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Sharjeel Imam: A voice of today’s Muslims framed as a ‘fringe’

This letter has been written by the author as a response to the previously published open letter by Mohammad Sajjad on Sharjeel Imam.

Prof Mohd Sajjad

I happened to have read an open letter by you to Sharjeel Imam. First, congratulations that you took to writing an open letter to a student who is at the witch hunt of the State with some draconian charges against him, who surrendered before the Police and is being made a scapegoat to satiate the vicious fantasies of the nation that seeks to stereotype him as a secessionist, misquoting his words, cherrypicking a two minute clip from his forty minute long speech, demonised in the larger project of delegitimising the anti-CAA protests as the voice of such Muslims who seek to secede, are anti-nationals, averse to the very cause that they are fighting for, reclaiming their citizenship that is at stake, contrary to what the media and the right wing want the masses to believe.

Second, thank you for your ‘concern’ that you have expressed for him. From your letter, it is evident now that you and your ilk’s ‘concern’ for him whose posts are doing rounds on social media is now bordering obsession. And this obsession is making you and your ilk a laughing stock and is depriving you the intellectual integrity, objectivity and letting you put your words in the mouth of a person who is not present to reply to your character assassination veiled as a ‘concern’ and scholarly critic.

I understand very well that you had an argument with him, you and your ilk blocked him that you confess in your letter to him and it’s completely okay that you are writing open letters and posts against him but it would have been better had you dropped the pretence and accepted that your letter aims at a call for boycotting him addressed to the Left, The Right, the Centre alike. Your ranting against the Left Liberal portals like the Wire indulging him, his landing in AMU to address the students, his ‘indoctrinating’ the students hint at nothing but this concern while writing these conspiracy theories and running on your wild speculations and informers with ‘I am told’ assertions.

You begin your letter with mentioning his research at the prestigious Centre for Historical Studies and having graduated from the prestigious IIT Bombay, expressing your sadness and disappointment at his ‘slipping towards Right Wing Islamism’.  You seem to be in utter exasperation and hopelessness saying that ‘you had become sure of his Right Wing deviance’ a year before when you snapped all contacts with him. May I ask you what do you mean by Islamism here? What are the grounds for being ‘sure’ about his deviance?

You very painfully write that students at his age experiment with ‘misadventures’ before they settle down with their ideas and Imam have settled down with Islamism. While we are all experimenting, it’s you who seem to have settled down with branding him on grounds which are sheer fantasies, backed by slanders, grudges, turning one’s political stand into religious and ideological into personal.

So, a scholar-activist who works for sometime at IIT as a teaching assistant, goes to Copenhagen after his M tech, leaves his handsome salary to come for a masters in History at JNU and goes on to do his Ph D, works with the Left parties on the campus for quite some time only to be left disgruntled because he has some opinions and questions and is disappointed with the Left which makes him question his existence everyday while itself remaining religiously Brahminised, has, for you, settled with his Rightist deviance.

As someone who knows him, I believe that a person experimenting with Faiz, Iqbal, Ambedkar, Perry Anderson, working trying to make sense of Hindu nationalism and its roots, Western liberalism, territorial nationalism and the enormous crimes it committed, the secular-atheist Progressivism that makes a Muslim question and justify his existence everyday, engaging with Leftists like Eqbal Ahmad in his efforts in creating an intellectual front against occupation in Kashmir and imperialism of West is not as lopsided as you are.

You mention an article by Sharjeel and his co-author on Faiz Ahmad Faiz from 3rd Feb, 2017. You argue that much before the Hindutva forces came after slogans from Faiz’s nazm raised in anti-CAA protests, the authors presented the poet as Islamic. I would have appreciated had you revisited the article and read the argument before pointing at the ‘coincidence’. The coincidence that makes you assert that he is on a Hindutva payroll.

While the Hindutva forces seek to make a Hindu-hating orthodox Muslim out of Faiz, the authors argued that Faiz has been forsaken by conservative and literalist Muslims who were afraid of revolutionary trends within the Muslim poets. While the Hindutva forces seek to narrow down Faiz and his poetry to the voice of a Hindu hating Muslim, the authors aimed at broadening the vision of the Indian Left which has always endorsed his poetry yet never ready to engage with the Unity of Being which entails breaking the idols of fundamentalism and bigotry and that this imagery comes from Islam. Both the Hindutva forces and the authors addressed the same set of people, with different meanings and aim.

