Umar Khalid

‘An attempt to create fear and terror’

Print edition : September 14, 2018

Umar Khalid moments after he was shot at outside Constitution Club in New Delhi on August 13. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Interview with Umar Khalid, JNU student.

TWO days before India’s 71st Independence Day, outside the Constitution Club barely a stone’s throw from Parliament, a gunman tried to pull the trigger on Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid. He was there to attend a programme entitled “Towards Freedom Without Fear”, organised by the citizens’ forum United Against Hate. Assisted by CCTV camera grabs, the Delhi Police registered a case under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Sections of the Arms Act. Subsequently, two men from Haryana, Naveen Dalal and Darwesh Shahpur, uploaded a selfie-video on social media, taking responsibility for the attack. Twenty-four hours after Umar Khalid survived the attempt on his life, he spoke to Frontline. Excerpts from the interview:

It has been 24 hours since you escaped an attempt on your life. Has it ever crossed your mind, what if? What do you think would have been achieved?

The first and foremost thing they would have achieved is to create an environment of fear among large sections of the people. I am not grading any assassination, but fewer people knew Gauri Lankesh before her assassination compared with people who came to know her after it. But many more people know me. So the message would have gone to all of them that this can be for you. It is ironical that I was in a programme titled “Towards Freedom Without Fear” and there was this attempt to create fear and terror. I have been at the forefront of the students’ movement. Attacking me is a message to the student community that if you keep up the agitation against this government, this is the extent to which we can go. It would no longer be limited to rustication, and jail would seem like a better option. Going much beyond that, it is terrorising the young people of this country, especially students and youths who have not been able to get jobs and are taking part in agitations.

What happened that day?

There was a programme at 2.30 in the Constitution Club against mob lynching and hate crimes. I reached early, at 2.10. Some of us came out to drink tea at the stall right outside the gate. After 10 minutes, as I was about to enter Constitution Club, a man came from behind, grabbed me and threw me to the ground. He pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. I somehow kept pushing his hand away. Three of my friends pushed him, and in the jostle he started to run. He fired a bullet after crossing the road as I ran back inside.

I don’t know who he was but we must ponder one thing. The programme was being attended by people whose family members had fallen victim to mob lynching and hate crimes orchestrated through rumours and lies. The fact that two days before Independence Day, in one of the most high security zones of the national capital, an armed assailant could dare to attack me in broad daylight only goes to show the brazen impunity that some people feel they enjoy under the present regime. I do not know who he was or what the forces behind him are. That is for the police to investigate. But I want to state here that if something untoward had happened yesterday, or if it were to happen tomorrow, do not just hold that unidentified gunman responsible. The real culprits are those who from their seats of power have been breeding an atmosphere of hatred, of bloodlust and fear. The real culprits are those who have provided an atmosphere of complete impunity for assassins and mob lynchers. The real culprits are those spokespersons of the ruling party and the prime time anchors and TV channels who have spread canards about me, branded me anti-national based on lies and virtually incited a lynch-mob against me. This has specifically made my life extremely vulnerable.

For the past two and a half years, based on absolute lies, they have been saying that I am anti-national. I want to challenge them. If you are so confident that I gave those slogans, why don’t you bring this to court? [The university had rusticated him for allegedly raising “anti-national” slogans in a February 9, 2016, incident.] The Delhi Police have not been able to file a charge sheet to begin with.

Some people have implied that the attack is a publicity stunt.

BJP MP [Meenakshi Lekhi] and BJP supporters are saying this. I find it quite funny and I pity them. I have not yet accused the BJP, but they are being defensive. Do they have something to hide? I am saying let the investigation begin. Why is it that even before the investigation has begun they are commenting on the specifics? There is a saying in Hindi: chor ki dadhi mein tinka [have a guilty conscience]. I am alive, that’s why they are saying this. Had I been dead they would have said this was a task of left-wing extremism. The BJP should be worried how a gunman arrived at Constitution Club. There was a programme of the BJP going on at Constitution Club that day. Aren’t they concerned?

‘Inciteful messages'

Are you getting police protection?

