New Delhi: After going off the public radar for over a week in the face of threats of vigilantist violence against him, Umar Khalid – the PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been labelled by TV channels as the “mastermind” behind a “seditious” campus meeting on February 9 – returned to the university on Sunday evening to reiterate that he had broken no law and had actually received no summons from the police.
Till midnight, it was not clear what action the police was contemplating against him. As word of his return to campus started drawing goons to the university gates, the university authorities ordered JNU’s gates locked. According to reports, the National Human Rights Commission has asked the Delhi Police to ensure his safety and there is talk of the CISF being deployed as a cordon.
“For the six-seven years that I have done politics on this campus, I have never thought of myself as a Muslim,” NDTV quoted him as saying at an impromptu gathering outside the administrative block of the university. “I have never also projected myself as a Muslim. In the last 10 days, for the first time I felt like a Muslim. These people are telling us about patriotism… They may have majority but they are scared of us… they are scared of our struggle, they are afraid of us because we think… “.
A former member of the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU), Khalid and others left the group when they had ideological differences with the leadership and its perceived lack of gender sensitivity. Khalid was one of the organisers of the event held in JNU on Afzal Guru’s death anniversary, where “anti-national” sloganeering has resulted in the suspension of eight students from academic activities, and the arrest of JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition.
The case against Kumar and the others has received a lot of criticism from various corners, especially after it was confirmed that an evidence video against Kumar being widely circulated on TV channels was doctored.
Witch hunt against Umar
Umar Khalid is writing his dissertation at the Centre for Historical Studies on adivasis in Jharkhand and his political views are well known on the JNU campus. As is apparent from his blog, Umar is left-wing, an atheist and is concerned deeply about social justice. His lack of religious beliefs was a point of contention between him and his family.
After the February 9 event, however, the media has painted a picture of a completely different person. In their telling, Umar is a religious fanatic with terrorist links. One TV channel, NewsX, quoted an unidentified Intelligence Bureau report to say that that Khalid is a Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser; others labelled him ‘terrorist’ and ‘traitor’. Though the existence of the purported IB report has since been outrightly denied by intelligence officials, who called it “a figment of someone’s imagination”, the channel has yet to issue a retraction. Rumours of him having made several trips to Pakistan have also been propagated (offered as proof for “terrorist activities”), though his family has made it clear that he does not even have a passport. Others have referred to him as a Kashmiri, though his family is from Maharashtra. India Today TV provided “breaking news” after accessing Umar’s telephone records, describing as “highly suspicious” the fact that he had made 38 calls to, and received 65 calls from Jammu and Kashmir and that he “has made calls to people outside Delhi”.
Umar’s name was listed towards the end of the list of organisers on the poster for the February 9 event. The views he espouses on Kashmir are similar to what most left parties other than the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) subscribe to. It is not uncommon, for example, to find printed literature produced by leftist groups in legal circulation across the country advocating “the right of Kashmir to self-determination”.
Despite the fact that there is no video evidence of him shouting slogans at the February 9 event (acts which the police say amount to sedition), he has been portrayed by the media as a public enemy and a danger to “the nation”, with his effigy being carried in a march by lawyers protesting “anti-nationals” and posters asking for his hanging seen at metro stations. As Umar’s father and other critics have pointed out, he is being targeted and profiled because of the religion he was born into.
Threats to family and friends
After appearing on TV debates immediately after the incident, Khalid vanished from public view. His family was worried about his safety, especially after the public anger generated against him by false media reports. Other members of his family have been receiving threats – his father has received death threats on the phone and one of his sisters has got several threats of sexual violence on social media. They are afraid to leave their home. There have also been men standing outside their house, shouting Umar’s name.
The family have filed an FIR, but they have not received any form of police protection yet. The police has been to their house on several occasions, but only as a part of their search for Umar.
A group of women’s organisations and human rights organisations are sending a letter to the Delhi Commission for Women, the Chief Minister of Delhi, the Minority Commission and National Human Rights Commission asking that his family be given protection.
Meanwhile, a journalist, Sadiq Naqvi, who works for Catch News, has been questioned by the police because he is a friend of Umar’s. He has been called in for interrogation twice now, on February 20 and 21.
Kashmiri students in JNU hostels have also been fearful because of the profiling and “witch-hunt” of students after the event, and some have decided to leave their hostel rooms.
Support for JNU students continues
The JNU Teachers’ Association has brought out a statement in light of information on doctored evidence tapes, asking for the revocation of the suspension against all 8 students and that the university administration “immediately and earnestly pursue the dropping of charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against JNU students as a precondition for any proper and credible internal process of enquiry”. They have also opposed the targeting of specific students, saying: “The JNUTA GBM also expressed its deep concern at the intimidation and harassment being experienced by many students and their families and friends and the witch-hunt targeting a few students selectively. This is a direct fall out of the actions of the police, a section of the media and the University Administration. The GBM declared that the teachers fully stand by their students in these trying times”.
International scholars are also showing their continuing support for the movement in JNU by sending direct questions to the Vice-Chancellor of the university.
“Why did you allow the police on campus when it is clear that this was not legally required?” asks Noam Chomsky.
Jan Kregel has added: “Could you please explain why without any clear evidence and after two days had passed without any trouble on the campus, you decided the matter was so serious and urgent to ignore normal university processes and to create an enquiry committee into the alleged ‘seditious’ incident without adequate representation or clear terms of reference?”