If writing an article on Faiz addressing the revolutionary trends within his poetry and the blend of tradition and Marxism can be pointed as the root of Hindutva rejection of Faiz, would you write that if someone quotes Tagore and then Hindutva appropriates him, he is to be blamed for Hindu nationalism? Of course, you won’t. What kind of action reaction theories are you giving here? Do you think that the Hindutva creed read Sharjeel Imam’s article before making a fuss of Faiz recently?

You cite an excerpt by Savarkar’s book War of Independence posted on Heritagetimes, a short biography of Maulvi Ahmad and his heroic role in 1857. You put a question before the editor as to why didn’t he put a disclaimer about the evolution of Savarkar who went on to become a theoretician of anti-Muslim hatred. Does a Muslim posting from anyone’s book need to put a disclaimer that he doesn’t endorse the author in entirety, given you have written in your letter that we all experiment with ideas. If someone is posting an excerpt from Savarkar, it is for a reader to explore how a person being a self-professed atheist, critical of colonialism went on to become a propounder of Nazism, Hindu Rashtra, began with including Muslims in his works and went on to omit them and propagate Hindu Rashtra aimed at exterminating the Muslims and Christians later in his life.

Do we need to put a disclaimer before quoting any nationalist and hold ourselves accountable for the crimes that the Indian nation committed later on from Kashmir to North East to the ethnic and linguistic sub-nationalisms?

Do you need to put a disclaimer every time you write that you are working in a university having a stooge Vice Chancellor who has been complicit in the irreparable losses to the lives of students and you don’t endorse him? Do you need to clarify that you are not a part to the state sponsored terror unleashed in your campus when you pacify the students demanding the VC’s resignation and ask them to postpone their fight against him and confine it to anti-CAA protests? Or I am reading too much into it? Can I, too, have the privilege of reading too much or is it reserved to you only?

You cite Sharjeel Imam’s piece in the Wire, ‘It’s time we absolve Jinnah’ (May 7, 2018) You write that Left- Liberal kind of portals have been indulging him. You question him on why didn’t he write about what happened to the state and society of Pakistan afterwards. Jinnah died in 1948, need we bring him out from his grave and ask why and how it happened? Are you more concerned about society in Pakistan than in India and don’t realise where you are heading to? Do you know that if Sharjeel Imam is in custody, you too can be deprived of your citizenship and can be questioned if you speak against the State any day?

Do you know that the token secular, socialist, Republic that India became because we had to prove ourselves different and opposite to Pakistan failed the Muslims and the marginalised more than the latter did to its minorities?

You assert that Sharjeel Imam is playing an exclusionary politics singularly upon Muslim victimhood. Anyone who knows him can tell you that Imam is an avowed Ambedkarite activist. In fact, his criticism of Gandhi is nothing but an extension of Ambedkar’s ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to Untouchables’. A close reading of his write ups, posts and his activism tells us that he intends to build a movement centred around affirmative action for Dalits and Muslims. Pardon me, it is not Muslim victimhood but Hindu victimhood that’s being played in India. If at this point of time when not just Sharjeel Imam but even you are at this juncture after having been systematically played upon by almost all secular, Left, Right forces alike, you can say that it’s Muslim ‘victimhood’, I wish you get well soon.

You mention Sharjeel’s visit to Aligarh, in his efforts to ‘persuade/indoctrinate’ students. You are demeaning your students here by implying that they are a gullible set of people who can be indoctrinated by anyone. Do you mean that your students are brainless, unthinking fellows who a person can indoctrinate with his hour long speech? You are denying them studentship. As also you are hinting at Sharjeel Imam being a person who shouldn’t visit your University and endorsing Amit Shah here in framing him as dangerous. Or probably you want them to be so, that is the reason why you so painstakingly write this letter coming all out for character assassination of a person just because you couldn’t tame him and blocked him for your political and ideological disagreements, you are making yourself a laughing stock and showing your desperation among a huge section of people.