I made a formal request for police protection for the first time in March 2016 but haven’t received it yet. I have been given death threats several times and have received threats and [there are] inciteful messages on social media every day. After Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, my name featured on a hit list. Two months ago, Jignesh Mevani and I got a threat from the don Ravi Poojary that he would kill us if we did not stop talking against the government. An environment is being created so that certain people can be attacked if they continue to express their views. There is danger to their families and friends as well. But if they think this will silence the people, then no. After Gauri Lankesh, [Narendra] Dabholkar and [Govind] Pansare’s murders, the voices didn’t diminish, they increased. Rohith Vemula died, but several Rohith Vemulas are standing up today.

Your PhD submission was a long-drawn out and frustrating process.

It was bizarre that for two and a half years it was said again and again on television that we are students who are not interested in academics, that we have taken admission in JNU because it offers us subsidised food and accommodation, and that we have come here for our political canvassing and networking. Or worse, to engage in anti-national activities. Now two and a half years later, when I go with a body of work that proves my academic credentials, proves that I have also been academically researching through all this period while being involved in so many other things, I am not allowed by the administration to submit it. The administration is made up of faculty members, and I was thinking which faculty member in the world has a problem with a student submitting his PhD thesis?

The Vice Chancellor may be a supporter of the BJP, I may be an opponent of the BJP, but that is not the primary relationship in the university for a student and a teacher. Here was the first teacher I saw who has a problem with a student pursuing academics. It was also ironical that in the last two and a half years, twice the Vice Chancellor tried to throw me out of the university, but when I actually went to submit my PhD, he wouldn’t let me submit it and leave. It was extremely frustrating to run around courts to submit a piece of academic work. It was an attempt at harassment, but it was also a more sinister conspiracy.

The police have not been able to proceed with a criminal case against us under IPC Section 124 A (sedition). But the propaganda continues. They are desperate for some legal vindication. They know if the matter goes to court, the accusations will not stand. I am confident about my innocence. So instead, they want to punish us through the Vice Chancellor’s court, which is the High Level Enquiry Committee. Just before our PhD submission, they put us in a catch-22 situation. They said, ‘If you want to submit your PhD, then pay the fine.’ Now if you don’t pay the fine, your PhD is at stake. If you pay the fine, you are accepting guilt and the political narrative will go around that Umar Khalid has accepted punishment. He is guilty. This is how they were exploiting the vulnerabilities and harassing until the end. Coercing me, in complete violation of court orders. This is how vindictive this entire apparatus has become, which extends to lynch mobs on the streets, on television and to the university administration. But I was clear in my head that even if it is at the cost of my PhD, on which I have worked for five years, I won’t submit the fine. My entire life I would regret the fact that I accepted guilt for something I didn’t do. Eventually, we stand vindicated by the court.

‘Vision of nationalism'

Over the past two and a half years, there has been an attempt to paint you as an anti-national. How do you counter that?

A long time ago, a person whose legacy we uphold so dearly, Shahid Bhagat Singh, said before the British hanged him that a mere transfer of power from the white sahib to the brown sahib will not do, we need a change in the social order. Unless and until that change in social order comes about, this freedom will not be real freedom. Seventy-one years after Independence we see that people who had no role to play in the freedom struggle, who actually collaborated with the British, are now claiming to be nationalists. Our democracy over the years has been hollowed out. This government favours only certain corporations and is not doing anything for the masses. This is what Bhagat Singh pointed out, this is not real freedom. When we speak about nationalism, we speak about Bhagat Singh’s vision of a society where labourers are masters of their produce.

Babasaheb Ambedkar, after the Constitution came into being, said that we are entering into a life of contradictions. At the political level we have equality, one man has one vote. But in our social and economic life, there is going to be inequality. That inequality has intensified over the last few years. For me the vision of nationalism is where there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, gender or sexuality. For me the vision of nationalism is the vision of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh.

The Muslim identity

Over the last two and a half years many like Kanhaiya Kumar have been vilified, but there seems to be a special kind of hatred reserved for you because you are Muslim. Hannah Arendt has said, If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever.

I have been asked about my belief for a long time. I have decided not to answer the question specifically on the fact whether I am a practising Muslim or not because that’s my personal choice. It’s not about the belief, it’s about the identity [of the community] you are born into. For them, I am only a Muslim. Yes, I am a Muslim, I was born a Muslim. But I am other things also. I am also a student and a young person in this country. But they only want to reduce me to a Muslim. What Rohith Vemula said, that you will be reduced to your immediate identity. They have a lens…, that Muslims don’t belong to India; Muslims have never been patriotic to India; Muslims are invaders who came from outside; Muslims are involved in terrorism and have their loyalties with Pakistan.

