No Tyrant Can Endure

On the arrest of Umar Khalid

Umar Khalid (second from left) on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on 21 February 2016. It was less than two weeks after an event titled after the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, Country Without A Post Office, was attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Khalid was briefly detained by the police for his role in the event. Ishan Tankha
Umar Khalid (second from left) on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on 21 February 2016. It was less than two weeks after an event titled after the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, Country Without A Post Office, was attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Khalid was briefly detained by the police for his role in the event. Ishan Tankha
16 September, 2020

On the night of 13 September, as the calendar turned, news came in that Umar Khalid, an activist, had been arrested after several hours of interrogation at the office of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, in Lodhi Colony. Khalid, a PhD scholar in the Adivasi history of Jharkhand from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, was detained for his alleged role in a conspiracy, which the Delhi Police claimed instigated the violence that ripped through northeast Delhi in the last week of February. The activist, whom I have known for over a decade, is a young man brimming full of tough questions and aspirations to forge a new political pathway—not as an old-style leader or demagogue, but as an inspiring comrade to a whole host of young people who have been baptised into politics at a difficult time. His activism revolves around several citizens’ initiatives for peace and communal harmony.

I first came to know him ten years ago, when he asked me a tough question from the very last row of a packed auditorium. I had spoken at an event on the situation of prisoners and undertrials, especially political prisoners, in India. Those were slightly different days from now. The state was, even then, a violent, repressive entity. The bulk of the media, even then, were smarmy, cynical opportunists. Higher education, even then, was still a mess, but the bright sparks of questions were still being ignited in campuses across India. Over these past ten years, we have forged a friendship, Umar, some of his close comrades and me, despite our differences in age, despite some of our minor differences, or tangential angularities in our political outlooks. It is a friendship built on him and his friends asking me tough questions, and me sometimes not having the answers, but only another tough question to offer, in return.

But my friendship with Umar actually began with a long conversation on love, liberty and ethics, late one winter night in December 2015. He was still a student at JNU. I had spoken at a JNU hostel-meeting and afterwards, Umar and his comrades asked me how I felt about their need to learn and explore a new language of sympathy and solidarity within the left. They wanted to articulate, they said, a politics that would respect, not shun, desire and its complexity; that would make room for an autonomy and plurality of registers of affection and care as revolutionary principles. This was a new, thoughtful, quieter Umar. I knew him, albeit slightly, as more of a firebrand—as the kind of radical who thinks of radicalism more in terms of heat than of light. But something in him had changed, and I was pleasantly surprised.

We talked late into the night, and at one point our conversation turned into something more uncannily prescient. I said then, to Umar and his friends that I could see a time coming when an invasive, bloated, paranoiac state would invade into university campuses and the lives of students and young people in a much more intrusive way. When simple things like who one loved, how one loved, or what one spoke, or read, or thought about would be ground for suspicion. That possibility seemed remote then. It is strangely, unnervingly proximate now.

And then came the incident at JNU on 9 February 2016, which along with the mourning for Rohith Vemula’s suicide just three weeks before, defined a watershed, and a catalyst, that marked the rise of a new, sharply political, consciousness in a generation that many had erroneously thought of as apolitical. A small student-initiated programme of poetry readings and discussion titled after the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, Country Without A Post Office, in memory of the unjustly executed Afzal Guru, degenerated into an ugly episode when it was attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and broadcast by a waiting clutch of reporters. A group of strangers shouted some objectionable slogans that referred to the disintegration of India, and a whole new phrase— Tukde-Tukde Gang—was born in television studios that night. The Tukde Tukde—fragments, fragments—slogan, which had never been uttered by either Umar, or any of his comrades, has continued to haunt an entire generation of radical student and youth activists in India. The Delhi Police booked Umar, his friend Anirban Bhattacharya, and the then JNU Student Union president, Kanhaiya Kumar. All three of them were briefly detained by the Delhi Police, and then were released on bail. The rest is history.

