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Is Umar Khalid’s Way to Freedom Out of UAPA Marred With Political Doorslams?

Umar Khalid is a ‘problem’ for the ruling party because he strongly opposes the homogenisiation of India’s Muslims

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As anticipated by many, Umar Khalid’s bail application was dismissed because Justices Siddharth Mridul and Rajnish Bhatnagar of the Delhi High Court concluded that there was no “merit in the bail appeal" made on 9 September.

On Tuesday evening, dated 18 October, pacing up and down the space of confinement, or perhaps, sitting resignedly, Umar Khalid shall not hear on the loudspeaker his name among those to be released from the prison later in the night.

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Neither Relief nor Release for Umar Khalid

In a letter last month to a political well-wisher, fellow-traveller of sorts, he confessed how every night, after hearing names jotted down on the rehaai parcha (release order), he hoped that on one such dusk, he would hear his name being called out.

This is not happening, at least for now. But, was not this the most likely outcome at the end of this day?

Was it not clear that Umar Khalid and his likes were put under detention after being picked up on charges noted for their bail-denying character, because they had to be set as examples for those who could either get inspired to follow the same path, or remain unswerving after having already chosen the path of personal peril?

The message is not shrouded in ambiguity—do not follow suit, do not seek to be on side of those demanding for justice, if you wish to avert a similar fate. Like authoritarian regimes the world over and through history, this one too, believes in making examples of some.

In ways more than one, after the Supreme Court decision to suspend the Bombay High Court’s acquittal of GN Saibaba—thereby, keeping him in jail in the physically vegetative state—many were not hopeful of bail being granted to Umar Khalid even this time.

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Crackdown on Free Speech Not a Novel Phenomenon

Almost forty five years ago, in the late 1970s, the first tale of political vendetta and state brutality one heard after enrolling in the university that awarded Umar Khalid a doctorate on the subject of Adivasis in Jharkhand, were the random arrests of students, current and former, made during the Emergency.

Stories of political commitment and courage of their predecessors, motivated generations of Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) students to speak their minds. They acquired confidence that one required mere audacity while chucking a stone skywards. That it required just a belief that if one had enough faith and conviction, even the heavens could be pierced.

Those stories now appear less valorous and the atrocity against them much milder than the Umar Khalid's of this era. He certainly is not the only one facing such persecution. Many have preceded him across the country and more are likely to follow.
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Dissent and Dialogue Co-Existed in Erstwhile India

As hard as the regime may attempt, it is almost impossible to completely subjugate the human spirit, the power of resistance.

But back then in the post-Emergency years, Anand Patwardhan’s documentary film, 'Prisoners of Conscience', was a rage, every time it was screened on the campus or any of the other spaces in the Indian capital, after due permission from the government of the moment, that permitted screening of politically courageous films and allowed discussions on subjects that it generated. Dissent was in the air as the civil society grew in strength.

Umar Khalid is not a prisoner of this government but of his conscience, too. People like him cannot but do what he did, participate in activities that he lent support to. And, there are countless like him, many remaining anonymous.

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It is indeed a strange perplexity of history that the coalition government that time (1977-1980) consisted of a major partner drawn from the political party that was the predecessor of today’s ruling party.

Tales publicised from the run-up to the epochal 2014 elections that showcased the current prime minister’s credentials as a committed upholder of democratic rights, who brooked all risks to remain underground and ferried proscribed literature, appear equally astonishing.
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Umar Khalid and the Saga Of Political Prisoners 

Umar Khalid’s ‘crimes’ are both his identity and political beliefs; the former with which he was born and is near impossible to erase like a birthmark – and the latter, acquired through a mix of life experiences in ghettoised Jamia Nagar, peers and teachers in universities named after the city and Delhi and the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru.

Legal scholars will argue their bit that the case against Umar Khalid rests on thin ice because it relies on the belief that prima facie there is truth in the accusations against him.

Since March, when Umar Khalid appealed against the denial of bail by the Karkardooma court, the High Court tended to display scepticism at defence arguments while being more approving of the prosecution’s arguments.

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Much was made by the High Court of the use of the ‘jumla’ word that was introduced in India’s political lexicon by the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. Likewise, only someone completely disconnected from the national movement can question political activists from using words like ‘krantikaari’ and ‘inquilab’ in a speech.

The honourable judges and members of the current regime may have their viewpoint but it is yet to be established that the agitation against the Citizens Amendment Act was sponsored by external agencies intent on destabilising the nation.
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NRC-CAA Protests and the Rise of Minority Voices

Accusations regarding this remain as unproven a charge as those made by Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s when she pointed at an imaginary ‘foreign hand’ whenever acts of government ineptitude drew criticism from the opposition, then comprising, among others, iconic leaders of the BJP.

Paradoxically again, the prime minister talks about abolishing old, archaic laws but retains colonial laws that enables the government to jail opponents.

The history of equal citizenship movement that started at Shaheen Bagh and spread to several other places would have read differently in years to come but for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much has been written and documented on the uniqueness of the movement that brought forward hitherto apolitical grannies who assumed leadership of the agitation despite the patriarchal milieu they spent their lives.

Umar Khalid and his likes were not products of this agitation. But they were selected for ‘honours’ by the state because of the threat they posed to their political designs of the regime. Umar Khalid is a ‘problem’ for the ruling party because his presence on the opposition space prevents homogenisation of India’s largest religious minority, Muslims.
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‘Nor Hindu, nor a Self-Proclaimed Muslim’

Having done his PhD on tribal concerns in Jharkhand and being part of multiple movements for democratic and civil rights — be it the stir in wake of Rohit Vemula’s death, the stir by students of FTII or even by workers in Maruti’s Manesar plant, Umar Khalid refuses to speak solely as a ‘Muslim leader’, but does not hesitate from raising issues that cause concern to the community.

Umar Khalid is an eyesore for this political regime because he neither wears his Muslimness on the sleeves, nor does he conceal his identity.

It has been more than six years since the assault on political activism was launched in JNU in 2016 when the charge of sedition began being used like loose change by the administration. The movement may have somewhat weakened, partially because of the pandemic, but the spirit remains resolute.

In the polarised political milieu where even opposition parties run scared of being accused of being protective of “anti-nationals”, there will be little outcry at Umar Khalid being denied bail.
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The irony is that, in Umar Khalid, the opposition had a potential symbol who was neither a Hindu, nor a complete Muslim activist. Yet, he was also a Muslim who contests the most powerful for both the issues that worries and agitates both Muslims and the Hindus.

One does not know if time will give Umar Khalid an opportunity to play a role in India’s return from the abyss in the future. But, if ever India is to retrace its footsteps from this seeming point of no return, it will be probably on the shoulders of those like him, or who advocate the inclusive politics as he does.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

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