On a winter’s Sunday, a lean man stood in the middle of a crowd and asked people of Shaheen Bagh to sit and perform the afternoon prayer right there. On his left was Amanatullah Khan, the sitting MLA urging the crowd to march towards the Home Minister’s office. Imam, knowing how Khan’s move could turn out, reiterated to everyone to sit and block their own road so that they could register their protest against the discriminatory CAA and NRC Act. People chose Imam and sat on the road marking the beginning of Shaheen Bagh protests.
Sharjeel Imam, a well known and recognised name, forebearer of anti-CAA/NRC protest is more than just a political name, he often escapes many gazes for his political aura. It is necessary to remark that he is a terrific scholar of critical attributes who led a movement against CAA/NRC that marked its footprint on the walls of history.
Sharjeel Imam completed his graduation and post-graduation from IIT-B in CS, worked in Corporate for some time and later joined Masters in History in JNU, completed MPhil and was enrolled in PhD in the same discipline when he was incarcerated for the alleged “seditious” speech delivered at AMU, taken out of context and sensationalised by the media.
A friend of Imam while describing Imam’s time in IIT-B remarked “He was a brain magnet, his room used to host dozens of students and he loved to make sure everyone ate”. Qualities of Imam that I can testify to. Another friend from IIT, while remembering his days, told me about Imam’s passion for video gaming, recounting his excellent Dota records and counter strike kills while mentioning his passion for coding and programming. Imam lived in Bangalore after leaving the IIT-B campus in 2011. He made decent money in the IT capital of India and spent most of it in buying books for himself and sustaining his family. Something of an uncanny ability of Imam that he never spent money on movies, malls, etc he would rather buy more and more books.
Imam narrated many incidents from his days in IIT, Although his life in IIT was smooth, some of the incidents were not so pleasing. We all know IITs are well known for their institutionalised Islamophobia and casteism. One of the incidents was of an “interview” by his seniors that he recounted to us, wherein, his seniors vetoed his entry from the senior wing due to his religious background. Imam being the only Muslim in his undergrad batch had to also deal with months of efforts of “gharwapsi” from seniors, he was also imposed with islamophobic literature. This is documented by Imam himself in one of his articles.
I met Sharjeel Imam on a random evening in a friend’s room. Those were the days of his MPhil research, and he would often engage with a lot of people on the topic. This is common with most JNU research scholars, and as his research was focused on the 1946 Exodus of Muslims in Bihar, he often discussed it with his friends and acquaintances, narrating to them in detail the incidents that he encountered during his research. With his epistemic wisdom and intellectual ability, he would fetch back past events and make them come to life. One of the most important aspects of his narration was his critical attitude towards the past and the way it has affected the larger Muslim politics in the subcontinent. Imam didn’t approach politics from a subjective point of view but it was more objective and grounded in the present-day suffering of the majority of the vulnerable sections of the society. While representing the character of Sharjeel Imam and his politics, most groups and people often portray him as a radical but he vehemently spoke as well as wrote about the question of caste and other social evils within the Muslim community.
As a close friend, I saw Imam as a person with an analytical mind and ingrained generosity. I bring both aspects of him together since it is not likely to find these attributes complementing each other so perfectly as they do with Imam. He is always gentle in his behaviour and kind in his words. Intellectual arrogance which is a key feature of our academic life on campus was completely missing in him. I write this piece on Imam as a friend, a companion who observed and lived with him before he became a common name. My intention is to humanise the character that has now come to be seen incorrectly only in extremes. He was a natural teacher, everything he read or researched, he would narrate to his colleagues every morning. He published several articles on renowned platforms like TRT, The Wire, Firstpost and Thequint, etc. Many times it occurred that his articles were not publishedà, and he would send them to local media channels. His motive was to learn and to educate. Despite the several times he was quoted and published by respected platforms, he celebrated each one of them like a small win. He would treat us to chai, cold coffee or kebabs. The popular image of Imam as a radical in media is a caricatured one. Far from it, he is a generous scholar and I’d like to say, more than his intellectual rigour, it is his humility that drew people towards him. He articulated his understanding of education and the role of scholars in his Aligarh speech, wherein he said,
“If you are a scholar, your responsibility is to be on the streets, not stay confined to the campus. If you are educated, it is your responsibility to educate the masses.”
A sense of responsibility towards the community and a well-articulated understanding of “dos and don’ts” is to be found in him. His speech is a guide to many upcoming leadership and activists in all domains of politics and political activism. He didn’t deviate from his firm principles and no one can disagree, not even the people who disagree with him in all respects, that all his speeches, if anything, are educative and push us to read and learn more. His speeches provoke scholars and scholarship within all students of social sciences which he himself belonged to, likewise, any non-academic person can learn from them since his language is of the masses. Imam through his simple and firm language bridged the gap between academic and non-academic worlds, a binary created to keep knowledge in the hands of few. Even when he wrote on social media, he wrote in romanised Urdu/Hindi so that his words could reach most people, especially to his targeted audience which is otherwise not a common feature to be found among scholars of elite institutes.
