Snehesh Alex Philip
Police forces in as many as five states are on the lookout for JNU student Sharjeel Imam over a controversial speech at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) this month, but his family has said he is a meritorious student who is being subjected to a witch-hunt.
“They are just tarnishing my son’s image, he has done nothing wrong,” Afshan Rahim, mother of the 32-year-old PhD scholar in Modern Indian History and an IIT graduate, told ThePrint.
Rahim said her son’s comments are being twisted and taken out of context.
She was referring to the viral video of Imam’s AMU speech on 16 January in which he purportedly sought road blocks as a means to cut off the chicken’s neck from India as part of anti-CAA and NRC protests.
“Assam aur India katke alag ho jaaye, tabhi ye humari baat sunenge (Only once India and Assam are cut off from each other will they listen to us),” he can be heard as saying in the video.
Sharjeel Imam, who has gained traction over the past month for being a vocal critic of the CAA and an initial organiser of the Shaheen Bagh protests in the national capital, was allegedly seeking unity in protests in the region as CAA-NRC will severely hurt “the Hindu and Muslim Bengalis in the Northeast”.
After a political row ensued over the “communal” nature of his speech, state police in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Delhi filed sedition cases against him.
Speaking to ThePrint, Imam’s uncle Aurangzeb Arman said, “He is a bright young man who was fighting against CAA-NRC. The media is portraying him as the villain by taking 3 minutes out of a 40-minute speech.”
Arman said the family will cooperate with the police and the courts. “It is for the courts to now decide whether or not it was okay to take those 3 minutes out of context. We have full faith in the judiciary.”
Sharjeel Imam has been absconding since Sunday morning, when the FIR was first registered against him.
The Jehanabad police in Bihar raided Imam’s home in Kako late Sunday and questioned his family members, including his younger brother and journalism student Muzammil Imam and Rahim, on his whereabouts.
From IIT to JNU
Born and brought up in the Jehanabad district of Bihar, Sharjeel Imam’s childhood was spent amid books — oscillating between history and computer science at his missionary school in Patna.
When he scored 98 out of 100 in computer science in his 12th board examinations, his teacher was shocked, Arman told ThePrint.
“His teacher sent his copy for re-checking, because they couldn’t fathom how someone like Sharjeel didn’t score 100/100. That’s how smart he was considered by his teachers,” Arman said.
Afreen Fatima, Imam’s friend from JNU, described him as “extremely knowledgeable”.
“I don’t know anyone who has such a strong hold over Indian history. He could talk about Eqbal Ahmad and Allama Iqbal at length.”
Imam completed his schooling in 2006, and cleared the JEE entrance exam in the first attempt. He secured a spot in the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, for a B.Tech in computer science.
Imam has previously written about how he was the sole Muslim in a class of 200 undergraduates.
“…Many rumours and prejudices against Muslims were propagated and taken as truth by many ill-informed Hindu students, as there were no Muslims to debunk them,” Imam wrote in 2017.
After graduation, Sharjeel Imam joined a software company in Bengaluru and spent 2 years there.
“At his job, he had the opportunity to go to Europe multiple times. We told him to stick to his comfortable life, now that his job had even opened doors of European countries,” said Arman.
However, disgruntled at the lack of Muslim representation in his college education as well as corporate setup, Imam made up his mind about quitting his job and switching to a life in social sciences. His father Akbar Imam, too, had worked as a social worker and was closely affiliated with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).
Akbar unsuccessfully contested as JD(U)’s candidate from the Jehanabad constituency in the 2005 assembly elections. He died in 2014 after battling cancer for several years.
Imam turned to Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2013 in the hope of a more egalitarian environment, but the institution too left him disappointed.
‘Islamophobia of the Left’
After Sharjeel Imam took admission in JNU as an MA student due to its “reputation as the fort of secularism and struggles against oppressive forces”, he was immediately impressed by the Left forces in the campus.
Imam joined the All India Students Association (AISA) — the student wing of the CPI(ML). In 2015, he even contested for the JNU Student Union’s elections for the post of the councillor as AISA’s candidate.
But around this time, Imam began perceiving how Islamophobia was “rampant in the progressive’ campus”.
“The anti-Islamic zeal of our comrades is not much different from the zeal of ill-informed Hindu students in the IITs, at least as far as the content of the debates is concerned,” he wrote in an article.
When JNU student Najeeb Ahmad mysteriously disappeared from the campus in October 2016 after a scuffle with a group of ABVP students, Imam criticised the Left for its “tokenistic support” to Najeeb, its fear-mongering and what he called its “inherent anti-Muslim nature”.
Imam called Ahmad’s disappearance and subsequent reaction of the Left parties as the “last straw”, following which he quit AISA in late 2016. His exit from a student political party, however, made him more political and vocal in his views.
“This is what forced me out of my politically inactive state, as I severed my ties with the party, and started speaking against AISA-SFI (Students’ Federation of India) narrative,” he wrote.
Since then, Imam has written multiple articles calling out liberals for their Islamophobia. He had also hit out at many liberals for supporting Kanhaiya Kumar over RJD’s Begusarai candidate Tanvir Hasan.
However, Imam’s uncle said his family doesn’t know much about his political affiliations in JNU.
“We didn’t know about his politics, or his day-to-day schedule in the university. All we know with certainty is that he was a born genius — he got through IIT, MA, M.Phil and PhD. This isn’t an easy feat,” Arman said.
The ‘chakka jam’ politics
Now, as Sharjeel Imam gets embroiled in a controversy over his allegedly seditious speech, his friend said his approach to protest has always been about getting the government’s attention.
“Since day 1, Sharjeel has talked about how our protests can get the attention of the government and the civil society. The government doesn’t care about us, especially Muslims, so his call to ‘chakka jam’ (road blocks) was merely an attempt to make the government listen to us,” said Fatima.
His conception behind the Shaheen Bagh protests stemmed from the same idea, she said.
“He knew the only way to get the people in Delhi to pay attention to our woes was a road blockade. That’s how Shaheen Bagh happened,” she said.
Imam was one of the initial organisers of the Shaheen Bagh protests but called it off on 4 January to “avoid politicisation of the stage by parties”. The protests continued nonetheless, with women protestors taking charge. On 25 January, after the political row over his speech, Shaheen Bagh protestors issued a statement distancing themselves from Imam’s remarks and said the protest has “no sole organiser”.
Fatima said she understands why Imam’s speech won’t be palatable to many, and why it is being dismissed as “communal” and “impulsive”.
“If I would’ve heard him speak for the first time, I too would have reacted the same way. But because I’ve been working with him, I know exactly what he meant,” she said.