As My Friend Umar Spends Another Birthday in Jail, Our Fight for Freedom Goes On

"Yet, in the blinking game with insecurity, it’s Umar Khalid - 1, Despondency - 0," writes Banojyotsna Lahiri.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(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 11 August 2022.)

“Didi, bhaiya kaha chala gaya," my domestic help keeps asking me. She knows Umar well; in fact, she was pretty fond of him. Where is he, she nowadays wonders. She is from Nepal. Her family is lodged in the corner of a parking lot of a building, in which her husband works as the watchman. They don’t watch TV, have a smartphone or read newspapers. They are cut off from the world where Umar Khalid and his like are regularly demonized, with fake news and matching throbbing music.

He is away, I tell her, while telling the same to myself. Banished to a different country, called Kafkaland. When will he return? Well, that’s an enigma. A riddle that no one can solve. He, along with others, is embroiled in a case that is political to the core. There is barely anything legal in that fairytale case. So, culpability of the accused in that land is, so far, not being determined exactly by the realms of law.

And therefore, no one knows when that ordeal will end. Is there a proverbial light at the end of this dark tunnel? Without knowing, we are all walking blindfolded in the tunnels of Kafkaland.

Kafkaland is located far away, and yet in some melancholic dusks I find myself right in the middle of it. And on some nights, I wake up in cold sweats to remember that the objects in this mirror are closer than they seem.


Visits to Tihar Jail Number 2

Mujhe lagta mera watan jail hai”, hallowed lines by revolutionary poet Ramashankar Vidrohi. India, that is Bharat, became Kafkaland before we could fully comprehend!

How do you maintain sanity in Kafkaland? I look at the damp, sad walls of the visiting area outside Tihar jail number 2. The dungeon where Umar is lodged stares back at me. We are near each other yet separated by sad, towering, yellow walls. He has arrived, my sixth sense tells me. I request the jail guard to check. He says it will take a bit longer. But another guard from inside comes out to inform me that he has indeed arrived. Sixth sense scored! I enter the visiting area, and there he is behind the glass walls, smiling ear to ear.

Time passes with the flickering of the wand. We talk, laugh, make jokes. He hankers for gossip. I update him about the outside world, he tells me tales of the inside. We are happy, happiest in that breathing period of unblemished magic.

I can see him behind the glass wall, hear him through a landline phone. It’s like the 90s cinema, hazy yet colourful. We have learnt the art of holding hands defying glass walls of Kafkaland. You can do that with a little imagination; especially when life is melodramatic 90s cinema.

The hourglass turns. Time is up. That time is like a fuel that we pumped inside us. Until next time. And that’s how we maintain sanity.


Another Birthday Spent Imprisoned

I stared at the muddy waters of the Hooghly on my birthday in a lonely afternoon. Umar’s birthday is around the corner too. Second birthday that he will spend in jail. We are both August-born. We had decided to grow old together. Now we are growing old in Kafkaland. Apart yet together.

The beauty of the river is always in its flow. The ripples that carry the dirt, the discarded, the despair. What I miss most about him is the bickering. The fights. That makes you human. When you tolerate a person despite the irritation that he generates, the tomfoolery, the sheer dumbness. (Oh, he can be so dumb at times! And annoying too.) And that’s what I miss.

"Yet, in the blinking game with insecurity, it’s Umar Khalid - 1, Despondency - 0," writes Banojyotsna Lahiri.

Has the Kafkaesque reality overwhelmed him?

When he will finally come out of the prison, he will be a different person. He is a different person already. In the early phase of incarceration, he was restless, fidgeting like a wild cat forcefully caged. 700 days of incarceration later, he is much calmer, matured and at times, even somber.

Has the Kafkaesque reality overwhelmed him? Somehow it seems it’s the other way round. He is somehow getting a better grip and taking control of the reality. In the blinking game with insecurity, it’s Umar Khalid - 1, Despondency - 0!


697 Days in Jail, 125 Books Read

"Yet, in the blinking game with insecurity, it’s Umar Khalid - 1, Despondency - 0," writes Banojyotsna Lahiri.

“These two novels are special”, he told me.

(Photo: The Quint)

I ask him to write. He will not get this opportunity to read and more importantly write. But his intellectual pursuit is often halted. Especially when that darn IPL was going on. Reading, writing, everything was trumped by that neo-liberal joke of a game.

And then he had the gall to ask me, “Who are you supporting in IPL”? “Nobody”, I snapped back! I don’t watch that rigged monstrosity. Who in their right mind does?

Well, he reads too. He has finished 125 books cover to cover. Both fiction and non-fiction. The two fictions he liked the most are, ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘The Cairo trilogy’ by Naguib Mahfouz. “These two novels are special”, he told me. “Our lives are often shaped by the times that we live in, without us realizing that. Novels like these make us realize that”. Profound reflection on the quicksand of Kafkaland that we are sinking in.

He also loved Yashpal’s ‘Jhoota Sach’. The epic novel that chronicles partition and the subsequent burgeoning of the new nation. The experiences that you are having right now are unique too, I keep telling him. The kind of people you are meeting, the little experiences of unfreedom, the strangulations of captivity, the hope and happiness too. Everything needs to be documented. For posterity. For history.
"Yet, in the blinking game with insecurity, it’s Umar Khalid - 1, Despondency - 0," writes Banojyotsna Lahiri.

‘Jhoota Sach’ by Yashpal

(Photo: The Quint)


In Search of Freedom

We are all in the middle of that fight for freedom. While the nation is celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, with a lot of bling, blitz and curated display pictures on social media, the fight for freedom goes on, every day. Freedom to express, dress, eat, speak, dream, think, write, worship, survive, exist, exist with dignity. To embrace the freedom that the dream of the Republic and subsequently the Constitution embraced more than seven decades ago.

Kafkaland subverts that dream. The judges, bureaucrats, police who are unable to resist the liquidation of democracy of India, that is Bharat, are also walking with us. They may not realize it today, but they are also throwing their children to the wolves, in the darkness, to lawlessness.

But we don’t give up. The word 'Azaadi' stares at me from roadside hoardings, along with the Prime Minister. The melancholy dusk descends over the river. The fetid water carried the dirt and the discarded. But it never stopped flowing. That’s the spirit.

(The author is a Delhi-based researcher and activist, and did her PhD from JNU at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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