How Indian liberals' reaction to Sharjeel Imam's speech betrays their dishonesty

Save for silencing minorities in the name of the integrity of India, what do liberals actually do? Articles by Apoorvanand Jha and Mohd Asim and a Facebook post by Shuddhabrata Sengupta offer a window into their thinking.

WrittenBy:Evita Das& Akshat Jain& Shahrukh Khatib
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Sharjeel Imam is a computer scientist and scholar of modern history speaking and writing about the most pressing issues of our time – the place of minorities in majoritarian democracies; monopoly of the leftist narrative on the sensitisation of the masses; silencing of opposition voices in history writing; integrity of nation states which hold their claimed territories using brute military force; and role of traditional communal solidarities, particularly Islam, in anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles today. He offers a direction to the youth of this country as few other people do. He has written articles that don’t just give high-sounding views but construct an alternative viewpoint from which the fight against oppressive corporate-statism can be waged. Sharjeel is immensely useful to the struggles of minorities all over the world and, if he’s allowed to live, he will contribute to these battles in a lasting manner.

In early January, Sharjeel gave a speech at Aligarh Muslim University where he denounced the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. A video of his speech was uploaded to YouTube on January 17. Six days later, he was charged with sedition and, subsequently, arrested from Bihar’s Jehanabad. Since then, many articles and posts have appeared about Sharjeel that have overshadowed what he himself has written. Now, a Google search for “Sharjeel Imam” does not return his own work, but articles about him.

Sharjeel is an anti-national according to the BJP. The party’s position is clear: Sharjeel is an enemy of India and must be treated as such. It is the position of the left-liberals that needs to be unpacked for its ignorance and hypocrisy. Sharjeel clearly says anybody who believes in the so-called integrity of the extant Indian state and its constitution is his enemy. The BJP acts like an enemy, calls itself an enemy. The left-liberals worship at the altar of the Indian nation state but don’t have the decency to accept themselves as enemies. There’s a map of India at Shaheen Bagh which includes all of Kashmir, even the regions occupied by Pakistan and China. Yet, the protest’s organisers would not accept they’re enemies of Kashmiris, who have rejected this jingoistic fantasy.

The position that the left-liberals have adopted with regard to Sharjeel is this: we don’t agree with him but he should not be charged with sedition. In place of sedition, these are the charges they level against him:

  • Sharjeel asks non-Muslims to stand with Muslims on their terms. That’s communalism.

  • Sharjeel’s speech helps the BJP because “the time is not right”. It’s political stupidity.

The left-liberals, who appear to have not heard the speech or understood it, miss the lip-smacking irony that these were the exact charges laid against the Barelvi ulema by the Congress and its supporters, the Deobandi Ulema, before Independence. Sharjeel reminds us that the unpardonable sin of the Barelvis was to oppose the Congress. Today, the unpardonable sin of Sharjeel is the same, opposing the left-liberals. Only if he supports the left-liberals against the BJP will they recognise the validity of his position. Otherwise, he will be silenced and sidelined in favour of Muslims who are more favourable to the left-liberal variety of Hindu nationalism. As Sharjeel notes, the Deobandi-Barelvi debate among Indian Muslims is still raging. Despite the best efforts of the Congress and the Left parties, Indian Muslims have not accepted the Deobandis as their sole forefathers; they have kept alive the Barelvi tradition by opposing the Hindu left-liberal appropriation of Islam.

We will use two articles and a Facebook post, written in the week after Sharjeel’s arrest, as a representative sample of the shallowness and intellectual dishonesty of the left-liberal position. One of the writers is a Brahmin social justice warrior. The second is a Muslim journalist who believes in the secular and socialist idea of India. The third is a Brahmin contemporary artist. One is Gandhian, one leftist, and one liberal.

