Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The scapegoating of Sharjeel Imam

Hanan Irfan and Mohd Kashif

A childhood tale goes like this: once Akbar drew a line on the soft earth with a stick. He asks Birbal to make the line smaller without touching it or altering it in any way. Birbal thinks for some time. He picks up the stick and draws a longer line next to the Akbar’s line. Hence Akbar’s line becomes “smaller” in front of Birbal’s line not by altering the previous line but simply by relating it to the new line. The story comes to mind watching certain defence arguments in court that are less about minimising one’s alleged criminality but emphasising the other’s criminality. Hence, your line remains the same, it just appears smaller in comparison to the picture of a larger ‘criminal’ painted by you before the court.

On 25 May, Wednesday, Umar Khalid‘s lawyer argued in Khalid’s bail hearing that Khalid was being unjustly lumped with communal elements who he neither agrees with nor supports. The argument emphasised that the association with such elements is harming his case which is otherwise quite simple and exonerating. The thorny element in his case is none other than Sharjeel Imam- the pioneer of the Shaheen Bagh movement, and anti-CAA NRC sit-in protests.

A strikingly similar argument was made by the lawyer of Pinjra Tod member Devangna Kalita during her bail hearings. The lawyer argued that the mere presence of Kalita at the protests doesn’t mean that she is a supporter of Sharjeel Imam.

Both these arguments plead re-interpreting their case dissociating it from any links with Sharjeel Imam. It is not to be forgotten that Sharjeel Imam is himself accused in cases of conspiracy and sedition. Accused, whose case and bail plea are under trial, very much like that of Khalid and Kalita’s. An accused who is as much a student hounded by the state as Khalid and Kalita. Instead of accepting Imam as a contemporary, Khalid and Kalita’s arguments presume his guilt has already been given and proven. The courts have not passed a verdict against Imam, he is very well determined on his way to argue his innocence and the flawed cases against him but it seems Khalid and Kalita’s counsel do not need the court’s verdict to already assume Imam as a convicted criminal. It is insinuated that the only source of their accusations is an association with Sharjeel Imam, sans which, they would be able to get off scot-free.

When Khalid’s and Kalita’s cases are based on the presumed guilt of Sharjeel Imam, it makes their innocence mutually exclusive to that of Imam’s. They must first and foremost establish Imam as communal, then prove themselves as opposed to Imam and thereby prove their dissociation from communalism itself. Hence, Khalid’s and Kalita’s arguments serve as right hands to Delhi police’s hounding of Muslim students. Sharjeel Imam has the added burden of not just contesting his innocence against the claims of the state but also from his contemporaries’ pleas.

Why is Sharjeel Imam being singled out?

Sharjeel Imam evokes strong sentiments whether it be from his supporters or opponents. Despite the malignancy campaign against him, it cannot be denied he continues to command formidable support among the Muslim masses, especially the youth. If one can gauge the popular youth sentiment on social media, it is apparent that Sharjeel Imam has become an inspiration to several young Muslims, leading by example with his unapologetic political assertion and activism.

It is no secret that Shaheen Bagh, although not a one-man show, was initially built on the ideas of one man. That itself forms the basis of allegations against him. Among the earliest attacks targeted solely at Imam, Times Now ran a “sting operation” exposing the Shaheen Bagh movement as an attempt to defame India. Since the earliest days, a narrative has been set into motion to criminalize the movement which could be easily done by criminalising the pioneer itself. After the movement was picked by other sections of the society, it was troublesome to criminalise the protests themselves so the blame has entirely shifted onto Sharjeel Imam. Khalid and Kalita’s lawyers have accused Imam of the same misgivings that the state, police and Hindu right accused the entire movement of being communal and divisive.

Khalid’s lawyer Pais accused Imam of being “deeply communal” unlike his client. It should be noted that Khalid’s counsel is merely parroting the claims of the Delhi Police against Imam by criminalising him over a few decontextualized speeches. It is surprising that of the two accused under similar circumstances, one chooses to favour the state narrative against another. Khalid must realise that endorsing the police narrative will harm his case too by giving relevance to frivolous allegations. Khalid’s counsel has perhaps realised that it is easier to prove Imam guilty than proving Khalid innocent hence an advantage of the situation is being taken to play along with the state, police and media’s Islamophobic narrative.