Apart from socio-political discourse, Imam was immensely fond of poetry. He would break down poetries from Qawwalis in Persian, Arabic and Urdu. He would often quote Rumi, Hafez and Jami in their original texts and explain the meaning and themes of those texts. Few people know that it was he who designed an online Urdu dictionary for Rekhta called Qafiya which was the first of its kind. And just before the last month of the year that would erupt in a mass led anti CAA movement, Sharjeel imam was teaching Urdu to mostly Non-Muslim and Malayali Muslim students. He is a polyglot, excellent in Urdu, Arabic and Persian and as such was able to have a perspective on global Muslim politics as well that escapes many English speaking Muslims.
Sharjeel Imam organised a protest cum public talk on the day of the Supreme court’s Ayodhya verdict. Sharjeel willed to protest on the same day when top political bodies called to avoid any protests. Even most of the Left organisations who claim to be the champions of equality and social justice turned a blind eye towards the injustice that was committed and refrained from joining the call given by Sharjeel and other Muslim students of the campus. The depoliticisation of Muslims by political bodies is a long process that was put to an end by Imam symbolically by protesting that day. He organised a talk, and charted out the problematic aspects of the judgement, showed the biases of the court and made sure that at least there is one group that had protested against the injustice committed against Muslims. To this day, his efforts have been terrific and have produced useful outcomes. He always believed in his community, the same community is giving him back in all their capacity by praying for him, remembering and writing on him.
Even in Tihar, Sharjeel has come to be known for his generosity. Every other week he speaks to his brother, not for himself but instead trying to reach out to families of undertrial poor prisoners. He directed his brother to avail bonding for bail and seek lawyers for prisoners who don’t have the facilities to afford it. It is his scholarly responsibility and ingrained empathy that transcends his own conditions to seek out help for others. It is this specific force that brought him to Shaheen Bagh to protest against discriminatory laws. Among his friends on campus including staff workers who would often sit with him late at night, misses him today and narrates incidents that they remember of him. A young boy who also works and lives on campus inquires about the well being of Imam. Imam is remembered and cherished by dozens of his colleagues and friends, and his efforts are well recognised among all sections of society.
No doubt that Sharjeel is a bright mind, enough has been written on it but what people forget to mention is that he is also a person with courage. His courage is the raison d’être for a movement like Shaheen Bagh and his contribution to the movement is very well documented. Many wished to devoid Shaheen Bagh of Sharjeel Imam, but you cannot have a tree without its roots. It is common knowledge that the brain and courage behind the massive nationwide protests that rattled the whole globe in their quest for justice, was none other than Sharjeel Imam, and it all started one winter evening with a group of 50 people.
His journey from IIT to JNU to Shaheen Bagh to Tihar is a fascinating one. Even in Tihar, he has been able to project a strong-willed self to his family, supporters and well-wishers. Every time someone has gone to meet Sharjeel Imam in jail, in court, or has spoken to him or seen him being escorted out by the police, they have all remarked the same thing. ‘He looks healthy’, ‘He looks in great shape’, ‘He looks completely fine’. They all remark that he is always laughing like his usual self, he always enquires about every friend specifically, with their names, and he still jokes a lot.
However, I have known Imam and I know this is not how Imam dressed on campus. His kurtas didn’t have buttons, his beard was unkempt and his hair was always dishevelled. This complete reversal of his image and grooming after going to jail is no coincidence. I know it is a very conscious effort to put up an image of strength and dignity before his friends and well-wishers. Make no mistake, no one can be thriving in jail. Sure he used to laugh and joke the same way on campus but jail tends to break the best of us. Imam knows this and he knows how much this must worry his family, his friends and his supporters. His composure, his sudden grooming, his trimmed beard, neat and proper formal clothes, his jokes behind the prison wall are all markers of resistance. He is making extraordinary efforts to present this image of being calm in order to give us strength. And it is true, it is a powerful image he has managed to put up and it indeed gives us strength to see him laugh and appear well-groomed when we are all worried about him. It is no ordinary task and I cannot imagine the amount of effort he is putting in to hide the toll that more than a year of imprisonment must have taken on him. More than that, I am still in awe that despite the circumstances he is in, he has strategically thought of every minute action of his. Instead of individualising his struggle and oppression, he chose to project an image of resilience. Even now, whenever we speak to Imam, it is he who gives us strength, instead of the other way round.
Mohd Kashif completed Masters in French and Francophone Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.