not only to solve the crisis of citizenship, it was a means to demand reservation of Dalit Muslims, to address India’s other structural disempowerments. It was a call to the liberal intelligentsia to cease appropriating the spaces and voices of the marginalised, and a call for Muslims, especially the most disadvantaged among them labouring under the multiple burdens of caste, class and gender, to have their say in their own lives—an act that has cost more than 365 days in prison for Sharjeel Imam.
(Sabah Maharaj and Snehashish Das are PhD scholars at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)