‘3 SC Lawyers Cleared My Speech’: Usmani on FIRs, Sedition Case
“I thought that a programme where there are people like Arundhati Roy and BG Kosle Patil, who will look at me?”
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"I showed the transcript of my speech to three lawyers... three Supreme Court lawyers. All three of them said that not one word in the entire speech can be commissioned as an offence in any Indian court."
Despite being cautious of the speech he was going to give at an Elgar Parishad event organised at Pune's Ganesh Kala Krida Manch on January 30, 23-year-old Sharjeel Usmani has been booked for sedition, other than already being booked under charges of promoting enmity on grounds of religion, due to his 'provocative' statements from 30 January.
“I stand by what I said, there is nothing I said that is wrong, legally or morally. Two things are clear from this episode. Firstly, that Hindu privilege is a reality and secondly, that there is radicalisation in Hindu society. Even if they do not want to accept it today, they will have to accept it in a few years. This radicalisation is not going to go on its own,” Usmani, who graduated from Aligarh Muslim University recently, said in a long conversation that reflected a measured defiance.
Usmani was earlier arrested on 10 July in the aftermath of the violent clashes that erupted between UP Police and anti-CAA protesters of December 2019. Several cases were slapped against him including charges of attempt to murder, rioting and causing hurt to public servants.
He was then released on bail on 3 September. His bail order said that Usmani had a good academic record, was not arrested from the scene of the crime and no incriminating evidence was found on him at the time of arrest. A month later, in November 2020, the Aligarh administration issued an externment order banning him from entering Aligarh for six months under the UP Control of Goondas Act.
When Usmani was invited to speak at the event, his father was worried. "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 deta (I'd fix him), just like a father does to his child. But I was unable to do that as a father."
While Sharjeel himself was wary of the event, he also said, “'I thought that in a programme where there are people like Arundhati Roy and Justice Kolse Patil, who will look at me?”
Usmani has been accused of allegedly hurting the sentiment of the Hindu community, when he said “today’s Hindu society is rotten.”
The Quint spoke to Usmani, his father Tariq Usmani, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves and two other speakers who were present at the Elgar Parishad event, 23-year-old student activist Aysha Renna and journalist Prashant Kanojia, to understand what happened at the event, the events that transpired after and the path ahead. All this happening in the backdrop of politicians making demands for Sharjeel’s immediate arrest.
The Elgar Parishad Event
Why Sharjeel Apologised Before His Speech
The Part of His Speech That Stoked Controversy
The Path Ahead
Details of Both FIRs Against Sharjeel
Speaking about his impending arrest, Tariq Usmani told this reporter sounding distraught, "He is going to get arrested again, we are at the junction again, why did he need to speak?"
The Elgar Parishad Event: Heavy Security, Everyone Entering Was Recorded
The Elgar Parishad conclave was being organised after three years. There were five sessions with speakers and 14 speakers were at the event, including Raja Vemula, Bant Singh, Aysha Renna, Prashant Kanojia, Sharjeel Usmani, Arundhati Roy, Justice Kolse Patil and Kannan Gopinathan.
"When we entered the venue, there was police everywhere. One policeman was recording every person coming in, all car numbers were taken note of," Journalist and anti-caste activist Prashant Kanojia said, adding that there were more vehicles of the police than there were of the people who came for the event.
The event started at around 11:30 am and went on till 9:00 pm. Speeches were interspersed with cultural performances. While the audience at the beginning of the event was initially of about 200 people with at least 800 policemen, it swelled over the day to about 1700 people, Kanojia said.
Why Sharjeel Apologised Before His Speech
Usmani said he was nervous about speaking. Which is why he started his speech by saying:
“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.”
Explaining why he started with this, he said, "The people sitting were not my primary audience. With Muslims you know what to write from and who to refer to, here I was not sure. That is why I apologised. The reason I asked them to tell me if they disagreed with me before they leave, is because without having uncomfortable conversations, even with our allies like the Dalit-Muslim community, we are not going to go ahead as a society. I truly believe that."
People did come to Sharjeel, but not to raise complaints, Kanojia and Aysha said. “Everyone congratulated him on his speech, they told him he said very pertinent things,” Kanojia said. 23-year-old Jamia student and anti-CAA activist Aysha said that there was no disturbance when Sharjeel spoke. “Everyone was calm and listening. The only time there were interruptions it was for a round of applause two to three times, other than that there was nothing.”