You write that you are ‘told’ that he ran a small group of students in the name of ‘Iqbal Ahmad study circle’. As a professor who is strict with spellings and judges the intellectual capacity of his students from misspelling Bipan or Sekhar, Professor Mohammad Sajjad, you need to be conscious before spelling the name here, it’s Eqbal Ahmad. Misspelling it would amount to disrespect to a World renowned anti-imperialist, Left Intellectual. You call the students joining this study circle his ‘recruits’. Do you know what a recruit is? Do you mean to say that he has hired them? You are denying the students and Research scholars their agency when you demean them with your graceful, polished language which sounds more like a spy or Investigating officer and less like a Professor. You claim that his recruits came from the Islamist student outfit.

As someone who knows the students of this study circle, they comprised of Radical Left, Ambedkarites, Left leaning and also non-Muslims who have major ideological differences among them. Your informers may enlighten you with the details of the students. Study circles are meant to read, debate, discuss. They aren’t agencies which hire a bonded labourer or a militia. The group had had readings on articles by Eqbal Ahmad, Arundhati Roy, Perry Anderson and Ali Shariati. You may blanket them within Right wing Islamism.

Though I still don’t get which current of Islamism are you suggesting that Sharjeel Imam subscribes to? Islamism as an ideology as well as a movement is too broad that it may or may not overlap with democratic setup. A reading of Sharjeel Imam’s posts and his page Eqbal Ahmad suggests that the study circle is critical of Muslim brotherhood at some points, the Islamic Organisations at other points, it sticks to anti-Imperialism and is even critical of the Western Leftists.

You question Sharjeel for his asking the Non Muslims to raise nara e takbeer with him and that the Muslims can’t raise Bharat Mata ki Jai. Well, Prof. Sajjad, Imam is not forcing the Non Muslims to raise naara e takbeer. That is the foremost difference. If you listen to his forty minute long speech in entirety you will understand that he is talking within a context. He is saying that if Non-Muslims are with us in this fight against Hindutva, they need to stand beside us as a shield, letting us assert our faith and be a part to it.

He further says that this is to avoid police brutality which is naturally more severe if a crowd of solely Muslims shout a religious slogan. Since you are supposedly an advocate of Gandhian Hindu-Muslim unity, this statement of his can be seen with historical perspective. Anti-CAA protests are being seen by many as the biggest show of Hindu-Muslim unity after years, so if the secular Hindus of India can be asked to join the Muslims in their battle for existence while maintaining the Muslim character of the protests, what’s the harm? Let us accept it that the anti-CAA movement is a battle for existence of the Muslims and we need to fight it like it ought to be.

One may call it a battle for secularism and Constitution but a huge section of Muslims believe and rightly so, that neither the state has been neutral in its treatment of the Muslims nor the Constitution helped us. Your question that his asking the Non Muslims to raise La ilaha illallah might alienate the Non Muslims who would otherwise be willing to defend the Constitution doesn’t hold any ground on the simple reason that he intends to build solidarities based on an assertion of our faith when attacked for the same, maligned, stereotyped and having to bear with the recent violence in Jamia, Aligarh and UP rather than forcing or imposing his faith on others.

Is the tolerance of secular Hindus in India so bleak that it’s too much to ask for while the Indian Muslims have over the years constantly been asked to prove their loyalty, secularism, patriotism so much so that after being betrayed after betrayed if they now speak up and ask this much, the secular Hindus will be intimidated? When did Gandhi advocate this nihilist, atheistic secularism that you and your ilk subscribe to, Prof Sajjad? When is Imam asking the Non Muslims to get circumcised and call Faiz’s nazm fascist that you and your ilk are putting your words into his mouth? You are lying through your teeth.

You mention Sharjeel’s calling off the Shaheen Bagh protest. You ‘suspect’ that he did so at the behest of Amit Shah’s Delhi police. What is to be ‘suspected’ when he has written on his timeline and officially given the reasons for call off?