The first article is by Professor Apoorvanand Jha, who teaches Hindi at Delhi University. He’s a prolific meddler in the day-to-day affairs of the nation. Published on the Wire, the article is titled, “Sharjeel Imam’s Speech Was Wild and Irresponsible, But Was It ‘Sedition’?” Jha, who calls himself a tireless champion for minority rights, has this to say in his article defending Sharjeel’s right to freedom of expression:

He is wrong when he says that non-Muslims should join the struggle against the law only if they ‘agree to our terms’. There is a simple principle which unites people, Muslim or non Muslim, and that is the right of equal citizenship. On the fight for equal citizenship there cannot be any other condition. To say otherwise is to deny the possibility of solidarity. And one knows the battle of the oppressed cannot be won if it is only they who fight it.

To start with, there’s a glaring factual error in Jha’s piece that betrays his lack of interest in the actual contents of Sharjeel’s speech: Sharjeel never suggests that the battle of the oppressed has to be fought by them alone. In fact, he says the opposite:

As scholars, we can at least get one non-Muslim with us. That's the responsibility of the scholars in Delhi. We make a team of 500 Muslim scholars in Delhi and make sure that 500 Hindus will come to their support when there is an urgent requirement. We have spent our lives there, we have at least worked enough to do this much. Our attempt should be to get 500 Muslims and 500 non-Muslims to the street on our own terms, for our cause. All of us can get one Hindu on our terms, right? We don't need anybody else's help. If all we want is to save ourselves from being tagged communal, and it is not really the tag that matters, what matters is brutality, what matters is being alone and getting badly beaten up by the police. I am saying this because this communal tag thing was being talked about a lot in Delhi. In Delhi, our attempt has been to get a crowd together in which non-Muslims chant Nara-e-Takbeer with us and stand there on our terms. If they are not willing to accept our terms, then they are using us and our crowd, which is what they have done for the past 70 years. The time has come when we make clear to non-Muslims that, if they sympathize with us, they should stand with us on our terms. If they can't do that, they are not our sympathizers.

It’s clear that Sharjeel wants non-Muslims to stand with Muslims. Now, Apoorvanand argues that there cannot be any conditions in the fight for equal citizenship. Why not? Jha doesn’t find it necessary to elucidate. He states this particular Gandhian interpretation of equal citizenship like it’s a law of nature. Let’s look at another interpretation of equal citizenship, that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s: “Political rights emanate from political might.” As Sharjeel argues in his article on Jinnah, “If the two communities do not learn to respect and fear each other, then no agreement is worth more than just a piece of paper.”

Equal citizenship can thus be conditioned on the guarantee of political power: that the kind of support being asked for will be the kind of support given. Reservation in the military, police, administration, and judiciary is just one pre-condition that the minorities seek in the fight for equal citizenship. Jha thinks that by dropping his surname he guarantees equal citizenship; it might come as a surprise that equal citizenship calls for more than token gestures. Speaking of which, the upper castes in India should be kept from assuming castelessness until socioeconomic conditions actually make them casteless.

Jha wants to support Sharjeel but on Jha’s terms – and he does not see the problem in that. Even though Sharjeel clearly states that he wants support from non-Muslims only if they agree to his terms, a non-Muslim is forcing support upon him without agreeing to his terms.

It is an old tradition that communities celebrate each other’s festivals as an expression of solidarity. A Hindu doesn’t stop celebrating Diwali to express solidarity with Muslims; she celebrates Eid with them. This basic nature of solidarity is missed by the minority rights champion Jha professes to be, showing just how far he is from showing solidarity himself. In contrast, Sharjeel, in an article co-authored with Saquib Salim, argues that Muslims and Hindus should celebrate each other’s festivals like they did before the partition:

This Janmashtami, we hope that Indians stop branding each other’s icons as Hindus or Muslims. We need to adopt good teachings from our ancestors while also developing modern thought in the process. To look at philosophies through communal prism has harmed this country more than anything else. Here's a couplet from Muhammad Iqbal with a wish that religious bigotry ends from our society this Janmashtami. Ye Aaya-e-Nau, Jail Se Nazil Huwi Mujh Par Gita Mein Hai Quran To Quran Mein Geeta This new ‘verse’ was revealed to me from the jail That the Quran is in the Gita, the Gita is in the Quran.

