Sharjeel Imam and the Limits of Hindu Liberalism

By Arshad Alam

The purported speech by Sharjeel Imam, which is being labelled as seditious, hardly appears to be so when viewed in its entirety. Largely critical of the strategy of the present anti CAA movement, Imam is heard saying that the sit-ins that one is witnessing in various places will not serve the purpose. Instead of protesting inside campuses like Jamia and Aligarh, he urges students to move out and take their protests to more public spaces. In the same breath, he also discusses how the present movement should help the anti CAA movement in Assam by blocking off the chicken’s neck, the narrow strip of land which connects the north-east to the rest of India. However, in saying so, nowhere is he giving a call for violence or to rise against the state. The whole purpose of the speech is that through this strategy, the government might be forced to listen to the protestors which it has so far rather rudely ignored. One can certainly argue that it was foolish on his part to say such a thing in the current context, but then it is definitely not seditious to discuss strategies as to how the movement against CAA can become more effective or even how the government can be forced to respond to the movement.

It is worth recalling that people have gotten away with far worse in this country. In 2008, the right wingers in Jammu blocked the national highway for almost a month, thereby actually cutting off Kashmir from the rest of India and yet nothing happened to them. We have our very own Pragya Thakur, who called Godse as a patriot and yet she manages to sit in the parliament of India. Puja Shakun Pandey, who shot at the effigy of Gandhi is still free to propagate her hatred towards the father of the nation. There are many, sitting in high offices today, who have made a career out of demonising Muslims. Just a couple of days ago, the political secretary of the chief minister of Karnataka openly declared that he ‘will put Muslims in their place’ if they continue to agitate against CAA. This government can certainly entertain the Bodos and enter into a pact with them, although some of them have been armed militants but will not talk to Muslims regarding their legitimate fears and apprehensions. There have certainly been calls to revoke Muslim voting rights in the past and yet we hardly see righteous anger against such utterances. Rather, we see a pattern: that all those who have demonised Muslims have been rewarded either by the public or the government. Clearly, there are different yardsticks for measuring patriotism when it comes to Hindus and Muslims. Hindus can actually get away even when they exhort for violence; Muslims must be punished merely for making a speech.

Disturbingly, this hypocrisy is not just limited to the Hindu right wing but also extends to the Hindu liberals. In Sharjeel’s case, we see his complete disowning by the liberals and the left. The same voices who campaigned against sedition charges slapped on Kanhaiya Kumar are now silent when the same charges have been slapped against Imam. And not just silence, liberal voices have also been demanding that he be arrested and put behind bars. I shudder to think that such differing response is related to the different religious identities of these two individuals. I thought the liberal establishment of this country was fundamentally opposed to the very idea and law of sedition itself. But then, going by what some have said on the issue, one is forced to think that their liberalism is only skin deep. Far worse, it appears that their liberalism is selectively applied when it comes to Muslims. How else do we explain the silence of liberal universities like JNU over the imminent arrest of one of their students? How else should we understand the almost fanatical campaign by a section of the left for his immediate arrest? How else should we understand the fact that most radical voices against sedition have opted for an indifferent silence on this issue?

One possible answer is that Sharjeel has been an outspoken critic of the left as well as the congress. On various occasions, he has directly linked the deprivation of Muslims in West Bengal with the policies of the then left front government. He has been critical of ‘caricatures’ like Kanhaiya Kumar who have been using Muslim protest sites to bolster their own image and following. Is it not a legitimate question to ask why the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar are not organizing the Hindus of Begusarai against CAA? Is it not a legitimate question to ask as to how the national imagination of the left is any different from either the congress or the BJP when it comes to Muslims? Similarly, he has called out the Congress party for various anti-Muslim massacres which have taken place under its aegis. Is it not legitimate to question the Congress’ complicity on the Babri mosque issue? What is the problem if Sharjeel asks Muslims to find their own voice rather than being led by the congress and the left? Or is it that this precisely is the problem which the liberal establishment has with this person?

For years, Muslims have charted a political trajectory wherein they have taken the back seat and have allowed parties to represent them. These parties have in turn duped the Muslims and have used them only for their votes. This has become very clear during the anti-CAA protests wherein so-called secular parties who have depended on the Muslim vote, have hardly hit the streets to show solidarity with Muslims. There is a growing realisation within Muslims that now they have to chart their own political course and Sharjeel and many others like him are the products of this internal churning within the community. It is perhaps this phenomenon of Muslim assertiveness that riles the liberals and the left. This is perhaps the sole reason why they are targeting him and calling for his arrest. One can certainly have differences with Sharjeel’s viewpoint but not defending him at this moment only means that Hindu liberalism is not principally opposed to this draconian law of sedition. It also means that they share, with the Hindu right, some of core propositions of how a minority should relate to the nation.

History will remember these so called custodians of the idea of India that when a Muslim student was hounded by Hindu right-wingers, they just stood aside and watched. Worse, some of them became willing accomplices in this religious targeting.

(Arshad Alam is an independent researcher and comments on social and political issues.)



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