Umar Khaled and Anirban Bhattacharya after their release. (Photo: PTI/altered by The Quint)
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Exclusive: Umar and Anirban on Prison, Bigotry and the Lynch Mob

Before they were accused of sedition, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were scholars, and yes, political activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Today, they are household names both admired and vilified across the country.

In the first video interview since their release – an exclusive to The Quint – the scholars spoke about their time in jail, the “lynch mob” at their door since they were branded “anti-national” by sections of the media and Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students Union.

Police Custody = Abuse, Hatred and Sermons on Nationalism

Anirban and Umar did not face physical abuse thanks to a Supreme Court order that directed the police to ensure their safety. The order came in the wake of the attack on JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar in the Patiala House court complex.

However, both faced verbal abuse, were woken up in the middle of the night and questioned and insulted. Umar’s Muslim heritage was brought into play even though he is an atheist.

The level of hatred and prejudice surprised Anirban, who was shocked at being treated worse than a hardened criminal.

The Media Lynch Mob and “Orders From Above”

Islamophobia featured prominently in their interrogation. While police asked Anirban why “he was with Umar in all this”, Umar was told there are “good Muslims also”. But both believe that the greatest danger to their family was posed by sections of the media.

While Times Now labelled Umar “anti-national” on its prime-time show, Zee News called them a part of the “Afzal premi gang”.

The repercussions were felt not just by the scholars but their loved ones as well. Umar’s family, including his 12-year-old sister, received death threats.

Umar believes the police and media were acting in concert, and that they had “orders from above”.

Did Kanhaiya Abandon Umar and Anirban?

The short answer? No. Umar and Anirban acknowledged Kanhaiya as the leader of their “movement” and recognised that he had limitations, given that the case against him was still sub-judice. The movement in JNU continued till all three accused were released, not just Kanhaiya.

In fact, Anirban was housed in Kanhaiya’s cell after the latter got bail, and Kanhaiya left a message of encouragement and hope for him there.