(On 13 September 2022, Umar Khalid completes two years in jail as an accused in the Delhi Riots larger conspiracy case. The Quint is republishing this story from its archives, originally published on 21 September 2020.)
So, this year, back in mid-March, when Umar Khalid and I woke up to Amit Malviya tweeting a short 30-second clip from Umar’s 20-minute long speech delivered in Amravati, Maharashtra, we knew another storm was brewing in our horizon. This time we knew it would be a big one. A storm which would try and implicate each and every anti-CAA/NRC protester as a ‘conspirator’ behind the February violence in Delhi.
The feelings were a mix of anxiety and anger, apprehension and speculation, but were all too familiar. Those feelings have pretty much shaped our lives since 2016. Life under an oppressive regime is suddenly knowing something new about yourself from within the media. Waking up in the morning, seeing yourself trend on Twitter and wondering, “Wait a minute, now what has happened?”
I can’t recall the exact moment, when this theatre of the absurd since 2016 got normalised as life. It’s like that blister on the back of your heel that never heals. Sometimes those blisters remain dormant, sometimes you feel a shooting pain, someday it may turn into gangrene and kill you or it might heal on its own one day and you would never know. (Maybe one day we might even find the right medicine to cure it once and for all.)
Stood By Umar, Through His Highs and Lows
Being close to Umar Khalid, along with a few others, his blisters are mine. We share the pain, the intermittent respites, and get thrown back to the pain again just when we were getting comfortably numb!
I have been with Umar through his highs and lows. I have seen him battle new conspiracy theories churned by howling TV anchors and Twitter trolls. The JNU fiasco, Ramjas violence, Elgar Parishad meeting before the Bhima Koregaon violence, and now the Delhi riots. Every time it caused us stress but every time we also sailed through it all.
There are some who only see “heroism” in him, but every such tide of hate chips something away from you, it changes you. Like beating one storm in an endless sea and gearing up for the next (with sleepless nights and the recurring pungent taste of acidity in your mouth).
The Umar Khalid Who Got Jitters Before Every Speech
In 2018 August, Umar finally won the battle in the Delhi High Court, to be able to submit his PhD, defeating all attempts by the JNU administration to sabotage that.
It was 13 August and we were in the Constitution Club for a programme titled ‘Khauf se Azadi’ (freedom from fear), where Umar was a speaker. After the several-month-long hiatus from activism because he was finishing his PhD, he was really looking forward to this programme.
Before the event, he was getting his usual pre-speech nervous bouts. Oh yes, let me share with you that Umar Khalid, who has addressed numerous small-big-massive gatherings, will always get cold feet before going up to speak irrespective of the size of the audience.
He insisted we should get a cup of tea. We were right outside the Constitution Club, when a bulky thuggish-looking man pounced on him. I initially thought it was one of those hyper fans who wanted a selfie with him, which is when I saw the gun emerge. Pointed right at him, held by that six-feet-tall honcho who held a rather blank expression.
His gun was not a country-made katta, but a proper revolver. As he was about to press the trigger with that same nonchalant expression, some of us tried to come in between and push him away. Seeing us all around, the man ran away, albeit after firing a bullet in order to stop us from chasing him.
Despite his best attempts, the man was not successful in releasing the bullet in time. Maybe the gun had not watched enough TV debates and read enough Twitter trolling to comply with this assassination attempt.
The Other Face of Delhi Police
“You are a really lucky man, Umar,” the Joint Commissioner of Police (JCP) later told us, while he took out the other five live bullets that were still in the revolver. The JCP was a fantastic person.
Right now, we are in the middle of this battle of truth and perception with the Delhi Police, but let me tell you, we have seen their other face too.
The same Delhi Police, back in 2018, went out of their way to make Umar and all of us feel safe. Isn’t that what the police is supposed to do? Make citizens feel safe? Be it the concerned Joint Commissioner of Police, Deputy Commissioner of Police or the Station House Officer of Parliament Street Police Station, everyone went out of their way, expediting the initial investigation and assuring us that the thugs would be caught.
And they did exactly that, within a week the accused were caught.
I remember going to, surprise, surprise, the Special Cell Lodhi Road Headquarter, where Umar is locked up right now, to identify the goons. Inspector Kailash Singh Bisht was sitting inside, googly-eyed and evidently sleep deprived. “Khalid, tere lie picchle saat din se Haryana, UP ka chappa chappa chaan rahe the. Soye taq nahi. (Khalid, we were searching every nook and corner of Haryana and UP for the last one week for you. I’ve hardly slept),” he said.
Although the place we are in today is a very different one, but since we have refused to get eclipsed by this negativity alone, I will always remember those moments. When the Delhi Police acted with us like a responsible law-enforcing agency should.
I will remember how caring all the protective service officers (PSOs) that the Delhi Police eventually allotted to him within Delhi had been. They would call him up, even when they were not on duty and ask how he was doing.
Some of them called up and asked him to guide their children for entrance exams, because, well, according to them Umar was ‘pada likha’ (literate). One of the PSO, who apparently belonged to Student Federation of India in his student life, used to call him ‘Comrade’!
To Cling on to Good Memories, Love and Support
And that really is the mantra. Umar and I, and all other close friends have been following to let us sail through one vicious attack after the other. To always cling on to the good memories, the outpouring of love, the support that comes from expected and unexpected quarters and ignore the hate.
It works. Trust me. And I would advise all peace-loving, democratic people who believe in the Constitution of India to do the same.
Remember the anti-CAA/NRC struggles for the joy and immense sense of satisfaction they had emanated. Remember them as the vibrant, colourful, inclusive and democratic spaces that they were. Remember our poetries and art on the walls.
That is exactly what Umar and I did, throughout the lockdown; when the fairytale case was slowly unfolding and one after the other anti-CAA/NRC activist was being thrown into jail on fabricated and outrageous charges.
We talked and remembered how people from different communities, different walks of life had spoken out against the CAA and for an India that celebrates its diversity with dignity. How those protests saw people marching in thousands and calling others to join.
“Hum desh bachane nikle hai, aao humare sath chalo (We are out to save our country, come walk with us).”
Umar after all had travelled across the length and breadth of the country addressing anti-CAA/NRC gatherings. Different cultures, different languages, different cuisines, but all united in a common dream for a better India. Every night throughout the lockdown, some of us would gather over video calls from our various isolations and laugh at the ridiculousness of the events unfolding.
On the morning of 13 September, I briefly bid him goodbye and watched as he walked alone in his typical wobbly absent-minded style, towards his home. He had just returned from Rajasthan and was on his way to the Special Cell. We both were apprehensive about what was coming our way by the end of the day.
We all also did know that the state will get back at us for raising our voices against CAA, for daring to dream of a better India. Did we get silenced in anticipation? Of course not. Will we get silenced now?
(Banojyotsna Lahiri is currently a Senior Researcher in Center for Equity Studies, New Delhi. she has done her PhD from JNU and have taught Sociology in Ambedkar University Delhi, Jamia Millia Islamia and Lady Shri Ram College, DU. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own, The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)