First, they came for Sharjeel, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a critical thinker.
Then they came for the Umar, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a scholar with ideological baggage.
Then they came for all the Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This updated version of Martin Niemöller’s post-war poetic prose from 1946, known as “first they came,” which originally addressed Adolf Hitler and Nazi rule, resonates strongly with the situation in present-day India. Not only does it expose the intellectual hypocrisies that were initially evident among the Indian liberal-secular intelligentsia in the case of Sharjeel Imam, but it also—as the influence of the ruling ideology of Hindutva rapidly expanded—began to penetrate the previously secure spaces of secular and liberal circles, challenging and disrupting their attempts at maintaining a delicate balance. By sacrificing Sharjeel Imam to the altar of Indian secularism, liberals believed that they could save some erstwhile “idea of India” that was committed to the idea of a diverse yet tolerant society. Presently, however, unfolding events suggest that the impending storm is poised to affect anyone—not just “those radical mullahs”—who oppose Hindutva philosophy – transcending into a Hindu community with no political or social opposition to it.
Minutes turned into hours, hours into days, and days into years. This January 28 will mark four years since Sharjeel Imam’s political incarceration. Imam was a pioneer in many respects, but he became most notable for disrupting the longstanding trend of systematically depoliticising the Muslims of India. The enactment of the CAA/NRC law—one that threatens to make large swathes of Muslim citizens stateless if implemented—served as a catalyst for him and many others to step out of their academic comfort zones and agitate on the streets. They had anticipated the potential repercussions of a law that not only aimed to redefine and permanently shift the symbolic identity of the Indian state but also had deep implications for the economically disadvantaged and marginalised Muslim community in India. The implementation of the CAA would not only bring constitutional changes but also transform India’s social contract—earned through significant sacrifices by Muslims against British rule—into a symbolic Hindu state.
Besides having been educated at prestigious institutions like St. Xavier’s in Patna and holding BTech and MTech degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, Imam also gave up a job at a Danish bank that came with an annual salary upward of 37 lakh Indian rupees, equal to roughly forty-four thousand US dollars. Instead, he shifted his focus to social sciences, particularly history, this time at the reputable Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was an excellent student here as well, definitively challenging the existing discourse surrounding Indian historiography that had been dominated by mostly leftist, liberal, and nationalist perspectives. Sharjeel advocated for Muslims to know their own pasts, think their own thoughts, and write their own histories, a sentiment that runs heavily throughout his MPhil thesis.
Imam’s comprehensive critique was directed across the ideological spectrum, targeting not only the Indian National Congress but also key actors of both the Left and the Right. This made him a controversial figure not just in academia but also in politics, with his critical scholarship lacking any kind of support or engagement. Centering Muslims in the discussion surrounding politics—both social, economic, and electoral—was a radical newness in the Indian political sphere, which was met not with passive indifference, but with active hostility from all sides of the political debate.
Sharjeel Imam’s politics was no-nonsense, action-oriented, and pointedly disruptive of existing political power hierarchies that sought to disenfranchise Muslims politically and socially. His disillusionment with leftist student politics, his constructive internal critique of prominent Muslim religious organisations, and his establishment of the Eqbal Ahmed study circle—named after the famous decolonial thinker, also from Bihar—all point toward a pioneering mindset that had the effect of waking the common Muslim from his deep political slumber and start demanding what was rightfully his. Eqbal Ahmed, like his friend Edward Said, worked towards an anti-imperial pluriversal order, envisioning a world where indigenous communities could live alongside each other with dignity and respect. Imam, too, aspired to create a similar environment within the Indian context.
Sharjeel Imam’s contribution to the success of launching the Shaheen Bagh protests from the ground level up must not be forgotten. His speeches urging people at Shaheen Bagh to maintain an atmosphere of peace law and order are on record for everyone to see. Nevertheless, despite having been imprisoned for a month already, he was inexplicably implicated as the “mastermind” behind the Delhi riots in February 2020, underscoring the absurdity of the charges against him. He is being falsely portrayed as the originator of a new method for state disruption, with opposing political and social actors distorting his engagement with the rhetoric surrounding the idea of a “chakka jam”, which is a historical protest method that has been used by various political forces across the spectrum in India. Therefore, while it is tempting to think in terms of black or white, Sharjeel Imam cannot be easily categorised, reduced to binaries, or examined in fragments. He is a comprehensive thinker and pragmatic actor, possessing a rare historical insight, holistic understanding, and awareness of the consequences associated with both violent and non-violent movements in India.
Sadly, however, and to our detriment, the record stands to show that Sharjeel Imam was strategically targeted and abandoned by various organisations across the board that were operating under the assumption that the rapidly rising ideology of Hindutva would adhere to the limits defined by leftist, liberal, and liberal Muslim circles. However, over the course of four years, the consequences of this abandonment have become painfully evident. Hindutva is swiftly infiltrating various aspects of the cultural sphere, including literature, cinema, and advertising. This influence extends to homes, businesses, and public spaces, impacting not only the general public but also influential figures in the opposition. Even well-known “secular” personalities like Shahrukh Khan, Javed Akhtar, and Naseeruddin Shah, along with those labelled “Sarkari Musalmans,” are not immune to its reach. This “saffronisation,” as it has been called, has been accompanied by a rapid otherisation of India’s Muslim subjects, as Hindutva ideology categorises Muslims primarily based on race, overlooking social, class, or theological distinctions.
With the undermining of democratic institutions, the Supreme Court verdict on Article 370, the verdict from the same court on the Babri Masjid, the inauguration of the new Ram Mandir on its ruins in Ayodhya (erstwhile Faizabad), the ongoing dispute surrounding the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University, and with the ruling and implementation of the CAA/NRC law right around the corner, the struggle for democracy, justice, and constitutional morality is a challenging and enduring journey. Amidst this constant assault on the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of India, it is crucial for Muslims and the astute and far-sighted public sphere of India to not overlook their political prisoners. Sharjeel Imam, along with numerous other voiceless political prisoners, should not be reduced to mere statistics. Remembering Sharjeel Imam is, therefore, a crucial act of preserving and safeguarding collective memory, and recognizing that the ruling regime actively attempts to induce forgetfulness surrounding the people who have been on the frontlines—all through ongoing judicial processes, undue harassment and persecution, and systematic political and legal marginalisation.
Thus, in the ongoing psychological warfare that is marked by the persecution and imprisonment of Muslims, the main aim of the current regime is to cripple and erase our collective memory. It seeks to make us forget our political prisoners, overlooking the fact that the number of incarcerated Muslims in the country is disproportionate to their entire population. The regime intends to dim our awareness, numb our conscience, and disrupt our hope, ultimately convincing us that justice is an illusion and the fate of the state is predetermined. In response, we must construct new structures for a renewed project of memory and awareness, one that is predicated on remembrance as opposed to forgetfulness. Despite the challenges that face us today, our fight for justice and democratic freedom should persist, as in this process, remembrance becomes an act of resistance. The tradition of setting political prisoners free is a prophetic one, it is a unique form of resistance that underscores our struggle and counters the regime’s violent attempts to instil back-breaking hopelessness.