Umar Khalid arrested as “conspirator” in Delhi riots case

Published : September 14, 2020 15:22 IST

Umar Khalid speaking at a seminar against the Constitution (Amendment) Act, in Mumbai in January. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

On Sunday night, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police arrested the human rights activist Umar Khalid after interrogating him for 11 hours in the Delhi riots case as a “conspirator”.

“Right now, our first priority is that he should be given maximum security and the Delhi Police must ensure his safety by all means,” said Banojyostna Lahiri of United Against Hate (UAH). Her concern was valid given that in 2018, following a sustained media campaign that painted Umar as an “anti-national”, there had been an attempt on Umar’s life in the heart of central Delhi.

Since February 2016, Umar was subjected to repeated media trials, through doctored videos in the mainstream media and slander on social media. His father’s association with the Students’Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) has often been used to justify such a profiling of Umar. Dr S.Q.R. Ilyas, a respected cleric and member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, was associated with SIMI until 1985 when it was not a banned organisation and Umar was not even born.

In March, shortly after the Delhi riots broke out, Umar, a favourite whipping boy of the right wing, first found his name propped up as a conspirator by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell head Amit Malviya on Twitter.

Amit Malviya had tweeted, “Umar Khalid, already facing sedition charges, gave a speech in Amravati on 17 Feb, where he exhorted a largely Muslim audience to come out on streets in huge numbers when Trump arrives in India on 24th. Was the violence in Delhi planned weeks in advance by the Tukde Tukde gang?”

Amit had selectively quoted parts of Umar’s speech, which was in fact, peppered with references to Mahatma Gandhi and peaceful modes of civil disobedience. In Amravati, Umar had said, “We will not respond to violence with violence. We will not respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it by spreading love. If they beat us with lathis, we will hold aloft the tricolor. If they fire bullets, then we will hold the Constitution and raise our hands. If they jail us, we will go to jail happily singing, ‘Saarey Jahaan Se Acha Hindustan Hamara’. But we will not let you destroy our country.”

Soon after Amit Malviya’s social media posts, the accusation was picked up by the mainstream media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) close to the BJP and they began to paint Umar as a conspirator in the riots. In Parliament, during a discussion on the Delhi riots, BJP MPs, including Home Minister Amit Shah, blamed UAH as an instigator in the riots.

Subsequently, in April, the Delhi Police charged Umar under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), implicating him in the riots.

Condemning his arrest in the strongest possible terms, civil society members Ravi Kiran Jain, V.. Suresh, Mihir Desai, N.D Pancholi, Prof Satish Deshpande, Prof Mary John, Prof Apoorvanand, Aakar Patel, Harsh Mander, Farah Naqvi, Biraj Patnaik and Prof Nandini Sundar issued a joint statement stating that Umar had been “subjected to a malicious investigation targeting peaceful anti-CAA protestors. He has been booked under several charges including UAPA, sedition and conspiracy for murder. With deep anguish we have no doubt in saying that this investigation is not about the violence in February 2020 in the national capital but on the completely peaceful and democratic protests across the country against the unconstitutional CAA.”

Advocate Prashant Bhushan termed the investigation into the Delhi riots “a conspiracy by the police to frame peaceful activists in the guise of investigation. Umar Khalid’s arrest by the Delhi Police after naming [Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram] Yechury, [Swaraj Abhiyan leader] Yogendra Yadav, [the economist] Jayati Ghosh and Delhi University’s Professor Apoorvanand leaves no doubt at all about the mala fide nature of its investigation into Delhi riots,” he said.

Days before Umar’s arrest, two disclosure statements had emerged, purportedly made by Pinjra Tod members Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita. The statement named Sitaram Yechury, Yogendra Yadav, Jayati Ghosh, Apoorvanand and filmmaker Rahul Roy.

Screen shots of the statements circulating online show that Natasha and Devangana wrote: “I refuse to sign” on the so-called disclosure statements which are not admissible in court but are great fodder for the “media trial” that several activists have said the investigations into Delhi riots have become with selective leaks by the investigating agencies. It was reported that both the statements were nearly identical in language and spelling mistakes and explained how Umar gave them “tips” to protest.

Public outrage from several quarters prompted the Delhi Police to issue a clarification that Sitaram Yechury, Yogendra Yadav and Jayati Ghosh were not accused in the case, but they refused to comment on the status of Rahul Roy and Apoorvanand. A day after Umar’s arrest, Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan received summons from the Delhi Police.

Reacting to his name being linked to the riots case, Sitaram Yechury tweeted that the Delhi Police was under the Centre and Home Ministry. “Its illegitimate, illegal actions are a direct outcome of the politics of BJP’s top leadership. They are scared of legitimate peaceful protests by mainstream political parties and are misusing state power to target the Opposition,” he said. The CPI(M) politburo issued a statement stating, “The CPI(M) condemns this obnoxious action by the Delhi Police to further the narrative of its political masters and urges the government to desist from such acts of criminalising peaceful political protests.”

The investigations into the Delhi riots and the use of the stringent UAPA against the anti-CAA protesters compelled even P. Chidambaram, a key proponent of the draconian national security laws, to react strongly. The senior Congress leader said, “Delhi Police have brought the criminal justice system to ridicule by naming Mr Sitaram Yechury and many other scholars and activists in a supplementary charge sheet in the Delhi riots case. Has the Delhi Police forgotten that between Information and Charge Sheet there are important steps called Investigation and Corroboration?”

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