Activism, Politics, Prison: Being Kanhaiya Kumar & Umar Khalid in Modi's India
In a post-2014 Indian politics, dominated by Hindu majoritarianism, understanding Kanhaiya's silence on Umar Khalid.
(This story was first published on 11 October 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives in light of a video of Kanhaiya Kumar which has surfaced on social media. In the video, Kumar refuses to answer a question on incarcerated human rights activists, Umar Khalid and Meeran Haider.)
India needs Bhagat Singh's courage, Mahatma Gandhi's unity, and BR Ambedkar's quest for equality — this was the gist of Kanhaiya Kumar's speech when he joined the Congress party on 29 September. But in Kanhaiya's vision of a 'courageous', 'united' and 'pluralistic' India, one might find it difficult to locate his former JNU friend and ally, Umar Khalid.
Charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Khalid is currently in jail for his alleged involvement in the 2020 Delhi Riots case. Despite several loopholes emerging time and again in the investigation by Delhi Police and in cases pressed against him, there's very little hope of Umar Khalid being a free man, anytime soon.
What's striking is that both Kanhaiya and Umar rose to the national stage after being named in the now (in)famous JNU sedition case. Both were members of Left/Left leaning political outfits in the university and continued to practice a more democratic, Gandhian and Ambedkarite politics after that. But the telling difference in their social and political positions today begs a question — what happened in the last five years that led to this?
Before we proceed any further, here's a heads up: This piece is not a critique of Kanhaiya Kumar or Umar Khalid's politics. This is just a reflection on what it is like to be a Kumar and a Khalid in a post-2014 India.
For the purpose of this story I spoke to several friends and former JNU batchmates of the two, journalists who've tracked their journeys post the 2016 sedition case and have referred to information available in the public domain.
From 2016 to 2021: How The Sedition Controversy Changed Their Lives
On the night of 9 February 2016, the lives of some students in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were set to change forever.
A solidarity meet organised by students on campus in support of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist who was convicted and executed in the 2001 Parliament attack case, drew nationwide criticism after “anti-national slogans” were allegedly raised by students and those who participated from outside campus.
This led to the arrest of then JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, Democratic Students' Union leader Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, one of the main organisers of the event.
Others like the then JNUSU Vice President Shehla Rashid and All India Students Association (AISA) member Rama Naga also grabbed headlines.
While the likes of Bhattacharya and Rama Naga chose to stay away from active politics and media glare, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Shehla Rashid emerged as popular and critical young voices in Indian activism and political landscape.
On 12 February 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested by the Delhi Police for his alleged involvement in the JNU sedition case. He was produced at the Patiala House Court on 17 February and was beaten up by lawyers outside the court premises.
Kanhaiya applied for bail in the Supreme Court on 18 February 2016, fearing his life and was granted the same a month later on 2 March on that guarantee that he will not indulge in any “anti-national activities” and cooperate with the investigation.
Kanhaiya's tryst with student politics dates back to his days at the Patna College of Commerce where he joined the All India Student Federation (AISF). After completing his post-graduation from the Nalanda Open University in Patna, he moved to Delhi to pursue a doctorate degree in African studies at the School of International Studies in JNU.
In September 2015, he became the president of JNU students' union, representing the AISF.
"Kanhaiya was affiliated with the AISF, which is the most Centre of Left out of all Left-affiliated student outfits in JNU," a former JNU student, who knows both Kanhaiya and Umar, tells The Quint.
Requesting anonymity, the person further adds that Kanhaiya joining the Congress should not come as a surprise.
"Kanhaiya was always more of a Centrist that a Leftist. But when he became the President, he was more democratic and kept everybody's interests in mind."A former JNU student
Kanhaiya Kumar entered active politics by joining the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 2018 before he made the shift to the Congress very recently.
In 2019, he contested the Lok Sabha Polls from Begusarai on a CPI ticket and scored a distant second position losing to Union Minister and BJP leader Giriraj Singh.
A member of the Democratic Students' Union, Umar Khalid was one of the key organisers of the solidarity meet held on JNU campus on 9 February 2016.
Following Kanhaiya's arrest four days after the incident, Khalid along with four other students – Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Anant Prakash, and Ashutosh Kumar – went into hiding.
Out of these, Umar and Anirban appeared on campus 10 days later on 24 February 2016 and surrendered before Delhi Police. They moved the Delhi HC seeking police protection prior to surrender on 23 February.