Umar Khalid (second from right), along with fellow students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, watches media coverage of the aftermath of the fracas that erupted on the campus following the memorial for Afzal Guru, which was held on 9 February. Several news channels allied to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party branded Khalid as a “terrorist” for his participation in the event, which marked the controversial execution of Guru for his role in the attack on the Parliament in 2001. Ishan Tankha

Since then, I have watched Umar weather into a reflective, mature, articulate and thoughtful political figure. He has weathered endless, bitter abuse in the media, and one assassination attempt. His charisma is quiet. His leadership, if we can call it leadership, is built more by moral example, and a reticent but firm ethical stance. I prefer to see it as a catalytic and magnetic force rather than a claim to authority and power that has been fuelled by the machismo of rhetorical flourishes, or by a backroom boy’s expertise at Machiavellian machinations.

But the time we were in, that wintry night of 2015, was nothing compared to the sinister character of the time we are in now. We were dealing then with the remnants of the sleaze of a regime that was too lazy to be democratic and too lax to be the authoritarian entity it secretly wanted to be. Right now, we are living in the middle of the nightmare of an undeclared emergency.

Khalid has been named as an accused, and arrested under a first information report—59  of 2020—which was filed on 6 March. He has been charged under four sections of the repulsive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which deal with abetment, causing death, fundraising and conspiracy; 18 sections of the Indian Penal Code, ranging from murder and rioting to trespassing; two sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984; and two sections of the Arms Act, 1959. On 14 September, Amitabh Rawat, an additional sessions judge at the Karkardooma district court remanded Khalid to ten days of police custody—according to news reports, the police told the court that they wanted to confront Khalid with documents running into 11 lakh pages. The police had already questioned Umar for five hours on 31 July, when they seized his phone, and around twelve hours on the day of his arrest. The chargesheet in this case is expected to be filed on 17 September.

In a measure of the absurdity that has become a hallmark of the entire Delhi Police investigation into the violence, Umar had been accused on the basis of a statement made by an unnamed informer to sub inspector Arvind Kumar, of the Narcotics Unit of the police’s Crime Branch. As per the FIR, the informer was privy to meetings between Khalid, a man named Danish, and two other persons. It is hard to imagine what an informer of the Narcotics Unit was doing listening to “secret meetings” where a “pre-meditated conspiracy to unleash riots in Delhi” was apparently being hatched. But then, as we know from experience, imagination was never a commodity in short supply in the Delhi Police.

Like several others who have been implicated by Delhi Police in the violence, Khalid’s name finds mention in the chargesheets or supplementary chargesheets filed against at least five FIRs and an affidavit filed by the police on 13 September. This includes FIR 65 of 2020, where a former Aam Aadmi Party councillor, Tahir Husain, is the primary accused in the murder of an Intelligence Bureau staffer, Ankit Sharma; and FIR101 of 2020, which again names Hussain as the main accused in the violence that occurred in the locality of Khajuri Khas on 24 February. The chargesheets of both these FIRs mention Khalid providing logistical support and funding for the “riot-conspiracy.” Then there are FIRs 50 and 48 of 2020 which deal with the sit-in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in Jaffrabad, on 22 February. According a news report in the, the disclosure statements of three accused related to these two FIRs name Khalid. The statements, whose veracity has come under severe criticism, belong to Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, founders of a women’s collective named Pinjra Tod, and Gulfisha Fatima. A report in The Wire noted that not only are the statements by Kalita and Narwal identical, right down to the errors in spellings, both the women have written “I refuse to sign” on these statements. Khalid’s name finds mention in these statements as a fundraiser who held “secret meetings” and gave provocative speeches.

Even more curious is the case of FIR 114 of 2020. Hussain is the primary accused in this instance too. According to a report in The Quint, the chargesheet quotes a shadowy, anonymous figure named as “Public Witness Y,” who alleged that Khalid was part of the conspiracy that caused the violence. The witness’s gender switches within a few paragraphs in the chargesheet, which states that at a private meeting held in the last week of January 2020, near the Old Bus Stand in Seelampur, Khalid said: “Khoon bahana padega, aise nahi chalega. Chakka jaam hi aakhri rasta hai. Humein sarkaar ko ghutno ke bal laana hi hoga. Sanghiyon ki sarkar aise nahi maanegi”—Blood will have to be shed. We cannot let things be like this. A road blockade is our last recourse. We have to bring this government down on its knees. This government of the Sangh will not listen otherwise.