The second article, also carried by the Wire, is by Mohd Asim, a journalist. Again, let’s begin with the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Asim claims all of Sharjeel’s chosen targets are those “united today against the fascist assault on citizens”. He conveniently elides the fact that Sharjeel is calling out precisely these self-appointed defenders for their fascism. Asim never addresses Sharjeel’s accusation.

Next, Asim claims that for Sharjeel “this is a fight exclusive to Muslims. He laughs at the idea of an inclusive citizens’ protest.” This, as we have already shown, is plainly untrue. “Sharjeel’s problem with the Jamia Coordination Committee is that it’s not a Muslim-exclusive club.” This is such a shameful lie that one has to question the intentions of Asim and his ability to assume the mantle of journalist. Sharjeel’s problem with the JCC, Asim would have known had he heard the speech, is not that it’s not a Muslim-exclusive club, but that it is a club which specifically excludes those who insist on shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Sharjeel’s problem with the JCC is they’re not inclusive enough, not that they are not exclusive enough. In Sharjeel’s own words:

This JCC that they have made, they say they are very inclusive, they say there is everyone in their group except those who chant Allahu Akbar. That's their inclusive nature. Except for Allahu Akbar, which is a group there with some four-five hundred students, everyone is included in their JCC. What kind of inclusivity is that? It would have been inclusive if they had included the Allahu Akbar group. They hate the Allahu Akbar group and call themselves inclusive.

Asim says, referring to Sharjeel, “Obviously he doesn’t relate with the protests resonating with ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Jai samvidhan’.” Another lie. Sharjeel does oppose the protests resonating with cries of “Jai Samvidhan”, but not “Jai Bhim” protests. By joining the two, Asim is guilty of putting words into Sharjeel’s mouth, thereby misrepresenting his case.

Asim concludes, “Who benefits from his rant? Your guess is as good as mine.” We can only assume that Asim wants us to believe that Sharjeel’s speech benefits the BJP. How does it benefit the Hindutva party? “It serves the regime’s purpose to pick and choose out of many outlandish bits from his speech.”

Is Asim suggesting one should not say anything that can be taken out of context and used by those with malicious intentions? As if the BJP needs Sharjeel to say what he said to push their agenda. And even if his arguments do help the BJP, does that make them wrong? If his arguments are wrong, should they not be made for that reason? Asim seems to suggest arguments that can help the BJP are not only wrong but should not be made at all. He seems to believe that debates should only allow for right arguments that cannot be used by the Hindutva camp against the left-liberals.

By this logic, the left-liberals can never be criticised simply because they profess to be the BJP’s enemy. They have assumed the mantle of being the sole opponent of the BJP by appropriating all other voices. And when the appropriated voices rise up, they are silenced saying the left-liberals are their only hope against fascism. Since the left-liberals can’t be seen to indulge in fascist ways, they rely on the second-hand fascism of the BJP to silence their opponents.

To Asim’s rhetorical question, let’s give a real answer. Sharjeel’s speech benefits all those who are fed up with the lies and betrayals inherent in the Indian state and its constitution. It helps all those who recognise the vacuity of the promises that have been made to minorities in this country since the partition. It helps those who want to recognise and separate their allies from their foes. Those who support Sharjeel now, not just against the charges of sedition but for his arguments, are allies. Those who are against him aren’t.

Sharjeel’s speech is a well-articulated but not at all uncommon indictment of India’s left-liberals, who are finally losing their hegemony over the hearts and minds of the masses. Sharjeel’s speech helps the politically weak minorities in this majoritarian democracy to break free of the debilitating discourse of the left-liberals. It helps minorities realise how they can snatch back their agency from the left-liberals and start speaking and acting for themselves. In contrast, who does Asim’s article against Sharjeel help? Your guess is as good as ours.