I was linked with Pakistan and allegations were made that I have been to Pakistan twice. I am still waiting for my passport. And I am still waiting for an apology to come from the news anchor who said this. It’s very easy to say this about someone like Umar Khalid or Najeeb Ahmad. It is easy to say this about people and run away without any accountability. Is journalism a hit job?

And this disgusting mentality of looking at Muslims as terrorists who have links with terror groups. We have been here for 71 years. This place is our place as well. We were born here, we’ll die here, we’ll be buried here. And our Constitution promises us equality irrespective of religion. Our country claims to be a secular country. But right now, I think we really need to fight for secularism. This Hindu-Muslim divide is being carried out to polarise the masses so they don’t talk about the economic loot that is happening in the country.

But you want to talk of that as a student and not as a Muslim…

Yes, I am a Muslim. I am also a student and a young person. I have multiple identities. I mean, don’t reduce me to only a Muslim. I will not deny that aspect of my life. I have come to this position in the last two and a half years by being made to feel like one. Being Muslim is not a crime. Even being a practising Muslim is not a crime. The Constitution completely guarantees freedom of religion. You see this Hindu-Muslim polarisation on television every night. They will get some maverick, good for nothing, idiotic Maulana on television, who doesn’t represent Muslims. Many of these people have campaigned for Narendra Modi in 2014. These are hired Maulavis. You caricature Muslims based on what they are saying.

What if someone like you were to represent the community? Isn’t that better than the religious leaders?

What has happened with the Muslims in India historically over the last 70 years is that they haven’t really had a mass leader. By that I mean someone who represents the aspirations of the masses and talks about the basic problems that the Sachar Committee highlighted. The fact that Muslims are very under-represented in jobs, in education, in the bureaucracy, in the Army, all sorts of things, except for jails where they are proportionately higher. Even previous regimes have ensured that no Muslim leadership emerges. There are only two kinds of Muslim leaderships—the Imams who are networking with power, and, the cultural and social elites, the likes of Salman Khurshid, who have no roots in the community. They become Muslim leaders by being among the coterie of elites.

I am not saying it is my responsibility, it is a collective responsibility. A crop of very articulate Muslims has emerged in the last few years. We saw [the] Babri Masjid [demolition] while growing up and then 9/11 happened, post which geopolitics was redefined and Muslims were put under suspicion. There was a witch-hunt and it had ramifications in India as well. We’ve seen how the community members have been branded as terrorists. We’ve seen people being picked up on fabricated charges, being released after many years. We’ve seen how the media have operated. Every time there has been an arrest, headlines scream ‘terrorist caught’, but when the same person is released and acquitted of all charges years later, no one bothers to carry that story. In the meantime, you have arrested new people.

Now we are seeing these lynchings and this extreme polarisation, demonisation and caricaturing of Muslims. There is a need for this young, articulate and educated section, for all of us, to put our heads together. The point is that Muslims alone cannot fight this battle. All oppressed groups need to come together and fight this battle, but there has to be a recognition of the fact that Muslims are also an oppressed group in the country today. When I say this, I am directing it at the present opposition to Narendra Modi, because while they claim to speak for every other oppressed group, they are conspicuously silent on the minorities, and [specifically] the Muslims for fear of polarisation and loss of votes. That is not how you can defeat Hindutva forces because even if you defeat them electorally, you let them win ideologically.

Are you going to enter mainstream politics or contest elections or join academia?

It is very difficult for me to plan my life because I plan something and then something happens and my life becomes a complete roller-coaster ride and then I have to make new plans. I am in politics. Politics is not only about contesting elections, and I think I am very mainstream. If it requires contesting elections and if that is what people want, one can think about it, but that is not my priority. Neither have I decided anything on those lines.

More important is to mobilise and organise people: educate, agitate, organise. That is the slogan that needs to be raised. I also think Dalits do not signify a caste. Dalit means oppressed people, broken people, and I think when Babasaheb Ambedkar coined that term, the visionary that he was, he had all oppressed people in mind. All oppressed groups need to come together, and these slogans from the Ambedkarite movement should be raised in the movement for our socio-economic rights as well.

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