Sharjeel Imam; IIT Bombay, JNU and everything in between

by Vaibhav Sorte & Jayanth Tadinada

Sharjeel Imam

A frail figure, sporting a beard with a kurta and pyjama hung on him, scuttling with determination and head always held high is how one would have noticed Sharjeel Imam in the hostel 4 of IIT Bombay. It seemed he was unstoppable but if you managed to get his attention and asked something, a small discussion would turn into a barrage of historical incidents and facts, all from Sharjeel and the discussion would turn into a crash course on a historical event.

His ground floor room was the lounge for those who were even remotely interested in books, history, politics, qawwalis, poems, language, video games, media and computers. At any given point in the day, one would find half a dozen slippers lying outside the room and the room filled with people who are either hooked on to their computers playing DOTA (a video game that most engineers are fond of) or playing guitar, singing, fiercely debating or sometimes just reading. He is welcoming and ensured that everyone in his room were at ease.

Sharjeel and Computer Science

The introductory course in computer programming for undergraduate freshers – CS101 – was a tough course. Not because C++ is a difficult programming language or the exams were unreasonably challenging but because the majority of us – who came from smaller towns – never had access to computers back in 2006.

For most of the students, navigating the Linux terminal was more difficult than the actual coding problem to be solved in the 3 hour lab session. But Sharjeel took to the Linux terminal like a duck to water. He would finish his assignment and submit it in less than an hour and then spend the remaining two hours helping others with their assignments.

Programming languages, unlike natural (human) languages, have an unforgiving syntax which is not intuitive but technical. It is how the computer reads and interprets instructions. People learning to code usually execute the program to find the errors in the code. It’s difficult for beginners to get all the semi-colons, brackets, and memory allocations right in the first attmept without any errors.

Sharjeel, however, had a remarkable ability to read code without executing it and spot bugs in them like an English teacher spots grammar mistakes in a student essay. Which is prodigal.

He attributes this ability to his highschool days in Patna where he joined computer classes for fifty rupees a month at a neighbourhood internet cafe. Sharjeel found some books on computer programming lying around in the cafe. These belonged to students who were studying Computer Applications. Within a few months Sharjeel got a hold of programming and eventually started teaching the students of computer applications and the cafe owner who were much older than him. This meant that he was also able to use the cafe free of cost.

CS101 was just the beginning of his journey as a programmer. In his first year of college, he competed in Codathlon in IIT Bombay’s Techfest – an annual coding competition that draws participants from all over the country – and his team finished second. The following year, they competed again. The competition consists of four rounds – logic, reversing, networking, and hacking. This time around, they came first.

Sharjeel was attracted to the philosophy and collaborative nature of the open source movement and installed Linux alongside Windows in many friends’ personal laptops. This comic is literally true in Sharjeel’s case.

While he was excellent on the tech front, humanities was where his real passion was. Apart from Urdu/Hindi and English, he learned to read and write Farsi (from books and internet), and German because he wanted to read the original untranslated works of his favorite poets and philosophers. He later added Arabic and Bengali to that list while pursuing his M. Phil in JNU.

His room was full of poetry books in many languages – Faiz, Ghalib, Rumi, Paash etc. – which he devoured, recited, and patiently translated to anyone who came to his room. Other times you would find him reading Nietszche, Wittgenstein, Kant and others who transformed Western philosophy and shaped its progress.

After his third year of college, he secured a summer internship in Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen where he contributed experimental extensions to Banana Algebra. For his Masters’ thesis in Computer Science & Engineering, he developed an automated mechanism that checks the equivalence of source and optimized programs and hence the (GCC) compiler’s correctness.

Career as an engineer & historian

After finishing his masters in Computer Science Engineering from IIT Bombay, he moved to Bangalore to join Juniper Networks where he worked as a developer on the Junos Operating System for a couple of years after which he decided to quit his job to pursue a PhD in history from JNU.

He quit the comforts of a corporate career in IT but he never quit being a software engineer. He continued to work as a freelance developer to maintain his financial independence. His responsibilities compounded after losing his father to cancer in November 2014.

He built many web apps for a European client over 3 years, AI/ML models, and product features for many startups with which he supported his younger brother’s education. He was the major contributor to the monetary needs of his family till he was incarcerated.

As part of his history research, he spent months poring through newspapers, books, and official communications in the National Archives of New Delhi and in the State Archives in Patna to reconstruct the events in Bihar which led to large scale communal attacks and rioting in 1946.

His knowledge of Farsi, Urdu, and Bengali meant that he was able to access and refer to a much wider net of sources instead of relying only on English language reports and translations of the era.

2017 – 2019: Collaboration with Rekhta

Sharjeel was immensely excited about his collaboration with It was a culmination of all his interests – languages, poetry, and computer science. He saw poetry as an intersection of social science, computer science, and literature.

Sharjeel rued about the lack of good Natural Language Processing (NLP) resources and tools for Indian languages and incorporated many computational techniques to improve the rigour and scale of his research.

Since there was no industry standard OCR (optical character recognition) tool for Urdu language, he reverse engineered an Arabic OCR tool and made it work for Urdu so that he could digitize thousands of scanned Urdu documents at scale.

He has surveyed, parsed, and combined many Urdu, Hindi, and English dictionaries into a master dictionary. He refined the dictionary architecture so that it is optimized for transliteration (Urdu to Hindi) and search.

Rekhta Dictionary [] an online trilingual urdu dictionary with word meaning, definition, pronunciation, usage, synonym, antonym, idiom, proverb of urdu words – which Sharjeel helped build is the most popular and advanced Urdu/Hindi/English dictionary in the world today.

Sharjeel went one step further and parsed scanned documents using NLP techniques and soon he was able to perform keyword searches across thousands of scanned pages and documents highlighting the mentions of a particular word in a matter of seconds. (Similar to what Google Books does but in Urdu)

He has most recently built an AI based recommendation engine that can classify ghazals by Behr (meter), Radif, and Qaafiya. So if you enter the name of a particular ghazal you liked, the AI model can suggest other ghazals set in the same meter.

Or if you enter the first she’r of the ghazal, the AI can recommend succeeding couplets that conform to the behr structure of the ghazal contextualized to the moods set by the poet. This also made it possible for anyone to search huge datasets of performed ghazals via their technical parameters.

Sharjeel Imam is incarcerated under the draconian UAPA and sedition laws. Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh registered cases against him under UAPA and sedition for a fraction of his speech which was misconstrued and made viral by the hindutva groups.

During the bail hearing on 4th October, Senior Adv Tanveer Ahmed Mir appearing for Sharjeel Imam highlighted that, ‘In the said speech, your honor, there are at least 20 instances where Sharjeel Imam says, “DO NOT RESORT TO VIOLENCE. DO NOT PELT STONES. WHERE THERE IS A CONFLICT RESORT TO THE PROTEST PEACEFULLY.”

The cases against Mr Imam are to ensure that the voices that highlight the oppressive nature of the nation-state are always suppressed and kept in check. It is to instill fear against any kind of dissent. As the Sr Advocate Mir rightly called out, the state action via these excessive criminal cases slapped on Sharjeel Imam are nothing but a ‘whip of the monarch’

The article is written by Jayanth Tadinada and Vaibhav Sorte. Jayanth is Sharjeel’s batchmate from IIT Bombay and Vaibhav is Sharjeel’s junior. They have spent 4 years in the same hostel wing together and many times in the same room.

Vaibhav Sorte is a filmmaker and currently studying at SRFTI

Jayanth Tadinada has done MTech from IITB

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