Worldview in a cell: a Muslim political prisoner’s insight

Sharjeel Imam is a prominent Muslim student activist and JNU research student who is in jail facing draconian UAPA and sedition for making speeches during the mass protests against Citizenship Amendment Act. Courtesy of Rehan Khan.

Sharjeel Imam, a prominent Muslim student activist and JNU research student who is in jail facing draconian UAPA and sedition for making speeches during the mass protests against Citizenship Amendment Act, wrote this article from Tihar Jail on 10 September.

I am still unable to fathom the depth of the transformation that has affected me in these years in jail. There are two aspects of it, one is how I see my own self and how I behave and the other is how others see me and think about me. It is obvious that these two aspects are in a dialectic relation with each other. 

Let us consider the second aspect first, what am I for others? 

I am different things to different sets of people. For large number of people, I am a terrorist, who as the establishment tells them, conspired to cause riots in Delhi. It doesn’t matter that the riots happened a month after my arrest, I am still portrayed as a terrorist responsible for those riots. Then there is another group of people who are more discerning who say that “He is no terrorist but he is a deshdrohi for sure.” This discerning set of people judge me on the basis of their belief that I wanted to cut Assam from India. Then there is a third group of people which calls me a wannabe politician who wanted to provoke and get famous overnight and got what he deserved. A large number of people inside and outside jail comprise these three groups of people who justify my incarceration, they don’t want to know more about me and are content with the reflection that the media feeds them and depending on the intensity of their political convictions, either hate me, abhor me or hold me in contempt.

Besides this spectrum of people who wish more prison time for me, there is a spectrum of sympathizers who feel that I have been unjustly imprisoned. The most moderate of this spectrum is right next to the last group of the previous spectrum. They say “Yes, he is a wannabe politician. Yes, he did provoke to get famous. But you can’t keep someone in prison for years just for one speech. He is after all a college student, not a terrorist.” Although I don’t think this line of thought is very helpful, but thanks anyway. 

Beyond this group, lies a people who think that I was speaking against the assault on Muslims by the current dispensation and may have overstepped the line a little bit, but nevertheless was fighting a noble fight and have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. This set of people is largely anti- BJP and sees the point of anti-CAA protest and sympathize with Muslims. This set gives me hope for the future. 

Next to this are the vast majority of poor Muslims who despite their ignorance of CAA or lack of sophisticated knowledge about the working of our parliamentary democracy are intuitively sympathetic towards me. They have been facing the brunt of poverty as well as violence in this increasingly majoritarian and regressive society. The love I’ve received from them keeps me content and motivated at the same time. Their gestures move me in a way as nothing else has moved me in my life ever. They might not immediately understand everything I’ve said or written in my life but they relate to most of it, for sure. The notions of equality and justice need little elaboration. They are the largest set of sympathizers and the most important ones.

Now to the first aspect, how do I see myself?

To give some perspective, I was 31 and a half years old when I was sent to jail and I’m over 34 years now. I entered college (IIT Bombay) 16 years ago in 2006, started working as a software engineer in 2011, and continued doing so till I was sent to jail. I started studying history in JNU in 2013 and completed my M.Phil thesis in 2017 and was writing my Ph.D. dissertation when I was sent to jail in 2020. As of now, my evolving self-image can be described using two distinct but overlapping sets of ideas, one political and the other religious. I have given a very concise description of these two sets below:

The political set would comprise those who understand the concerns about nationalism, centralization, majoritarianism, first past the post (FPTP) election system, exclusion of valid Muslims and Christians from SC category, etc. This set would hence, in those demands for decentralization, autonomy of provinces, proportional representation as a way of elections, reservations of Muslims and Christian Dalits, equality of opportunity for backward castes, safeguard linguistic and religious minorities, public ownership of large enterprises, and so on. In short, towards a fuller appraisal of the systemic flaws in our system and appraisal of that poisonous ideology called nationalism and a fuller understanding of democracy, social justice, socialism, minority rights, and federalism. In the context to South Asian history, we have to follow and engage with the ideas of Ambedkar, Jinnah, Lohia, and Periyar.

