On January 28, 2020, police arrested PhD student Sharjeel Imam on charges related to comments he made during a speech at a campus protest against a citizenship bill that had recently been enacted.
Since early December 2019, students across India have held protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Signed into law on December 12, 2019, the CAA expedites citizenship for several religious minorities but does not include Muslims. Critics have argued that it is discriminatory and violates the secular nature of India’s constitution. During protests over the CAA, students have been met with intense police force, arrests, and other disciplinary measures.
On January 16, 2020, Imam reportedly gave a speech at a protest against the CAA on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. A PhD candidate studying modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Imam had been involved in organizing protests against the CAA since the beginning of the movement. In his speech, Imam reportedly said that a group of 500,000 people would be capable of temporarily separating India’s northeastern state of Assam from the rest of the country and that such a demonstration would force the government to listen to the demands of those protesting the CAA. Imam later clarified that his remarks had been intended to encourage citizens to peacefully protest and engage in mass acts of civil disobedience, including blocking traffic along roads and railways in the region. Excerpts of the speech quickly went viral on social media and sparked outrage among some segments of the Indian public who believed that Imam had called for the secession of Assam.
On January 25, five states in India filed charges against Imam, including sedition, “promoting religious enmity,” waging war on the Indian state, and conspiracy to commit offences, all of which carry significant prison sentences. Authorities have cited sections of Imam’s speech at AMU, which his family and others have argued are designed to twist the meaning of his remarks. Reports indicate that police are also investigating Imam’s activities during the Shaheen Bagh protests, an ongoing sit-in that began at the time the CAA was passed by Parliament.
The next day, police raided Imam’s family home in Bihar, but Imam was not home at the time. Police reportedly detained two of Imam’s relatives for questioning.
On January 28, Imam reportedly surrendered to police just hours after his brother was detained for questioning. That same day, a Delhi court ordered the imprisonment of Imam for an initial period of five days, which has subsequently been extended.
As of this report, Imam remains in prison, without a set date for his trial.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the detention and prosecution of a student in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliating against nonviolent expressive activity. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.