Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Sharjeel Imam: 1000 days in jail for rejuvenating Muslim masses

It has been 1078 days since the movement against CAA began in India; it has been 1000 days since Sharjeel Imam has been in prison.

When I last penned about Imam, Umar Khalid had just been arrested. There was a ruthless and oppressive lack of solidarity for Imam and an outpouring of the same for Khalid thereby, foregrounding the conceptualization of a “conventional Muslim prisoner”, how Khalid fits it and Imam does not because the first cloaked his Muslim identity and the latter wielded it.

While writing about the absence of solidarity for Imam in civil society, I never imagined Imam would be scapegoated. While asking for real solidarity, never did I imagine Imam would be thrown under the bus, at least not by a fellow Muslim activist. How do Muslim demand solidarity from liberal-leftists when some amongst us are hell-bent on criminalizing Imam? Does not this criminalization, resulting from a lack of empathy and social justice also impede autonomous Muslim politics? Does this not stifle the courage of Muslim youth? 

Perhaps, the question was never of a “conventional Muslim prisoner” but of the unconventional Muslim prisoner. It was never about Khalid toeing the invisible line of morality set by civil society, but about Imam entirely ransacking it. As others stand on the periphery, Imam still occupies the larger Muslim mass-conscience – centre and upfront.

It is Imam: his assertiveness as a Muslim, his overwhelming defiance in a majoritarian state, his turning to Muslim masses and not Muslim leaders, his unbounded criticism of the left and Congress, and his idea of empowered and dignified Muslims.

This and more resonated with the Muslim masses who had been yearning for such leadership for years. For them, Imam’s conception of Muslim leadership and Muslim representation meant more than the oft-repeated liberal-leftist rhetoric of saving Muslims ever could.

There was/is no line too big or small, too radical or conventional for Imam to cross. Imam would encounter Islamophobia in one of the elite educational institutions of India – IIT Bombay and spend hours debunking Islamophobic motifs; he would be lucratively employed in the corporate world, which he will see as an extension of his life in IIT Bombay as a Muslim self and leave it; he would join JNU, then join AISA and subsequently leave the organisation, denouncing it for perpetuating Islamophobia; finally, Imam would found the Eqbal Ahmad Study Circle in 2018 to articulate an idea of politics not confined by binaries, ideologies and polarization.

Perhaps, Eqbal Ahmad Study Circle was where his ideas gained ground, traction and flourished in the diverse campus of JNU. The same campus, which would later denounce and disown him. The same which had once gone up in arms when Kanhaiya Kumar was charged with Sedition.

And today, when a student remains incarcerated under UAPA, the campus and its vibrant body remain silent. The same campus – which sloganeered of sedition being draconian and held months-long debates on nationalism in 2016 – maintained and still perpetuates a conscious silence on the incarceration of Imam, on his witch hunt, on his media trial.

When a few Muslim and concerned students of JNU approached the students union for a statement supporting Imam, they did issue a parcha albeit three days later but one disowning Imam – terming him as irresponsible, his speech as condemnable and strongly disassociating from his comments. This after Imam had already surrendered, after he had been charged with UAPA by police forces of five states, after his family had been harassed, his cousins and brother were detained by police. 

The disheartened students then approach the JNUTA for organizing a lecture series related to Imam, the JNUTA agrees but later backs out: no word why. Finally, those few Muslim and concerned students with all their vulnerability initiate Parcha, Poster and Protest: a grassroots mobilization in JNU consisting of distributing pamphlets on Imam, pasting his poster all over the campus, and staging a continuous protest against his arrest. They also organized a lecture series, perhaps small when compared to the one of 2016 but backed with a larger set of conscience, morality and ethics.

If it was not for these few students sloganeering “Chakka Jaam is not Sedition” and not for their continuous negotiation on campus, the campus would have willingly maintained the precarious silence on Imam to date. However, the resulting expression of solidarity from the campus remains fraught with terms, conditions and a lack of morality. The conditional solidarity bestowed on Imam only adds to the ever-growing list including Najeeb’s disappearance, which has disrupted the trust of Muslim students in JNU.

An identity is not only constructed upon origin but also upon journeys. The code of pseudo-morality set by civil society advocated for secular activism, avoidance of identity assertion and forging alliances at the cost of compromised aims. Imam challenged the code to its core. He structured Shaheen Bagh as a site of Muslim protest and a celebration of Muslim identity, he did mention and kept mentioning the movement as a Muslim outburst against the increasingly anti-Muslim character of Indian polity. Perhaps, the most objectionable for the leftist liberals was his demand for non-Muslim sympathizers to stand with Muslims on terms set by Muslims.

Hence, Imam’s identity as an unconventional Muslim activist/prisoner was established. Activists push the boundaries set by hegemonies; Imam demolished them. Since then, he has become a thorn for the leftist-liberal circle whose hegemony in politics was disrupted by Imam, his erudite scholarship and assertive Muslim activism.

As the night approaches, Imam has spent a total of a thousand nights behind bars. Who knows how many more nights are to be spent there? Yet, the solidarity expressed to Imam remains checked by terms and conditions. It seems that the price of challenging the pseudo-morality code of civil society has to be paid by experiencing the absence of real solidarity for Imam – not only from leftist liberals of civil society but also from some sections of Muslims. Such selective, conditional and immoral expression of solidarity is in denial of truth, reality and objectivity. In other words, it is unreal solidarity.

Imam deserves solidarity not because he has freedom of expression, because no one should be behind bars for a speech, or because calling for a road-blockade is not sedition – all this is secondary and filler phrases in the context of present-day Muslim resistance. Imam has to be supported with real solidarity – principled, ethical and unconditional – because he is a non-conformist and unconventional Muslim activist/prisoner. Because he is paying too big a price for rejuvenating the Muslim masses.

Tazeen Junaid
Tazeen Junaid
Tazeen Junaid is an independent researcher and is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy from Jamia Millia Islamia.

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