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.