Finally, let’s get to the Facebook post written by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist, curator and writer. He begins by asserting that he doesn’t want to patronise Sharjeel, but goes on to accuse Sharjeel of idiocy, stupidity and complete mindlessness six times. Not to patronise Shuddhabrata but his mindlessness is made painfully apparent by his laughable suggestion that chanting “Allahu Akbar” will make him a Muslim:

What Sharjeel Imam is saying is actually this – he will accept my presence by his side, only, and only if, I too articulate the Muslim confession of faith – ‘naara-e-taqbir, allaho-akbar’ – that is what he is calling his precondition for acknowledging solidarity. That means he will accept me by his side, if I choose to become Muslim.

That Shuddhabrata did not even deem it necessary to do a Google search before saying something so blatantly preposterous makes us wonder about the Brahminsation of the Indian arts today. For the uninitiated, this is how you actually convert to Islam.

The Muslim confession of faith is not “naara-e-taqbir, allaho-akbar”. Even if it were, one doesn’t become a Muslim by simply reciting the Shahada. A Jain or a Dalit can say the Shahada until kingdom come but without accepting Islam as our religion, we don’t become Muslim. Bhadralok Bengalis don’t become abhadra by chanting “Jai Bhim” with Dalits, so Sengupta need not worry. Sharjeel never asks non-Muslims to convert to his religion. What he actually says is quoted above.

Shuddhabrata also says Sharjeel’s speech helps the BJP: “If Sharjeel Imam didn’t exist, the BJP would have to invent him.” Sengupta seems to be a fan of Voltaire without having imbibed any of French philosopher’s intellectual integrity. To his quip, we say: since Sharjeel does exist, it’s necessary for people like Shuddhabrata to silence him by fearmongering about the “fascists”. Don’t say anything lest it help the fascists, that’s Shuddhabrata’s argument in a nutshell.

Sengupta, like his fellow Brahmin Jha, has no problem assuming a purer agency in lieu of Sharjeel’s mleccha agency. They are adept at this stratagem, having dutifully practiced it all their lives with everyone they incessantly claim to speak for. Sharjeel clearly says in his speech that anyone standing with him has to chant Nara-e-Takbeer. Anyone not willing to do that is not with him. Shuddhabrata isn’t willing to chant Nara-e-Takbeer but he wants to force his support upon Sharjeel, like he wants to force his support on the Kashmiris. You cannot decide how to stand up for somebody without taking into account how they want you to stand up for them. If someone asks you for food, you don’t just give them a chair and say that’s all you can do. They didn’t ask for the chair. Nobody is helped but your conscience is assuaged. That’s what Shuddhabrata’s “support” for Sharjeel amounts to. That’s what it has always amounted to for various minorities in this country.

According to Sengupta, Sharjeel’s “personality type is hyper-masculine in a nerdy sort of way, and sees in its self image of the erudite scholar-rebel, a cerebral-ascetic mode of being that brings with it a 'natural entitlement to leadership'”. This he offers as an objective judgement after stating he would not engage in ad hominem attacks on Sharjeel and only evaluate his arguments. He, in fact, pays such little attention to Sharjeel’s argument that he clubs him with the Left at one point.

“In this situation, the only principled and ethical position is that which insists on criticism of a regressive politics and at the same time insists on opposing the sedition law, especially when it is applied on someone that one chooses to be critical of,” Sengupta argues. He calls Sharjeel’s politics regressive and holds up his own as the only principled and ethical position. All hail the wise Brahmin. Wherefore is Sharjeel’s politics regressive? Because Sengupta says it is communal and stokes the fires of identity politics. To this, Sharjeel has already given a befitting reply:

Communal is something that relates to community, and this was the sense in which this term was used by many thinkers and politicians in the colonial times. It is only because of Congress’s usage of the word that we understand communal as a negative feature. ‘Communal’ need not mean harbouring hate and prejudice against the other, it means identifying with one’s community. Next, the Leftist phrase ‘identity politics’ is added in, ignoring the fact that Muslims are a besieged minority, and like Dalits, it is their right to use their identity to mobilise. When Dalits rally around their caste identity, our liberals become ‘casteless’; similarly, when Muslims seek redistribution, liberals become ‘secular’ and accuse us of ‘identity politics’.