The religious set would consist of Muslims who as the upholders of the Qur’anic mandate are ready to struggle against the clerical hold of Islam and all its evil manifestation and other vestiges of the bygone era: sectarianism, superstition, nativism, casteism, patriarchy, and arbitrary limits on individual freedom. Personally, I may differ with and critique Maulana Azad’s political analysis of the Indian National Congress but there are few Muslims who could equal him in religious scholarship in the 20th century in South Asia, especially clear and powerful commentary of the Quran, in which he declares: 

“The Quran tells us again and again that religion (deen) is same in all revealed faiths of mankind, tauheed (monotheism) implies equality and brotherhood of mankind, and jaza-o-saza (Judgement Day) which implies justice and emphasis of noble deeds. Everything else forms the non-fundamental even if necessary aspect of this fundamental core of deen in various religious communities. Muslims or non-Muslims, Shia or Sunni, salvation is a right of every honest and pious believer.”  [Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman Al-Qur’an, Vol. 2 – See his notes on Verse 2:62, 5:48, 5:69, 2:177, 3:113 and in Vol. 3 10:1, etc]

One of the most important implications of our religious belief is that any natural resources and public wealth belong to God and humanity at large and not to individual persons or nations. Islam is the religion of individuals seeking justice. Non-Muslims engaged in similar struggle against their religious establishments would also be, I expect, sympathetic towards me. This simple yet effective description of my faith may seem crude and naive to some, blasphemous to other but it is a well-trodden path laid down by the modern masters and here follow the lead of Maulana Azad, Allama Iqbal, and Ali Shariati of the Iranian revolution and above all the master of these masters, the ultimate fountainhead, the Prophet (PBUH) himself. I would describe myself in the same words as Ghalib uses to describe himself: 

Ghulam-e Saqi-i Kusar hon mujko gham kya hai

I am the slave of (divine) bartender of Kausar, why I should be worried

Saqi: Bartender/cupbearer

Kausar: a sacred lake called the “pond of abundance” in Paradise

Saqi-i Kausar: Is a figurative expression for Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as well for Hazrat Ali

And I stand with Faiz Ahmed Faiz when he hopes for Prophet’s guidance towards justice and against oppression when he writes in his Persian Ode to the Prophet:

Bayad ki zalimaan-i jahan ra sada kunad

Rozi beso-ye adal-o-inayat sada-ye tu

It is obligatory that, one day the oppressors of the world should be called to respond to your voice that leads to justice and compassion.

Before coming to jail I had known personally but a few people of these two groups mentioned above and even fewer if one looks at the intersection of these two groups. I hope and pray to God that a good number of people I meet outside would fall in that intersecting set, that set which, in my opinion, is the most urgent requirement of our society.

A word about the communist:

I am not anti-communist and by that, I mean that their positive contributions towards the most fruitful political economic analysis of recent human history and contributions towards class struggles, against superstition, against ugly ideologies of capitalism, these would obviously and naturally be incorporated into any further future development of the human thought but what is problematic about them is that they claim that dialectic materialism is a science even though materialistic ontology has been abandoned by physics over a century ago. Moreover, even before Heisenberg and the quantum revolution which led to the demise of both materialistic ontology and strict determinism, even before Einstein’s revolution of relativity which led to the dismantling of a priori and independent concepts of ‘space and time’, even before these events it has been recognized that the orthodox Marxist approach towards human history was narrow-minded, inspired as it was by the simplicity of deterministic Newtonian mechanics something which led to what was called the science of dialectical materialism.

This misplaced confidence of true scientific knowledge led to the sort of totalitarianism which we have witnessed in some communist societies, much like the totalitarianism of some contemporary Muslim societies where the establishment seeks to force faith down the throats of its citizens as verifiable truth. Besides, it is this obsession with scientific basis for what is essentially a social theory that creates problems such as their characterization of mobilization by an oppressed caste ethnicity or religious minority as reactionary identity politics, something which they claim is against the scientific course of human history. This also leads to their rejection of revolutionary religious impulse as petty bourgeois illusions.

This is a brief and concise description of how I see myself at present, a lot will change with more experience and knowledge, but I have presented above the fundamental contours of my political and religious beliefs. I now invite the reader to judge for themselves and tell me who am I. I leave you with two couplets, one from Rumi:

Na az Hindam, Na az Chinam, Na az Bulgar-o-Saqsinam

Na az Mulk-I Iraqinam, Na az khake-i Khurasanam

I am neither from India, nor China, nor Bulgaria, or Saqsin (part of Turkmenistan and Russia)

I am not from the state of Iraq, nor from the lands of Khurasan (a vast land lying in modern northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan)

and another by Iqbal who following in the footsteps of his master Rumi writes 6 centuries later and conveys the same thought in Urdu, 

Darvish-i Khuda mast na sharqi hai na Garbi,

Ghar mera na Dili, na Safhan na Samarqand

An ascetic devoted to God belongs to neither East nor west. Similarly, my home belongs to neither Delhi nor Isfahan or Samarqand

Safhan: A city in central Iran, popularly known as Isfahan

Samarqand:  Southeastern city of Uzbekistan