Dear Sharjeel Imam, you are in the news every day now, but what stands out for me is the day you gave yourself up to the police. That day, you said on social media: I have surrendered to the Delhi Police... I have full faith in due process of law. My safety and security are now in the hand of Delhi Police. Let peace prevail.”
I have to say, as a teacher, and as someone who spoke with you a couple of times a year ago that I felt comforted by your tweet. You are an educated young man, a researcher in modern Indian history from the prestigious Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a graduate from the premier IIT Bombay. With your education, to see you slip towards Right-wing Islamism had made me sad and disappointed.
Our brief conversations were enough to make me almost sure of your Rightward deviance. I had hoped and prayed that someday you would relent.
Now, during your arrest, you have sparked a small ray of hope by indicating that you have faith in the law; in the same legal system that you had derided and called various names two weeks ago, when you attacked the Constitution.
I understand that university students experiment with adventures and misadventures at the level of ideas. When we are young, our errors or (mis)adventures are taken for journeys within the realm of ideas. When we are no longer youthful, our ideas define us and our identity for the rest of our lives. Therefore, I had followed your “progress”.
I did not just hear your speech at Aligarh Muslim University, but also your recent writings and those of your associates, for example, an opinion piece on Faiz Ahmad Faiz, co-written by you a couple of years ago. In it, you had declared the Leftist poet an Islamic. The “coincidence” in this write-up is that the Hindutva Islamophobic state, when it was recently irked with Faiz’s poem, Hum Dekhengey, instituted an inquiry as to whether Faiz, indeed, was an Islamist. If they turn up the answer “yes”—and your article has provided the clues to get there despite evidence to the contrary—then the government would get the tool it needs to vilify and delegitimise the anti-NRC protesters as that of Muslim Right-wingers.
Your journey did not begin with AMU or Faiz, for your road to this point is littered with other “coincidences”. For example, your co-writer published an excerpt from a book written in 1909 by Hindutva ideologue, VD Savarkar, War of Independence. This is a short biography of Maulvi Ahmad and his heroic role in the 1857 movement. Oddly, neither the author nor the editor of the journal provided a disclaimer about the “evolution” of Savarkar’s ideas.
Savarkar went on to become a theoretician of anti-Muslim hatred. He wrote Hindutva in 1923, besides his clemency letters to the colonial state. All this is well known. The author/editor ignored the colonial state’s reward of a pension of Rs 60 a month to Savarkar, who then wrote Six Glorious Epochs, in which the rape of Muslim women is justified as a political weapon.
Your article, ‘It’s Time We Absolve Jinnah,’ that you wrote in May 2018, did not discuss what happened to Pakistani state and society which Jinnah created. The descent of Jinnah’s Pakistan into a theocratic state has pushed it into self-destruct mode, which it is struggling to emerge out of. There are questions whether the Pakistani state is genuinely struggling to do this.
True, Jinnah alone could not have led to Partition. State power was with the British and majoritarianism within and outside the Congress party was no less responsible. In the popular narratives of Partition historiography, this aspect has been downplayed. This has contributed much to anti-Muslim hatred in India. Moreover, the contemporary sub-continental majoritarianisms have much to do with such developments in the colonial era.
I patiently hoped that in due course, you would become a curious learner and examine all these multi-layered historical dimensions rather than play an exclusionary politics singularly based on Muslim victimhood.
Then I heard of your recent visits to AMU and that you apparently ran an Iqbal Study Circle with a small group of students, whom you reportedly recruited from another Islamist student outfit that had dropped its own banner. In the name of identity-assertion, this fringe group tried to introduce its politics into the anti-NRC protests led by AMU students. This partial overlap of identity-assertion and Right-wing Islamism made many people apprehensive and cautious.
On January 16, you told a small gathering of AMU students that Hindus would have to chant ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ in response to “Nara-e-Takbeer”, while Muslims would not chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Yours was an attempt to alienate those who would otherwise have strengthened the anti-NRC protests to safeguard the Constitution.
Earlier, you withdrew from the Shaheen Bagh protests. It is after this “withdrawal” that you landed in AMU. Aligarh Police and AMU’s administration allowed you to come in and deliver a long speech, a privilege that has raised eyebrows, for your speech was also filled with condemnable and silly remarks. You declared Gandhi the biggest fascist of the 20th Century. You warned eminent historian Irfan Habib not to speak on modern Indian history. This last is another “coincidence”—after all, the Right-wing majoritarian forces also want Prof Habib to stop speaking.
What entitles you—or them—to speak on every issue, but deny Prof Habib the same right?
What you did not say at AMU on January 16 is also very significant. You did not speak against the current regime, not as “eloquently” as you attacked all non-BJP forces. You attacked the Constitution, Gandhi, the Left and Congress regimes, but what about the Hindutva regime in power right now? Why does it not deserve your criticism?
Perhaps it is just as well that you are expressing faith in the Constitution’s rule of law at this moment—that should disabuse your followers of the salience of your proposals. No doubt, Shaheen Bagh could not be sabotaged by you. Nor did it fizzle out. Rather, your peripatetic protest-hopping has revealed you as one who prioritises identity over strengthening the social base of the anti-CAA-NPR-NRC agitations.
Many academics have critiqued the Constitution, but yours was a wholesale rejection. Is it just another coincidence that the Hindutva forces deride this document too? Don’t you know that they consider it an impediment on their way to Hindu Rashtra? Agreed, Indian secularism is insufficient, but you and your ideological bedfellows aspire for an Islamic theocratic state. You—and your followers—cannot hope to resolve this contradiction.
To me, many of your remarks are condemnable or deplorable or debatable or all of the above. But, they’re certainly not seditious. But a majoritarian state—whether you acknowledge it or not—is always looking for a Muslim to prove sedition. A non-Hindu is not spared.
A desperate regime, cornered and exposed on its blatantly discriminatory citizenship law, was frantically seeking one like you as a scapegoat; to use to declare all the protests across India unpatriotic. The road you took has impeded the protests, made them aware of the many pitfalls that lie ahead.
The bigoted state has slapped an archaic colonial law against you—the same law it uses for a selective witch-hunt against dissenters. Reports say that your family at Kako (in Jehanabad, Bihar) was harassed by the police. This was not done to Pragya Thakur, who praised Gandhi’s killer, or to Pooja Pandey of the Hindu Mahasabha, who shot at Gandhi’s effigy in Aligarh or to Giriraj Singh, who pours hate-filled, divisive, venomous remarks day in and out.
Nobody knows about the family of a Komal Sharma, identified among those who unleashed violence against JNU students and teachers on 5 January, but the police and media quickly got a hold of your family. They say your brother is with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, but his party has not come out openly against this witch-hunt against your family.
You, bearing a Muslim name, cannot be let off. But you, an aspirant of sorts to become a political trader of Muslim victimisation, were never unaware of the state’s discriminatory practices either. I, therefore, persuade you to give up Right-wing Islamism and resist all kinds of chauvinism across communities. Need I remind you, they feed upon each other?
There is a chance that once you emerge from these legal wrangles, your stature among Islamists would have grown. This is exactly what the state desires: Islamism to the rescue of Hindutva.
We students of history know how this ends.
Mohammad Sajjad teaches modern and contemporary Indian history at the Aligarh Muslim University. The views are personal.