You didn’t bother to mention that the protest was being politicised by the Congress MLA, Asif Mohammad Khan. That Imam called it off, while maintaining transparency, writing it on facebook and officially announcing it before the protestors needs to be respected, not ‘suspected’. It can irk the protestors but there do come times when the protestors and the organisers or the ones leading them may differ in their opinions. He did it in larger interest of the masses, wrote in his facebook post everything regarding his apprehensions of BJP violence and communalisation of the protest.

He clearly wrote that police is unlikely to intervene so there is a fear that BJP will and there can be a mob violence. Also there would be a politicisation of the protest at the hands of the parties as elections are round the corner and it has already happened. The same BJP that he feared will intervene and will tarnish the protest, break the morale of protestors and the same BJP which framed him in sedition is what you suggest paying him? Do you hear yourself speak?

You ask Imam where did he get this privilege of protection from despite the Aligarh police and AMU administration aware of his ‘moves’ that he landed in AMU on January 16 to address the protesting students. What moves are you talking about? Is he a criminal or a terrorist? You are a part of the University, you need to ask your administration where did he get the protection from. Your University PRO Shafey Kidwai has later on condemned his speech and asked for sedition charges. If the ‘moves’ against the state can, in your opinion, deter one from coming to AMU and address the students, then by that very logic, what gives you the privilege of protection to speak? Or Apoorvanand, Harsh Mander, Yogendra Yadav and many others? Would you say that they are all dubious or on a payroll? Or you mean to say that Sharjeel Imam being an organiser of Shaheen Bagh and an anti-CAA activist must be stopped from landing in Aligarh thereby endorsing Amit Shah in framing him as a terrorist? But if you endorse them, how does he turn out to be on the payroll of Hindutva forces? Are you so blinded by hatred that you could not see at how many points have you contradicted yourself in this wonderful letter?

You point at Imam’s silly remarks at Aligarh speech. He declared Gandhi a fascist. Various scholars from different vantage points have been critics of Gandhi ranging from Ambedkar, Phule, Arundhati Roy to Perry Anderson. We might differ on our definition of Fascism. That Gandhi’s racist ideas, his adherence to caste system, his vegetarianism and cow-protectionism, his rather disturbing views of Manusmriti can lead one to brand him a Fascist is another question. That the ancient Hindu texts were used to legitimise the racial supremacy of the Aryans and justify imperialism by many Europeans who subscribed to the Aryan master race is another point which has been debated.

You question Imam for attacking the Constitution, the Left and the Congress when the immediate danger is the BJP and that makes you wonder if he is not on the payrolls of the Hindutva agencies. One doesn’t need to be on a payroll or to be playing into the hands of the Hindutva to question the above mentioned forces. Indian Muslims are at a juncture where everyone of us knows and understands well what Imam is saying. Besides, he backs his attack with arguments. As a serious scholar and an activist who has repeatedly said in his videos and posts that he intends to mobilise and educate the masses on the politics of the Left and the Congress which has brought us to this point, he, while being a part of anti-CAA protests against the BJP politics intends to build a long term strategy and movement that the Left and the Congress failed at. What is the harm? People need no classes to know on what BJP is doing, it is the responsibility of an activist to bring to the fore where it stems from.

You question him for his attack on the Constitution. His speeches make it clear how the Constitution has been used to implement the things which we deem unconstitutional and fascist. From using the term ‘secularism’ so that it suits their motives and the Muslims cannot question because it will amount to State’s impartiality to cow protectionism to the definition of ‘Hindu’ and blanketing the Indic religions ie. Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism within the term and depriving SC status to the Dalits who profess any of these religions which emerged as a challenge to Brahminism to the powers of the Centre to destabilise the Federal structure, everything has been justified within the spirit of the Constitution.

I have my strongest disagreements with you on the argument that the Constitution has been derided by the Hindutva forces as an impediment in their way of Hindu Rashtra. True, they see it as an impediment because we can still fight for our Constitutional rights against the Hindutva forces but the recent developments are enough telling that the Hindutva forces have used the same document in their way to establish Hindu Rashtra. From Abrogation of 370 to the recent Babri Masjid Judgement, the party in power has used the Constitution to suit their motives.

