FIRs against Sharjeel Imam justified, anti-CAA activist's call to 'cut-off' Assam tests limits of free speech

While legal eagles claim that Sharjeel Imam did not commit a crime and FIRs against him must be quashed, it is worth remembering that Imam was not issuing a lecture during an academic discussion

Sreemoy Talukdar January 28, 2020 17:31:10 IST
FIRs against Sharjeel Imam justified, anti-CAA activist's call to 'cut-off' Assam tests limits of free speech
  • JNU scholar Sharjeel Imam was arrested on Tuesday from his hometown Jehenabad in Bihar after a series of cases were filed against him in six states

  • A video allegedly shows Imam urging Muslims to cut-off Assam and the entire northeastern region by laying siege to the 'Chicken’s Neck' that connects the North East with the rest of India

  • While legal eagles claim that Imam did not commit a crime and FIRs against him must be quashed, it is worth remembering that Imam was not issuing a lecture during an academic discussion

  • Article 19 (2) of the Indian Constitution allows the state to make laws that restrict freedom of speech so long as they impose reasonable restrictions in the ‘interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state...'

The sedition charges slapped against JNU scholar Sharjeel Imam, who was arrested from Jehanabad in Bihar, after multiple videos allegedly showing him making incendiary remarks and threatening the integrity of Indian state surfaced on social media, have raised the age-old debate over free speech all over again.

FIRs against Sharjeel Imam justified antiCAA activists call to cutoff Assam tests limits of free speech

File image of Sharjeel Imam. ANI

Are the sedition cases filed against him in Assam and Uttar Pradesh justified? It's worth noting that police in six states — Bihar, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Manipur — have booked Imam under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code.

In the purported video, Imam is heard urging Muslims to cut Assam and the entire northeastern region off India by laying siege to the 'Chicken’s Neck' — a 200-kilometre narrow strip of land also called the Siliguri Corridor that connects the North East with the rest of the country. At its narrowest, the strip is just 17 kilometres wide and remains one of India’s biggest strategic vulnerability.

As we ponder on the veracity of the charges and interpret the law on sedition, it is worth remembering that from the platform of a site (Shaheen Bagh) which is ostensibly protesting against the division of India along religious lines, Imam was ironically urging Muslims to balkanise India. He later denied the statement claiming that he was merely calling for a "chakka jam".

Regardless of Imam’s claims, let’s take a look at his words in the video under discussion. In the clip, uploaded by several BJP leaders including Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu, Imam is heard making comments aimed at disturbing India’s communal harmony, threatening its territorial integrity and undermining the sovereignty of Indian state. Firstpost has not independently verified the authenticity of the video.

According to a translation of the comments, published by India Today, Imam is ostensibly telling the crowd that “...if we can organise five lakh people, we will be able to permanently cut off Assam from India. If not permanently, then at least for a month or two... Create ruckus on railway tracks and roads so that it takes them (the government) at least a month to clear things on the ground. It is our responsibility to isolate Assam. They (government) will hear us only if we cut off Assam and India.”

He is further heard saying, “The plight of Muslims in Assam is known to all of us. CAA and NRC have been implemented there. People are already being sent to detention centres. There is a bloodbath going on there. In six-eight months, you may find out that all Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) have been killed.

“So, if we want to help Assam, then we will have to block the way for the Army to reach Assam... and also stop the supplies. We can do this. The chicken-neck corridor that connects the North East with the rest of India is inhabited primarily by Muslims... (excerpts)."

These words are offensive at multiple levels. They seek to organise members of a community, give a call for action and target a strategic vulnerability to cut-off a part of India. Imam was also spreading fake news. The NRC implemented in Assam was ordered by the Supreme Court of India, and there is certainly no “bloodbath” going on. He was also indulging in fear-mongering by falsely claiming that Bengalis could be killed.

Moreover, these very specific threats are not out of context remarks by an immature student (Imam, by all accounts, is not a minor). If we look at his social media posts and articles contributed to digital platforms, the Islamist nature of the individual clearly comes through. This is an individual who eulogises Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the architect of Partition and creator of Pakistan, and seeks to airbrush the crimes of a man who, among other things, created mayhem in India through his call for Direct Action in 1946 that caused a chain of violence across many parts in India.

In a particularly relevant post on Facebook created on 8 January, 2018, Imam writes “...Jinnah who was an Indian Muslim for the first 71 of the 72 years of his life, is infinitely more relevant for the besieged Indian Muslim minority than for Pakistani Muslims. In very specific ways, as an Indian Muslim politician fighting for minority rights, his methods, his arguments, his successes and his failures are lessons for us....”

Therefore, while legal eagles such as Markandey Katju split hairs to claim that Imam did not commit a crime and FIRs against him must be quashed, it is worth remembering that Imam was not issuing a lecture during an academic discussion.

The Jinnah fanboy was seeking to capitalise on and even incite anger among members of a community at a sensitive spot and moment in history by a combination of victimhood narrative and fake news and had a very clear idea on how to translate the threat into action.

Worth remembering that Article 19 (2) of the Indian Constitution allows the state to make laws that restrict freedom of speech so long as they impose reasonable restrictions in the ‘interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence’.”

By threatening the integrity and sovereignty of India, Imam clearly is in breach of the conditions and the FIRs against him are justified. His comments may or may not be seditious, but he pretty much tests the limits of free speech.

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