While Aysha had been invited to speak on the first session with speakers, titled 'From Shadows to the Stars', Sharjeel spoke in the fifth session on 'State repression and building the social movement' where Kanojia also spoke.
The Part of His Speech That Stoked Controversy
The event ended without any controversy. However, twelve hours after his speech, there were hints that it could lead to a controversy. "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.
What was the controversial statement?
Hindi: "Aaj ka Hindu samaaj sadh gaya hai"
English: "Today's Hindu society is rotten."
"This was the most controversial line apparently from my speech," Sharjeel said, explaining how firstly he was talking about society here and not about religion. He went on to say that there is no word in Hindi and Urdu that means radicalisation, the closest word would be kattarpanti.
The FIR registered against Sharjeel in Pune qutoes the following portion of his speech:
“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 in a different way? 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, they go and watch movies and then again, the next day, the 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.”
“I don’t trust the Indian judiciary, I do not trust Indian executive, I do not trust Indian parliament, in all I do not trust in Indian state.”
Kanojia, who saw Sharjeel speak from the stage, said, "When Sharjeel started talking about minority oppression, and the way minorities are being treated, it was applauded by all the people present as well as the organisers. The way the FIR is registered against him, is entirely fraudulent because they have used one sentence Sharjeel said, that is not problematic from any angle, and used it out of context. He said 'aaj ka Hindu samaj sadh gaya hai,' which was in the context of those who are spreading hate and normalising bigotry."
Sharjeel said that if they think there is no rot in the society then all this would have not happened in the first place. "The fact that this is happening, the fact that one can't take this small a criticism, shows there is rot," he added.
The Path Ahead: 'Mentally Prepared to Go Back to Jail'
Sharjeel told this reporter that he knew his speech would make people uncomfortable, but he did not think that it would amount to a case of sedition. "Being offended has become their national game."
An event in the Press Club in Delhi on 4 February, had to be cancelled due to the two FIRs against Sharjeel. "The event was against the witch-hunt of activist, students and journalists, but due to the news of the FIR against me, the event had been cancelled."
Kanojia said that the case was expected, that wherever they go to speak they expect some controversy or the other to come up. "The fear has gone, they have already filed cases against me." Aysha is not worried, "Not worried about this. Elgar was organising this event after two years, after all the suppression and issues they were facing. An event in which Muslim speakers like us were invited and given adequate space, so all this was expected. I think Dalit-Muslim coordination is very essential, not only online but more importantly offline. That is why I went. Not worried about a case, if it happens, I will deal with it then
Sharjeel knows his fight is a long one. He has been working on an independent fellowship while also translating a book for a publishing house. He has not been home since November and considering how the Maharashtra government leaders are issuing statements saying they will arrest him soon, there is a chance he will have to wait longer than the six month externment order to end to return home.
"Yes, I am mentally prepared to go back to jail. If it starts another debate on radicalisation and free speech, then why not," he said.
Details of Both FIRs Against Sharjeel
The first FIR was registered on 2 February, under Section 153 A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion) on the basis of a complaint registered by advocate Pradeep Gawade. Gawade is the secretary of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and a former member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, and a law graduate from Pune’s Fergusson College.
A day after Pune Police registered the FIR, Maharashtra BJP president Chandrakant Patil wrote a letter to UP CM Yogi Adityanath asking for a case to be registered against Sharjeel. "Strict action should be taken against the person who had hurt the sentiment of Hindu community in Maharashtra and across India, and this case should be used as a precedent so that nobody dares to use such words again,' Patil said in his letter on 3 February.
The same day Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said that Sharjeel was not in Maharashtra and that he will be arrested from whichever state he is in. Then the Shiv Sena, in its mouthpiece Saamna, labelled Usmani's speech as ‘rubbish’ and said that he will be handcuffed soon. In the backdrop of the increasing political attention his speech was getting, a second case was registered against Usmani in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
Sharjeel was booked under sedition and other charges on the complaint of Anurag Singh, who told the police that he found a video of the speech on Internet. He has accused Usmani of “creating hate” against the Yogi Adityanath government, promoting enmity among groups, hurting religious sentiments and conspiring against the government. The FIR has been registered under IPC sections 124 A (sedition), 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295 A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings) along with sections of the IT Act.
While the Pune case is being handled by Human Rights Law Network founder and Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, Sharjeel says he is waiting to get proper details of the FIR in Uttar Pradesh. “Reading the FIR, there is no crime committed by him at all. We are currently waiting and seeing what will happen,” Gonsalves said.
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