Covid fear: JNU students demand release of Sharjeel and other political prisoners

Free Sharjeel graffiti at Jamia Millis vandalised by Police during the lockdown. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

JNU Defence committee for Sharjeel Imam said on Saturday that they are concerned about Sharjeel’s health in the prison and demand his immediate release.

”Until he is released, the government should make public its plans and policy to address the health emergency in prisons,” collective of JNU students said in a statement.

Sharjeel Imam is a research student of JNU was arrested on seditious charges in January for calling on CAA protesters to ‘block roads in Assam’ in a controversial speech.

Sharjeel came into limelight during the ongoing protest in Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and was arrested from Bihar’s Jehanabad on January 28 for making anti-CAA speeches at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi and Aligarh.

A case had been registered against him on sedition and other charges on January 26 in this regard. Sleuths in Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya have also lodged FIRs against him

“At this time when a pandemic has gripped the world, and every life teethers on the edge of precarity, we can not forget those of us who shall suffer the brunt of this disease. Be it the migrant worker who have been forsaken and forgotten by the state, or the doctors who are working tirelessly without medical equipment’s, whose requests for adequate aid from the government go unheard amidst the clanging of plates and spoons, or the likes of Dr. Kafeel Khan, Akhil Gogoi, Sharjeel Imam and all other political prisoners, imprisoned for standing with and for justice,” the statement reads.

JNU Defence committee for Sharjeel Imam demand the release of Sharjeel Imam, and other political prisoners, on the principles of the fundamental right to life and liberty which is endangered by the CoViD-19 pandemic and ill-preparedness of the government at the helm of affairs.

“As the country struggles to save itself, we must not forget those whose voice we cannot hear,” committee said.

Read the full statement by JNU Defence Committee for Sharjeel Imam

The vibrancy of any democracy is tested by how the most vicious of its critics are treated, how those who operate from the margins of its socio-political order while levelling an attack at the very foundation of its claim to legitimacy are dealt with. Such treatment must serve as the yardstick for us now when we turn to look at how a fellow student from our campus has been put behind the bars for the last two months (60 days), these 60 days must remind us not only of treachery (from those who claim to be our allies), of sorrow (of separation from our beloved friend) but of courage, tremendous courage shown by Sharjeel, his family and all those who continue to fight for him. A research scholar, his speech, factually and analytically informed yet distorted and misrepresented, a prison cell to contain his thoughts and the entire mainstream self-progressive front’s silence: last 60 days of Sharjeel’s police custody have proved to be yet another litmus test for India’s very claim to be a democracy, let alone world’s largest.

2020 has been a defining year for India. Certainly, not the way Abdul Kalam had thought of it, perhaps he too would have had a few sedition charges and other cases of conspiracy against the state levelled against him for not having quoted Vedas in his research and having said that India is a democracy. Most Muslims unlike him were not able to escape this fate, for they dared to rise in rage and say against all odds that India is a democracy, and that we believe in (whatever is left of) the Constitution. The State too left no stone unturned in repressing all voices of dissent rising against it not only because of the infamous CAA-NRC but a series of legislative and executive interventions before that. Since the time the ruling dispensation acquired power it has fiercely attacked all institutions of democracy that could have worked as a defence against its communal agenda. The case of Sharjeel Imam becomes important here because not only has he been framed and booked under charges of Sedition and UAPA; both, Sedition and UAPA have no space in a democracy, the laws not only unjustly incriminate individuals for holding a different opinion but they criminalise the very idea of dissent. The legal mechanisms available in Indian democracy are sufficient to deal with hate speech then what must justify the criminal continuance of such extraordinary laws? The only purpose they serve is to criminalise dissent, penalise those who practise their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and terrorise those minds who dare to speak truth to power.

What is extraordinary in the case of Sharjeel is not the role of State in framing him as a criminal and threatening and intimidating his family but the criminal negligence and condemnable silence by those who brand themselves are crusaders of social justice, those who stood up and rallied behind Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban but think Sharjeel is “too extreme”. While differences of opinions is a celebrated idea of liberal democracies and progressive politics, and his ideas might not go well with mainstream progressive and liberal tradition of this country, or the method of protest he adopted, but at a time when he is being hounded by the Right wing forces, not rallying behind him in unconditional solidarity is also giving more credence to the arguments out for the RSS propaganda machine. The last 60 days have seen a variety of responses from tokenistic solidarity, which did more harm than good, to deafening silence for Sharjeel even in our own campus, he is our fellow student and has seen no organised support from this campus and the Left-led JNUSU. Graffiti saying “Hang Sharjeel” goes unnoticed by the Union and fails to prick the “collective conscience” of those who call themselves progressive. This reflects the tacit approval of this idea by all progressive political organisations of the campus, the idea of increasing hate against Muslims only becomes normalised by this in campus and consequently fuels the growing fear in Muslims who enter the university expecting to be accorded the same rights to study and express themselves politically.

Sharjeel’s politics is one of inclusivity and at this time when a pandemic has gripped the world, and every life teethers on the edge of precarity, we can not forget those of us who shall suffer the brunt of this disease. Be it the migrant worker who have been forsaken and forgotten by the state, or the doctors who are working tirelessly without medical equipment’s, whose requests for adequate aid from the government go unheard amidst the clanging of plates and spoons, or the likes of Dr. Kafeel Khan, Akhil Gogoi, Sharjeel Imam and all other political prisoners, imprisoned for standing with and for justice. Prisons in India are known to be cramped, overcrowded with inadequate facilities, they do not adhere to any of the WHO guidelines this could only serve to worsen the crisis. The USA, Iran and many other countries, including our home states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan etc have decided to release people on parole in light of the dangerous crisis to prevent further casualties. Prisoners, due to poor condition of prisons, lie at an even more precarious position given their lack of accessibility and close contact with not just prisoners but other staff too. At a time when the world has come to a standstill, let us not forget those who live in even more vulnerable situations. We stand at a pivotal moment today where our elected representatives need to choose which side of history they wish to stand at, one where they shall be remembered for forsaking the people or one where India stands true to its democratic, and thereby humanitarian, ethos. We demand the release of Sharjeel Imam, and other political prisoners, on the principles of the fundamental right to life and liberty which is endangered by the CoViD-19 pandemic and ill-preparedness of the government at the helm of affairs, as the country struggles to save itself, we must not forget those whose voice we cannot hear.

We from JNU Defence committee for Sharjeel Imam are concerned about his health and demand his immediate release, also, until he is released, the government should make public its plans and policy to address the health emergency in prisons.

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