After a slew of politically motivated arrests and an unabated witch-hunt of activists, lawyers, academics and members of civil society — in both the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi riots cases — it was finally my dear friend Umar Khalid’s turn to be arrested.
This was inevitable, much as we all hoped against it. Umar has cooperated at every step of the investigation. His lawyer submitted in the court that the former JNU student was interrogated for five hours on 31 July, and for the entire day on Sunday. He travelled all night despite the ongoing pandemic to reach Delhi from Kolkata and joined the investigation. Umar, who has been arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, was not even present in Delhi between 23 and 26 February — when the riots broke out — yet he is being called the “mastermind” in this grand farce.
If the rise of authoritarianism in India, today, had to be evidenced by the stark contrast in just two videos, then sample this: Since February of 2020, we have seen the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur, on record, yelling ‘Goli maaro saalon ko (shoot the traitors)’. On the other side you have Umar, clearly saying: “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.“
Preach peace only to be labled as ‘terrorist’…
In Narendra Modi’s India, a man named Umar Khalid preaches peace and solidarity only to be called a ‘terrorist’, a ‘traitor’ and be accused of riots where the majority of the victims have been Muslims. In this grand-dystopia, which puts even George Orwell to shame, while Kapil Mishra’s ‘hate-speech’ and now his calls to hang Umar are in full public display, government-friendly media has chosen to look the other way, yet again, and vilify those who talk of love and peace.
I have known Umar since his first media trial of February 2016 and his ensuing arrest and the sedition case. Back then, he was part of that motley group of JNU students who spoke truth to power and represented the wave of dissent against Modi’s emerging majoritarian democracy. As the years rolled by, many of us saw how Umar, Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya took different paths in their shared dissent against the Modi government.
While Kanhaiya’s flair for Hindi oratory and roots-to-ground Bihari connection stamped his visible appeal as a future politician, Umar and Anirban had a markedly more academic background. I, too, saw Umar as a promising scholar-activist at first, and I think even he didn’t want to embrace the mass politics approach. Yet, after the new wave of impunity since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), I have genuinely seen Umar grow into a mass leader. Here was a man going all over India between December 2019 and February 2020, talking about communal harmony, secularism and constitutional values.
I am aware that for many, now, Umar is a voice of the Muslim community. However, while I see that as much-needed, I would like to see him not be pigeonholed as a ‘Muslim leader’, but as a mass youth leader. Umar was at Bhima-Koregaon event in January 2018, where, yet again, the ‘Radio Rwanda’ and political actors accused him of sparking ‘riots’ while Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide roamed scot-free. Even then, Umar was not just a ‘Muslim voice’, but an equally anti-caste, socialist voice, and someone who deeply cared for Ambedkarite traditions of social justice and civil liberties.
…and face media bias
Just like the media often reduce me to ‘Dalit leader’ when they would rightfully never call Rahul Gandhi or Amit Shah as ‘Brahmin leader’ or ‘Jain leader’, it is in a similar vein that I have always felt that we must be seen as more than just our identities (without taking away our rights to be vocal about the oppression behind these identities). The Umar I have known since his JNU days was also not religious. And yet, back in 2016, the State and the government-friendly media tasked it upon themselves to convert Umar to Islam.
We must not forget that Umar was singled out because of his name, because he came from a family of practising Muslims, because he spoke about the injustices meted out against Indian Muslims. Just like the media made activist Anand Teltumbde and others like him into ‘Naxalites’ because they are Dalits who understand Marxism. Just like the media made Sushant Singh Rajput’s partner Rhea Chakraborty into a ‘drug-peddling murder-accused’ without any proof, but did nothing in Jiah Khan’s case despite her leaving a suicide note naming her former partner. Similarly, the courts, the police, and Modi-Amit Shah machinery have made an atheistic Umar into a Muslim, because what else was needed to vilify him?
It is shocking to me how, both then and now, Umar has been called a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, and that he will face fabricated charges. It seems that almost every political prisoner today is specifically being made to pay the price of either coming from a Muslim background, or being a Leftist. The Delhi riots charge sheets accuse Umar, United Against Hate founder Khalid Saifi, my friends from Pinjra Tod (Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal) and many others of weaving a “grand conspiracy“. But the biggest conspiracy is coming from somewhere else. It’s the script where constitutional, pro-justice and pro-oppressed voices become Jihadis and Naxalites, and are accused of laying ‘Islamist-Maoist’ plots to destroy India.
Yes, India has been destroyed, and not by the likes of Umar, but by those in power.
My dear friend Umar — a comrade-in-humour — and his struggles will go down in history books not as destroyers, but as builders of India, as the architects of a better India — of Bhagat Singh and Babasaheb’s dreams.
Jignesh Mevani is an independent MLA in the Gujarat assembly and convener of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. Views are personal.
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