Excerpted with permission from The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India by Nikhila Henry.
‘Bharat tere tukde honge…Insha Allah. Insha Allah,’ the policeman’s cell phone played visuals of a group shouting the slogan. ‘Can you hear this?’ the interrogating cop asked.
Umar Khalid nodded, ‘That’s only two minutes of a two-hour-long programme.’
‘Didn’t your blood boil when you heard it?’ It would have helped had Umar got himself to say ‘Yes’. Instead, he said, ‘No’. The questioning was part of Delhi police’s interrogation. Umar, a PhD student of School of Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, was one among the organizers of a poetry reading session on Kashmir: ‘The country without a post office,’ the event was called, after Agha Shahid Ali’s poem of the same title.
The programme organized in JNU on 9 February 2016 with an intent to deplore the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted in the attack on the Indian Parliament, got bad press and found itself embroiled in a police investigation.
On 12 February, Delhi Police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU Students Union president and a leader of All India Students Federation (AISF). Police slapped sedition charges on him for what they called his involvement in organizing the Afzal Guru event. Umar and his friend and research scholar of JNU, Anirban Bhattacharya, who absconded on 10 February, surrendered to the police on 23 February.
‘Tumhara khoon nahin khola?’ the police man repeated the question.
‘Nahin Sir,’ the 27-year-old said.
‘Kyun nahin khola? Tum mard ho na? Mard hei to hi na khun kholega!’
Umar remained silent, his poker face suggesting nonchalance. Though interrogation revolved around concepts of nation, nationalism, and masculinity, he was in fact neither upset by the slogan nor the intended insult the police officer hurled at him. He reminded himself that the controversial slogan shouted in JNU campus was common in Guru’s native Kashmir. The valley was months away from the biggest separatist turmoil since the 1990s.
Miles away from New Delhi where Umar was being interrogated, in the University of Hyderabad, the ‘Justice for Rohith Vemula’ agitation was still rife as students continued their protests demanding the arrest of three people: the Minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani; of the Minister for Labour and Development, Bandaru Dattatreya; and Vice Chancellor P. Appa Rao.
In January-February of 2016, those unfamiliar with academic and political cultures in Indian campuses, witnessed the ascent of a student community who accused the Union government of laying siege to campuses, first UoH and then JNU. Indian campuses were under authoritarian threat, the students claimed.
The intelligence officer questioning Umar asked whether he called anyone in Kashmir before the 9 February protest. Did he have links with Islamist insurgents? Police checked Umar’s cell phone records and read his messages. His friends’ phones were tracked for whereabouts. Umar felt he was being treated as a terror mastermind. But he flinched only when the questioning got personal. Special Cell officials offered him a drink. Worried that he would be killed in custody when inebriated, he respectfully declined. At that moment for the young man, his arrest and all that followed seemed like a recap of past horrors.
He remembered the 2008 Batla house encounter-killing of Muslim youth. Umar was a teen when it happened. His family was forced to go into hiding and his neighbours in Jamia Nagar were picked up. ‘We know you drink. We also know who your girlfriend is,’ the officers laughed. Till his arrest, Umar was the cool intellectual of JNU who hung out with friends at Ganga Dhaba. He was an atheist.
But after his arrest, JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) and SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) were the acronyms clubbed with his name in news headlines. It dawned on him during the police interrogation: he was a Muslim man. He was Umar Khalid, son of SQR Illias, a former member of SIMI and national president of Welfare Party, Jama’at-e-Islami. He had five younger sisters and his mother was worried sick that he was no longer religious. To top all that he was a student considered to be associated with the Communist Party of India-Maoist.
Umar knew that his friend, Anirban was stuck in another interrogation room nearby. Kanhaiya Kumar, also a friend, had been lodged in Tihar jail for three weeks. The unexpected police crackdown on an event organized each year in JNU scared Umar, even as he was sure that a student movement outside would demand his release. He had not yet realized that during his jail term, campus cultures which celebrated rebellion and ideals had become popular.
By early 2016, when the three students of JNU—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya—were imprisoned, student leaders emerged as the anti-heroes of modern India.
Nikhila Henry is a journalist with The Hindu.The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India, her first book, was published by Macmillan in October 2018. She earlier edited, Caste is Not a Rumour: The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula.