(On Tuesday, 18 October, the Delhi High Court denied bail to former JNU student Umar Khalid in a Delhi Riots 'larger conspiracy' case. The Quint is republishing this story from its archives, originally published on 26 May 2021.)
“I keep thinking how life would be if we were free today – we would have reached out to the ones in need with relief, with empathy and solidarity irrespective of their identity.”
These are the words from a letter Umar Khalid read to his friends Banojyotsna Lahiri and Anirban Bhattacharya. The UAPA accused in the northeast Delhi communal riots case wrote about his anxieties, amid a raging pandemic, while acknowledging how, unlike the others accused, who have been released from jail due to COVID, he will not go home to his family and friends any time soon.
The letter, carried by The Print, starts with Khalid condoling the death of another UAPA co-accused Natasha Narwal’s father Mahavir Narwal.
“My heart goes out to Natasha in this hour of grief and loss. It is difficult to even imagine her pain and anguish,” he wrote, speaking of the riot conspiracy allegations against her.
On Life in Jail Amid a Raging Pandemic
Umar says he spent the last eight months alone in a cell, of which 20 hours of the day he remained locked up. The pandemic has increased the difficulties of living in a prison, with worries about his loved ones outside.
“Over the past one month, as the second wave of COVID-19 ravages on in India, I have not spent a day or night locked up in my cell without extreme anxiety – worried about my family and loved ones. One tries not to think too much by trying to distract oneself, but the news of death and despair that the newspaper brings every morning is so overwhelming that fending off the worst possible thoughts is just not possible. At such moments, it feels as if the jail cell is shrinking as suffocation and claustrophobia creep in and take over one’s mind and body,” he wrote.
He says he waits to talk to his family over weekly phone calls and by-weekly video calls, but the time always runs out too soon.
Umar’s mother and other relatives had contracted COVID mid-April. His uncle’s condition was particularly bad. Umar, too, woke up unwell and about a week later, he tested positive for the deadly virus. As he recovered in quarantine, without being able to make calls home, he hoped everyone was recovering.
On Not Getting Bail Anytime Soon
While the Delhi High Court looks at releasing prisoners on interim bail and emergency parole due to COVID-19, Umar says he is aware it does not apply to an UAPA accused like him.
Speaking about the harshness of the anti-terror law, he says, “As a law, the UAPA makes a mockery of the Supreme Court’s observation that bail is the rule and jail an exception. For all effective purposes, the UAPA turns this principle on its head by requiring an accused person to prove their innocence and thereby proceeding on a presumption of guilt, even in order to grant bail. That too, without the benefit of a trial.
He goes on to talk about how 16 of those arrested under the conspiracy FIR 59 over the NE Delhi violence have got no chance to prove their innocence since the last 14 months. The trial has not begun and the “pandemic will only further delay the proceedings”.
Life If Umar Was Not in Jail...
Umar writes about how he has little hope from the government to release political prisoners during this pandemic, but indulges in how life would have been had he been free.
“I keep thinking how life would be if we were free today – we would have reached out to the ones in need with relief, with empathy and solidarity irrespective of their identity. And yet, here we are, languishing in conditions that have only gotten worse – battling disease, anxiety and, in Natasha’s case, personal tragedy,” he wrote, to his friends.
Touching upon the pandemic’s impact on mental health, he says he wishes people spared a thought for Natasha’s father, who not only suffered from COVID but also waited for a year in hope to see his daughter free.
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