Further, the affidavit filed by the police on the day Khalid was arrested refers to a speech that he gave, which reportedly instigated the Muslim community to blockade roads during the visit of the American president Donald Trump in late February, but there are no details on where and when this speech was given or recorded. The FIR 59 also refers to a speech by Khalid in Amravati, Maharashtra, on 17 February, as proof of his having instigated a road blockade in northeast Delhi on 22 February—this blockade, in turn, is what is being held out as the catalyst for the violence that ensued. Prominent politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, such as the former chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, cited this speech as both prophecy and provocation by Khalid for the violence that shook Delhi. Except that Khalid does not even mention, let alone propose, a road blockade in this speech which was given at a peaceful gathering of people who were against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens.

While no one can vouch for the veracity of what shadowy, anonymous informers tell the police about “secret meetings,” it is possible to examine a speech made at a public meeting, which was recorded and uploaded on YouTube and other social media platforms in its entirety.

Khalid’s exact words were: “When Donald Trump comes to India on 24 February, then we will say that the Prime Minister and the government of India are trying to divide the country. They are destroying the values of Mahatma Gandhi, and the people of India are fighting against them. If those in power want to divide India, the people of India are ready to unite the country.” Then he went on add, “We won’t respond to violence with violence. We won’t respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it with love. If they thrash us with lathis, we keep holding the tricolour. If they fire bullets, then we will hold the Constitution. If they jail us, we will go to jail singing, Saare Jahaan Se Acha Hindustan Hamara”—a patriotic song written by the poet Muhammad Iqbal in 1904, which became an anthem of opposition against the British Raj and is still played during official ceremonies of the Independence Day and Republic Day.

Once upon a time, people would be lauded and respected when they spoke of unity, of love, of non-violence. Those days are gone, and we are living in a different time, perhaps even in a different country. Today, words like love, non-violence and unity, invoking the Constitution and its preamble, remembering the traditions of peaceful coexistence, solidarity and tolerance—all these acts can now land you in jail under charges of aiding and abetting terrorism, under the relevant provisions of the UAPA.

Umar Khalid at a protest at the Parliament Street in Delhi, on 15 April 2018. The protest, titled Not In My Name, had been called by filmmakers Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, against the tardy investigation into the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the minority Bakerwal community, in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir. Ishan Tankha

A day after Khalid’s arrest, a report in the Indian Express noted that “twenty people have been arrested by the Special Cell so far, including 16 under the UAPA. Four have got bail, while 15 are still in jail.” The same day, Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan, filmmakers who were catalysts for a citizens’ initiative called Artists Unite that has been active in promoting peace and communal harmony, were summoned by the police in the investigation into the violence. Academics like Apoorvanand are also being questioned. We have all heard of love-jihad—a conspiracy theory usually propagated by right-wing Hindu outfits, who claim that Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam. I suppose we may have to get used to hearing about love-terrorism. This regime truly fears love more than it fears anything else.

Some weeks ago, Umar and one of his friends came to see me, and again, we talked late into the night. This time, we began to imagine and outline the prospect of turning to a vision of an open, democratic, tolerant, questioning, egalitarian, socialist, feminist, justice-loving heart of Islam. An Islamic heritage that could resonate with the communities of young men and women who created the nascent Shaheen Bagh wave, and who were, in turn, shaped by it.

We talked of Ibn Arabi and Al Ghaffari, of Sarmad and Hallaj, of the Passion of Karbala and the Covenant of Medina, of Maulana Bhasani and Nazrul Islam and Muzaffar Ahmed and Abul Kalam Azad, of Hasrat Mohani and Hamid Dalwai, of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz, Fehmida Riaz and Sahir Ludhianvi, of Rokeya Shekhawat Hussain and Fatima Sheikh, of Bhagat Singh, Ali Shariati, Alam Khundmiri, Eqbal Ahmed and Ambedkar, and of the young and old Marx, and of the always haunting Rosa Luxemburg. An entire lexicon of thinking that has been lost because so many of these names, once common knowledge, are no longer so. Our interlocutors that evening were entire centuries and longitudes of longing for a better world. We made plans to form reading groups and discussion networks, especially for a new generation of young Muslim men and women, so that they could reconnect with the humanist, ecumenical and democratic facets of their heritage.