On 26 August 2016, Umar and Anirban were granted regular bail by a Delhi court.
Based on the initial inquiry in the incident by the university, while a fine of Rs 10,000 was imposed on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were rusticated from JNU for one semester.
Troubles for Umar Khalid did not end with his stint at JNU, in fact, they had just begun.
In 2018, two gun-wielding men Naveen Dalal and Darwesh Shahpur attempted to shoot Umar near the Constitution Club in New Delhi. Dalal later joined the Shiv Sena and was fielded as a candidate from Bahadurgarh in the 2019 Haryana Assembly elections.
In the same year, an FIR was registered against Umar in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence for giving 'provocative' speeches in Pune. However, videos of his speech offered strong rebuttal to the claims made in the FIR.
"In these times, our duty is to not only save the democracy and the Constitution but also save humanity. Humanity is in danger," Khalid had said. (Click here for an archived version of his full speech).
Again, in July 2018, the Jawaharlal Nehru University blocked his PhD submission allegedly due to “non-compliance to punishments” ordered by the high-level enquiry committee in the 2016 sedition row.
It was on 14 May 2019 that Umar's PhD thesis on the life of tribals in Jharkhand was cleared by the university.
In late 2019 and 2020, when progressive student voices from across the country rose in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Umar led the movement from the front along with several others.
However, on 14 September 2020, he was arrested by the Delhi Police under the UAPA for instigating the North-East Delhi riots that broke out in February 2020.
Since then, Khalid continues to be in jail despite several reports and evidence hinting at loopholes in the investigation by Delhi Police in the case.
Kanhaiya's Silence on Umar and What Does It Say About a Post-2014 India?
"Once you move out of JNU, the real world serves as a reality check," says a fellow activist friend of Umar Khalid. "University spaces are safe and there is scope for nuanced discussion between people adhering to completely different ideologies," the person adds, saying that after JNU, there was a major temperamental shift in Umar's politics.
'Why?' I asked.
"Umar identifies himself as an atheist. However, what happened during the 2016 sedition controversy and the politics that followed made him realise that in the public perception he will always be a Muslim."Umar Khalid's fellow activist friend
In the media trial that followed the 2016 controversy, Khalid was called a 'Jaish-e-Mohammed sympathiser' who had links with Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. Things got so bad that the Home Ministry itself had to step in to clarify that this was not the case.
Further, the assassination attempt in 2018 forced him to move back to Zakir Nagar, a Muslim 'ghetto' in Delhi's Okhla. "He had to move back to a place he wanted to get out of his entire life, because that was the only place that could keep him safe at that point in time," Umar's friend tells The Quint.
Keeping this in mind, it only sounds logical that in a post-2014 Indian politics dominated by Hindu majoritarianism, anybody with even mild political ambitions will steer clear of the Umar Khalid cause.
And Kanhaiya Kumar proved to be no exception.
During the anti-CAA/NRC protests in 2019 and 2020, while he addressed large gatherings in different parts of Bihar, mobilising youth in support of the cause, he did not even once come out in support of Umar Khalid, not even when the latter was arrested under the stringent UAPA in September 2020.
In fact, he was a no-show at a press conference held in New Delhi, days after Umar's arrest. Kanhaiya Kumar was supposed to be a speaker at this event, which he chose to skip.
While those close to them were not surprised, they say that the last-minute backing out from the event was disheartening as both Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid had massive respect for each other since their time in JNU – and they respected the political and ideological differences between them.
But Why Should Kanhaiya Speak Up at All?
After over 5 years of public scrutiny and media trials, we know that Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid have many things in common. Both of them are young, fierce, and articulate speakers, follow Gandhian and Ambedkarite principals and are vocal critics of the current dispensation. However, there is one difference — Kanhaiya Kumar is an upper-caste Hindu and Umar Khalid is a Muslim, albeit non-practising.
This gives Kanhaiya Kumar the social and political capital, which can make a difference. He commands an audience, which very few politicians in today's India can. He appeals to the young, the educated, the liberal, and the majority can identify with him.
This makes it even more important for Kanhaiya Kumar to speak up in support of his former ally and friend. But as they say, once you enter politics, you must learn the tricks of the trade and no sound political advisor will at present tell Kanhaiya to pick Umar Khalid's battle.
But when next time Kanhaiya speaks about the India of Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Bhagat Singh, he must remember his old friend whose voice has been silenced for speaking about ideas of the same people.
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