On 30th January, Sharjeel Usmani, a 24-year-old activist and alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), delivered a speech at the Elgar Parishad event, organized by the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan’, to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon-Bhima at GanesalaKridaRangmanch, Swargate, Pune. The speakers at the event comprised various academics, activists, and many others from across the country’s length and breadth. The event was attended by notable figures such as Arundhati Roy, Prashant Kanojia, Justice BG Kolse-Patil, and SM Mushrif.
The date of the event marked the birthday of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University whose suicide in 2016 created an uproar within the Dalit community against the institutionalized casteism in educational institutions. The second edition of the event – the first, held in December 2017 at Shaniwar Wada – was also organized as a tribute to the 16 activists and intellectuals – many of whom have are still awaiting bail – arrested following allegations of inciting caste-based violence at Bhima Koregaon in 2018.
Usmani, accused by the police of being one of the architects of the Anti-CAA demonstrations at AMU, had been previously charged with an attempt to murder, rioting and promoting communal disharmony. Following the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at AMU, he was jailed for two months last year after being picked up by the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) from his residence Azamgarh.
Following his release on bail in September last year, Usmani said that he was “compared to AjmalKasab in jail” and condemned the state for resorting to draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in dealing with student protestors.
Usmani was unflinching in his sentiment as he delivered his speech at Elgar Parishad earlier this year.
Sharjeel Usmani’s Speech
In the following hours after the conclave at Pune, Usmani received several vitriolic responses from those who did not take his view well. Before the event, Usmani’s father expressed his disquiet about Sharjeel being invited to speak at the event, in a statement to The Quint, in February. “Due to the externment order, he has not been home for three odd months. Which means I have not spoken to him face-to-face. On a personal level, I do not want all this. If he was in front of me, main usko sahi kar data(I’d fix him), just like a father does to his child. But I was unable to do that as a father.”
Before he began his speech, Usmani apologized to the audience, stating that he was nervous about speaking and that the people listening to him weren’t his primary audience. “Ever since I was invited here, I have been worried. This is the first time I am speaking in front of a non-Muslim audience like this. So in case I do make a mistake, please forgive me if you feel bad. Secondly, I’d like you to tell me if you have a problem and only then go”. He further asserted the need to have uncomfortable conversations with allies, such as the Dalit-Muslim community, without which he believes none will move ahead in society.
The event did not end in a controversy, with many attendees complimenting him on the speech. But, in the following hours of the event, Usmani could sense a controversy building up. “On Twitter, calls were being made for my arrest by a few, soon it started expanding, and then days later I heard of the FIR against me,” he said.
“Aajka Hindu samaj sadh gaya hai” (Today’s Hindu society is rotten) was the controversial observation that stoked furore amongst those that objected to Usmani’s comment. In the aftermath of the statement, two states have lodged FIR’s against Usmani, booking him under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including one sedition charge.
Following the charges against Usmani, the organizing body of the event issued an 11-page statement, declaring their support for him. The organizers accused the right-wing of targeting him by distorting and misrepresenting the facts of his speech. Addressing the controversial observation, the statement said, “this bit constitutes not even 10 secs of the 26-minute long speech given by Sharjeel. RSS-BJP and other Brahminical organizations have cherry-picked just this tiny bit from Sharjeel’s speech to spread hatred amongst us. If we focus only on certain cherry-picked words without considering the context and dishonestly ignore the “Truth and Facts” of the matter at hand, then we aren’t worthy of being conscious citizens anymore.
On 2nd February, the Swargate police station in Pune registered a First Information Report (FIR) against Usmani. The FIR, registered by Bhartiya Janta Yuva Morcha secretary Pradeep Gawde, alleged that Usmani made provocative statements against the Hindu community, the Parliament and the Indian Judiciary. The FIR was registered under section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the furthering of enmity within different groups.
The FIR filed at Pune quotes, “Today’s Hindu society is rotten. These people who lynch, who murder, what would they do with themselves after murdering someone and returning to their homes? Would they wash their hands differently? Would they add some medicine to the water and take a bath? What do these people do, that after it they come back and eat amidst us, spend time with us, go and watch movies and then again, the next day, they catch someone, kill them and continue to live normally? They are also falling in love with people at their home. They touch their father’s feet too, go to the temple and offer prayers, then again come out and do this.”
Following the FIR registration at Pune, the Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said that the former AMU alumni should be arrested from “whichever state he is in”. Deshmukh tweeted, “Police have investigated the video clippings of the Elgar event held on 30th in Pune, and a case has been registered against SharjeelUsmani for his offensive remarks. He is currently not in Maharashtra, but we will arrest him from whichever state he is in, be it Bihar, UP, Gujarat, or elsewhere.”
As of 5th March, Usmani has moved to the Bombay High Court, seeking to quash the FIR registered at the police station in Pune. In a petition filed through his advocate Aditi Saxena, Usmani has stated that the FIR against him is ‘frivolous and baseless’ adding that the complaint filed at the behest of the YuvaMorcha secretary is for ‘political gain’ and is no more than a ‘political gimmick’ aimed at cheap publicity.
Usmani’s plea underlines the importance of differentiating between free speech and hate speech. The plea states, “The speech is mostly based on facts available in the public domain or academic literature. The speech prima facie does not have any intention to cause disorder or incite people to violence. However, it does demand combat against the hate in the society and not against any particular community.”
Further, it stated that the FIR comprises of isolated statements from the entire speech and that Usmani had identified an issue within the social construct and, in his speech, concluded with a solution to the problem.
Usmani has raised a demand to quash the FIR and has asked a stay on any investigations arising out of it. He also sought protection from coercive action. The Bombay High Court will hear the plea next week.
On 4th February, the Hazratganj police station in Lucknow filed another FIR to connect Usmani’s speech at the event. Anuraj Singh, who said that he had found a video of the speech on the internet and accused Usmani of “creating hate” against the Yogi Adityanath Government, wrote a complaint to the police which the FIR was registered.
The FIR has charged Usmani under four sections of the IPC and several sections of the IT Act. Usmani has been booked for sedition, promoting enmity within different groups, deliberate acts intended at outraging religious feelings, and uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.
The FIR filed by the UP Police includes sedition charges despite the apex court observing on multiple occasions that sedition is constituted by written or spoken words which “have the effect of bringing contempt or dissatisfaction or the idea of subverting government by violent means”.
Usmani has not been home since November and says that his fight is enduring. Speaking to The Quint, he says, “Yes, I am mentally prepared to go back to jail. If it starts another debate on radicalization and free speech, then why not,”