Is Sharjeel Imam communal?

As far as the allegation of communalism and method of protests are concerned, Sharjeel has well-articulated his ideas around the intellectual responsibility of mobilisation and protests. He said in his Aligarh speech:

Our attempt should be to get 500 Muslims and 500 non-Muslims to the street on our own terms, for our cause. All of us can get one Hindu on our terms, right? We don’t need anybody else’s help. If all we want is to save ourselves from being tagged communal, and it is not really the tag that matters, what matters is brutality, what matters is being alone and getting badly beaten up by the police. “

It is ironic that his rightful concerns about dehumanizing tags such as communal and sectarian, which have historic criminal usage of their own, are being used against him by counsels of political prisoners who themselves are victims of such stereotypical labelling that furthers dehumanisation of community.

It does Imam no favours that the lawyers of his contemporaries are aware of the notorious trope of Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim and have chosen to frame Imam as the latter. A good Muslim can exist only in relation, in presence and in comparison to a bad Muslim. A good Muslim’s goodness can only be emphasized through the bad Muslim’s badness. The essential question remains, what makes a Muslim bad? A Muslim is bad as deeply as he is associated with his Muslim Identity, any behaviour that trespasses the majoritarian expectations are terms as communal and sectarian which eases the process of criminalisation. Hence, Sharjeel Imam’s criminality is contingent on proving he is a fanatical Muslim, distant from the liberal secular values that Khalid and Kalita espouse.

Khalid’s counsel Pais emphasises “ideological differences” between the two which is a thinly veiled hint towards Khalid’s atheist proclamations versus Imam’s Muslim centric politics. There can only be ideological differences if one puts their ideologies on the table for comparison, Umar’s shifting political affiliations over years do not guarantee ideology but crystallise the claims that his political behaviour is relative to the situations, something we can also notice in the court proceedings where ideology and ideals collapse when it comes to reframing another contemporary as criminal, communal and ‘bad’.

The humanisation of Umar Khalid is contingent on the dehumanisation of Sharjeel Imam and entire Muslim politics as a whole. As such, Sharjeel Imam has been turned into a sacrificial lamb so that, such a caricatured picture of him can be painted before the court minimizes the presence of others. It is no less than a mercy petition; it is to say ‘Take him, but leave us’. When Imam’s case is itself under trial, and he has succeeded in securing several bails, what gives Khalid’s counsel the right to take his complicity as granted?

Neither the lawyers nor their clients seem to see any irony in parroting the exact state, police and rightwing narratives of communalism, divisiveness, and provocation against Imam with which the entire protests were once charged.


Sharjeel Imam’s crime is having led the movement against CAA and NRC for which he was hounded first by the media, then by the state and finally by his contemporaries. In absence of anything incriminating, his Muslim identity was framed as a noose around his neck. He is held to account for minor ‘infractions’ like greeting with a Salam which somehow proves his communalism.

The state has chosen to label every semblance of Muslimness as “communal”; Instead of countering such bad faith arguments, the case put forth by Khalid and Kalita re-enforce it and takes advantage of the same. These arguments are not only debilitating to Imam’s case but cause a roadblock toward the emergence of any consolidated Muslim movement in future. When a precedent in the court is being put forth by an accused Muslim himself to absolve him and punish the other, it casts a shadow over the future of Muslim politics and any assertion of Muslim identity. Presupposing Imam’s complicity based on “ideological differences” incriminates everyone of that ideology- this would have far-reaching consequences on Indian Muslims, beyond Imam.

Such actions deal a heavy blow to intra-community solidarity and trust, that people accused of similar allegations are not only pinning their hopes on but looking forward to the prosecution of one man to absolve the rest. But we certainly hope such malicious agendas will fail miserably and consequently, Sharjeel will be released from the prison as a free man.

Hanan Irfan is an engineering student and independent writer in Kolkata while Mohd Kashif completed Masters in French and Francophone Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.


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