My friend Hilal Ahmed, also a columnist for ThePrint, has an ensemble of icons on his study table. There is a picture of the Holy Qaba shrine that reminds you he is a five-namaz-a-day, practising Muslim. Next to that is the iconic sketch of Che Guevara, an affirmation of his roots in the Marxist intellectual tradition. And finally, there is an image of Mahatma Gandhi, a nod to his political vision and practice.
Over the years, I have come to see that there is something strange, not in what my friend Hilal does, but in the fact that we find it strange. Like so much else, oddity also lies in the eyes of the beholder. We find what we see on Hilal’s study table odd – more than a Bengali household with photographs of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Lenin next to each other – because the range of identities available to a Muslim is much narrower than anyone else.
Two cruel choices
This ‘identity’ question came back to me when the Delhi Police arrested Umar Khalid on Sunday in connection with the February riots. You are young. You are rebellious. You are an Indian. And you happen to be a Muslim. Can you be all this, coherently, without falling foul of your conscience or finding yourself imprisoned? This is not just Umar Khalid’s dilemma. This must torment millions of young, educated Indian Muslims today.
When I was in university, I could see many young Muslims forced to make this cruel choice. Made to carry the burden of history that they did not make, and asked to furnish proof of loyalty to their own country, a young Muslim would settle for one of the two compromises: forgetting Muslim-ness or curbing rebelliousness. Most Leftists I knew chose the first path. They turned atheists, broke with their family and community, sought a home in a secular, cosmopolitan society, and sometimes discovered late in life that they remained lonely and Muslim after all. Otherwise, they quelled their rebellion within, settled to be a ‘good’ conformist Muslim, made their careers and, on occasion, found it hard to look at themselves in the mirror.
The third way
Umar Khalid represents a way past this cruel dilemma. I came to know him much after he had attained celebrity status, thanks to the 2016 JNU sedition case. By then I knew that the case was fictitious, that there was no evidence to link him or Kanhaiya Kumar to silly, ‘anti-India’ slogans.
Yet, I was slightly wary of this radical young leader to the Left of the established Left. I had seen many of this type in my life. Their idealism and sacrifice charmed me, but their ideology left me cold. I have often wondered which world they lived in. Thus, getting to know Umar Khalid was a pleasant surprise. Exciting but not excitable, famous but grounded, well-read, yet connected to the real world, visionary but also practical. He looks beyond the revolutionary fantasies of a violent overthrow of the Indian State and is willing to engage with the messy ways of democratic politics. Forthcoming in dealing with the questions of caste and gender, Umar Khalid is the kind of Left leader I would like to see in the future.
What really struck me most was something else: his willingness to stand up as a Muslim and his refusal to become merely a Muslim. Given that his father is from Jamaat-e-Islami, it is remarkable that Umar has avoided being a Muslim fundamentalist or someone who shuns Muslim identity altogether. He is neither a believing nor a practising Muslim. Unlike my friend Hilal, Umar does not offer Namaz. His partner, who is his intellectual and political companion as well, is a Bengali Hindu. That would hardly please the Muslim community. He speaks about the plight of the Pasmanda (backward caste) Muslims, which must irritate the Muslim elite. Being any shade of the Left is a strict no-no in the Muslim political life so far.
Yet, Umar Khalid speaks unapologetically about the experience of being a Muslim. He catalogues the plight of the community as recorded in official documents like the Sachar Committee report. He links it to the plight of all the other marginalised communities: Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, women, and so on. He speaks the language of constitutional rights, just as any other leader from any other community would, yet he speaks categorically about the discrimination against Muslims, distinct from the oppression against all poor and marginalised. He leads the campaign against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, while steering clear of Muslim communal organisations. He speaks with courage and conviction — I cannot forget tens of thousands of mobile phones turning into torches, as Umar invited everyone to join Azadi slogans: Hum kya maange, azadi… bhookh se azadi… Ambedkar wali azadi…
That’s Umar Khalid. Young. Idealist. Rebellious. Uncompromising. Indian. And Muslim — all at the same time. That’s what makes him an icon for the youth today. Especially for the new educated middle-class Indian Muslims, desperately seeking to move away from the clutches of clerics, from the prison of Muslim ghettos, from the stereotypical image of a Muslim.
Another farce that hides a tragedy
This Umar Khalid is under arrest today. On ridiculous charges, under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, one of the most dreaded anti-terror laws. The Delhi Police would like you to believe that this man, who was under police protection since 2018 (he has a policeman ‘guarding’ him all the time) and presumably under electronic surveillance, managed to design and execute a grand conspiracy of violence, in the national capital. You can accuse Leftists of anything, but not of communal violence.
That’s what the Delhi Police wants you to believe in the case of Umar Khalid. They want you to assume that he was in league with the Popular Front of India (PFI), the kind of Muslim communal organisation that he has fought against. They want you to believe that he held a secret meeting on 8 January to plan violence during US President Donald Trump’s visit to Delhi, when no one even knew about Trump’s visit. If he was a Yadav or a Yechury, these charges would be laughed off and the Delhi Police would be asked to hire a better script writer. But he is a Muslim.
If you are young, rebellious, Indian and a Muslim, how would you read Umar’s arrest? You can’t help being young. Perhaps you can’t but be conscientious. You don’t wish not to be a Muslim, not under duress. What are your options?
Umar Khalid’s arrest may not be a tragedy for him and his cause. Perhaps, as Bal Gangadhar Tilak said, his cause may be served better by his incarceration than his remaining free. He might well emerge as a national hero that he so deserves to be. The tragedy is that it closes a dignified, democratic option for a whole generation of Indian Muslims. That is truly a tragedy for the idea of India.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.