Sharjeel’s discomfiture with the Constitution can be best described in these lines by T Prakasam, the first CM of Andhra Pradesh and member of the constituent assembly, told the assembly on 19th November, 1949 ; “Coming now to the Constitution, I just say at the outset that it is a compromise and has all the defects of a compromise. It is a compromise between men of various views, both conservative and radical, inside the Congress Party. In the transitional period from slavery of a thousand years into newly won freedom, it was probably natural that we should go through this present stage which is reflected in this Constitution. I cannot call it the constitution of the free India of my dreams. I can, therefore, support the motion of Dr. Ambedkar for its adoption only in this spirit. I am convinced that very soon when the period of transition is over, representatives of the Indian people, elected by a conscious electorate on the basis of adult suffrage, will recast this Constitution and frame a constitution which will realise our dreams. I would have wished that my amendment for an automatic revision of the Constitution by simple majority once at the end of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution had been accepted by the House under the limitation of the prevailing circumstances, I am sure, that a better Constitution could not have been made.”

You write that Sharjeel’s withdrawing from the Shaheen Bagh did not deter the protests but sedition charges against him will impede the anti-CAA protests and frame all Muslims as secessionists and ‘unpatriotic’. May I ask you what unpatriotic is? How loosely do you use this word and what makes one questioning the State an unpatriotic Muslim? How is a Muslim fighting for his citizenship rights unpatriotic? If Sharjeel Imam, despite being the organiser of Shaheen Bagh cannot deter the protest after calling it off, goes on to address at AMU which you are repeatedly ranting against, becomes an inspiration for hundreds of sit-ins across the country, how does a video and State’s propaganda against him which misquotes him delegitimise the protests? If anything it has done, it has exposed the people who are buying this propaganda and those who stand with him. Indian Muslims are not dumb that they cannot see through it.

You question him on why does he educate University crowds and not the rural masses if he is passionate about addressing the protesting crowds. He has been addressing and mobilising the masses for a month. All through his speeches, he repeatedly says it to the students that he needs to build a team of educated youth who can address the masses regarding all the issues I have discussed above. That is why he came to your University and no slanders can stop anyone from delivering a speech.

You come to Sharjeel’s family and political background. His father was a founding member of the JDU. Since you are a scholar, a Professor and a ‘student of history’ who wants people to put disclaimers about the evolutions of political figures, why didn’t you put a disclaimer about the evolution of JDU from a secular party to a BJP ally? You question him whether it is a political vendetta against his family by the JDU as his brother has lately joined the RJD. If it is a political vendetta for joining an anti-BJP party, then your entire argument that he is on a payroll of the Hindutva forces stands shattered. You need to decide first whether he is on a payroll of Hindutva or a person from a family linked to JDU or someone being at the target of Hindutva because his brother is in RJD. You are contradicting yourself in every second statement.

Why do you need to discuss his family? During the recent Fees Must Fall movement, a post by the blind student Shashi Bhushan’s uncle who is a Left activist went viral. His uncle is disappointed that despite him being a BJP politician, his nephew is not spared. How many of us discussed it and discredited him? Why has everything about Sharjeel Imam been reduced to his religion, family and motives? Is it because the Muslim intelligentsia which fails to acknowledge the intersectionality of religion, identity, nationalism, advocating a secular Muslim devoid of his religious identity and blanketing everything else within ‘Right Wing Islamism’ cannot beat him at arguments and the only way left is to slander, sideline, frame him as ‘fringe’ presenting a lopsided picture of a multi-faceted scholar and activist who they cannot stand? Many can already see through it.

Professor Mohammad Sajjad, all through your letter you are at the same page as Hindutva hinting at his divisive, exclusionary politics while at the same time accusing him of being on a payroll. You contradict yourself in every second statement, your language is so polished and dignified that it can make one wonder at your sanity and your being a Professor.

If you reply to this letter in a more polished, scholarly, unbiased and sophisticated language that you wrote the letter to him in, rest assured this brainless, indoctrinated, Islamist is here to reply.

Almas Saeed

(Almas Saeed is an independent researcher and freelancer)

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