All this raises the question: what do these people get from misquoting, misrepresenting and maligning Sharjeel without having attentively listened to his speech and without closely reading any of his publicly available articles? Sharjeel has already given us the answer: “Maybe to gain some political traction or get favours from the Congress.”

Further, their overt support for India’s nation state project forces them into argumentative corners where they have no choice but to engage in such low attacks and wilful ignorance.

To engage in some personality analysis ourselves, their blatant lying betrays a personality type that is hypocritical and insincere in an insecure sort of way and sees in its self image of the humanist moral-rebel an anti-all evils mode of being which brings with it a “natural entitlement to sit in judgement” on all and sundry.

The left-liberals have maintained that Sharjeel’s arguments are wrong but he should not be charged with sedition. Because they are against sedition, it may seem they are writing in Sharjeel’s support. But they aren’t really. They were, are and will always be against him. By taking a position against Sharjeel, they have shown themselves in exactly those colours in which Sharjeel paints them. One could say Sharjeel perfectly predicts their response to himself. They call him communal and an agent of the BJP, albeit unconsciously. This is what he predicted they would call him because that’s what they have always called people like him.

He traces their genealogy to the pre-partition extremist Hindu Congress party. And he’s correct because they hold the same basic positions today that the extremist Hindu Congress held then. They heap false accusations and derision upon all Muslim scholars and leaders who dare question the validity of their position, who dare suggest Muslims needs to think like a community, who refuse to accept their promises of good behaviour made without any concrete steps to share political power. Like Jinnah, like Sharjeel. They hound thinking Muslims into a corner where they are forced to make radical demands, then blame Muslims for making such demands.

The Dalits, Adivasis, Kashmiris, Assamese, Naga, Manipuris can each make exactly the same argument as Sharjeel, replacing Muslim with their own identity, and each will get the same treatment from the left-liberals. Sharjeel is a minority rights scholar from the Muslim community rather than a Muslim scholar. His example shows us that all minorities in India must behave exactly as the nation-worshipping left-liberals want them to or face derision, scorn, charges of extremism and stupidity. The left-liberals claim to represent and sympathise with all these groups even though none of the groups agree with the left-liberal characterisation of themselves. The question is: who do the left-liberals actually sympathise with and represent? Save for appropriating and silencing the voices of minorities in the name of the integrity of India, what do they actually do?

To get a better idea of who Sharjeel is and what he stands for, we urge you to read the full transcript of his speech as well as the articles he has written or co-written about the idea of India in early 20th century Urdu poetry; role of Jinnah which has been distorted by the Congress; high prevelance of cow-related hate crimes in the last 100 years; hypocricisies of Kanhaiya Kumar and Indian liberals in the Begusarai parliamentary election; reverence for Krishna in the works of Urdu poets; 1980 Moradabad Muslim massacre, which is an indictment of left and secular politics. He has also written about how the Left parties Bengal have done nothing for Muslims, about the dominance of men in leftwing groups which pay lip-service to women empowerment, JNU’s anti-Muslim leftwing students, and how Aleppo’s coverage in Western media is indicative of the fundamentalism-imperialism nexus.

We, a Jain, a Dalit and a Muslim support what Sharjeel has said and written, and agree to stand with him on his own terms.

Nara-e-Takbeer. Allahu Akbar.


Evita Das is an urban researcher who works on issues of caste and housing. She’s also associated with the National Alliance of People’s Movements and the Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization.

Akshat Jain uses the debate methodology of Syādvāda to piss people off. Like a good Syādvādist, he claims all his claims fall within the ambit of falsifiability.

Shahrukh Khatib is a research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, currently working on minority rights in India.


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