We spoke of how Umar could find ways of listening to the concerns of all working people, of women, of young people, of minorities and migrants, and speaking with them—it was his construct of a political, cultural and ethical project. Of how this could happen in a post-nationalist vein that would still be rooted in the subcontinent’s realities. Of how this project could form connections and networks of love, resistance and solidarity. Of how he could speak to, and listen to, all Indians as an Indian, to all South Asians as a South Asian. Of how he could speak as a rafiq, a comrade, to all Muslims, especially in India, who could help restore, renew and repair the frayed relationship between what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to be a citizen of the future.

The activist Umar Khalid addresses a crowd at Shaheen Bagh, in Delhi on 2 February 2020. The crowd was protesting the newly enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens. The protests, which began in December 2019, took on an iconic status as women from the Muslim community took the lead in registering their opposition to discriminatory policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Our conversation sketched possibilities of a new, and renewed, non-authoritarian and democratic left, that could help bring a new future into being, in India and everywhere in the world. He also talked of his passion for cricket, of the difficult conversations about faith and doubt that he has had with himself and with those closest to him, and his desire to read, read, and read more. We parted with promises of compiling a reading list that would start with an itinerary of sources to fashion a liberation theology that could make sense within the contours and context of South Asian Islam.

In parting, Umar said that he hoped to have the time to catch up on reading if he were to be arrested. I promised to be a librarian’s assistant, making book-lists for him, and to help find ways to get the books through the prison walls, if he were to be kept away for long. We have work to do, regardless of where Umar finds his liberty, in prison, or in the world.

The people who rule this country now, have made some very grave mistakes. They have done this by imprisoning and bringing to trial young people like Umar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Gulfisha Fatima, and by making it impossible for radiant beings like Rohith Vemula to live. By harassing young women like the activist and Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar, by shadowing and threatening Kawalpreet Kaur, the president of the All India Students Association for Delhi, by injuring the activist Khalid Saifi. By the haunting absence of the JNU student Najeeb Ahmed. By the calculated misogynistic callousness of the social media trials of JNU’s Shehla Rashid and Bollywood’s Rhea Chakraborty.

They have alienated an entire generation by doing a host of things that made those in power appear monstrous and hostile. They have robbed the young of dignity and respect by forcing exams on them in the time of a pandemic. They have insulted teachers and turned universities into shadows of themselves. They have destroyed prospects of meaningful employment for young workers. They have dished out a sick diet of hatred and decadence.

As of now, while COVID-19 lockdowns still inhibit gatherings on campuses, workplaces and the streets, the disaffection of the young is just a cascade of the activation of the dislike buttons when the regime’s big guns go blazing on YouTube—the video of the prime minister Narendra Modi’s talk show Mann ki Baat, which aired on 31 August, received over ten lakh dislikes on its YouTube channel within days of it being uploaded. But it will not take time for a ripple of online hostility to turn into a tsunami of offline rage. Sooner or later, bodies will return to the streets and squares of our cities to make, once again, their tryst with history. The hubris of all regimes lies in thinking that they are invincible. However, like in the parable we have all read in school, the children of this time already know that the emperor is naked.

Umar Khalid is also a child of this time. He will not be silent, or be silenced, in prison. I will not be surprised if, with all the reason and passion at his disposal, he turns his trial into a form of theatre that exposes and explodes the naked centre of power, just like another young man called Bhagat Singh did, at another time, to another regime.

The fact that this regime has to imprison someone like Umar, and write farcical chargesheets to make its case while it protects, rewards and chaperones those who killed and provoked killings in February 2020, does not reveal its strength. It reveals, instead, how weak, how sick, how hollow the regime has become. It shows us, not its durability and power, but that its days are numbered. No tyrant can endure the curse of the young.