Why Is the Modi Government Targeting Umar Khalid Now?

The young historian’s arrest is many things – about using the pandemic to reinforce majoritarianism, imposing political limits on Indian Muslims, and the moral universe that the BJP wants Indians to live in.

The Narendra Modi government is now clearly abandoning any pretence of staying within the spirit of the Indian constitution. It has pitilessly imprisoned Sudha Bharadwaj for the last two years – she has been someone who gave up her US citizenship to speak on behalf of the poor in Chhattisgarh. The Delhi Police is trying to implicate leading intellectuals like Sitaram Yechury, Apoorvanand and Jayati Ghosh in the Delhi riots cases.

And now drawing on its when-in-doubt-try-a-Muslim playbook, the scholar Umar Khalid has been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) legislation.

The police is yet to furnish evidence to back the allegation; on the contrary, it has been coercing acquaintances to sign declarations to implicate Khalid. The authorities are doing nothing about the hate speech of BJP leaders like Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra, but have focused its efforts on harassing dissenters.

Why is the BJP focusing on Umar Khalid and other activists at this time?

One can anticipate a range of motivations.

There is of course the need for distraction to gloss over COVID-19 numbers, the state of the economy and China’s land grab in Ladakh.

A broader goal may be about creating a chilling environment to forestall future protests regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). It’s worth remembering that the BJP has not given up on implementing the CAA and the National Register of Citizens – they are both currently on hold owing to COVID-19.

Also, note that anti-CAA protests did not just fizzle out on their own – an entire communal riot had to be organised in February to force protesters off the streets in Delhi and protests were eventually called off in March only because of the spread of COVID-19.

The BJP is thus bound to implement the CAA at some point. This is because the disenfranchisement of Muslims, which the law potentially enables, is central to BJP’s electoral strategy just as suppression of the African-American vote is important for Republicans in America.

The Union government presumably anticipates protests in the future and there is no better way to prepare for it than to arrest and implicate activists in false riot cases now – to malign the movement as a whole before they mobilise all over again. The strategy apparently is to promote fictions about massacres in Delhi in February and build a narrative among majority Hindus that anti-CAA protests are led by violent Muslims and leftists.

Drumming up fears

This is a lot like Donald Trump using protests in Oregon to drum up fears about African-Americans and convince audiences that all of the US is about to plunge into chaos because of the protests.

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Picking on Khalid and others serves to represent anti-CAA protests as being purely led by Muslims, rather than acknowledge them as the broad, diverse India-wide phenomenon that they were, comprising of people from all faiths and in several regions. Once you portray a movement as mostly Muslim-led (and involving “radical” leftists), it becomes easier to repress it and prevents others from joining it.

Umar Khalid at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi in December. Photo: PTI

The ideological project of vilifying Khalid thus proceeds at full tilt. He is represented only as a Muslim, without reference to the range of his ideological commitments, and often called a “jihadi” on Twitter. One of the ways to dehumanise a person is to portray his or her religion in repugnant terms and then to represent them as individuals purely in those terms.

Dehumanisation also denies the possibility that a person can be more than one thing. In the case of Khalid, there is absolutely no recognition that he is, in the final analysis, an extraordinary young man. He speaks with insight and passion on the themes that mean a lot to India’s future – on poverty, justice, fairness and the dangers of majoritarianism.

He places himself in the Ambedkarite-Nehruvian tradition of Indian politics, often invoking Gandhi, and is crystal clear about his methods of resistance.

In the speech that is being used to frame him he says: “we will not answer violence with violence, anger with anger, if they spread hatred we will reply with love, if they use batons, we will fly the tricolor, if they fire bullets, we will hold aloft the Constitution, if they put us in jail, we will sing ‘Sare jahan se acha Hindustan hamara‘ and gladly head to prison but we will not let you destroy this country.”

This is elevated rhetoric and those words should be remembered as Umar Khalid’s “I have a Constitution” speech because they brilliantly frame the kind of contest that is going on in India now between democracy and authoritarianism.

An excellent young historian

There is also no acknowledgment from the Right that Khalid is an excellent young historian, with a fine academic future ahead should he so choose to pursue it. Look back at the life Khalid has had to endure after first being arrested on false charges in 2016. He has been subject to intense scrutiny, he is trolled viciously and subjected to threats on social media and someone tried to shoot him too.

And yet he has fearlessly and with great charm, drawing on inner reserves, continued to speak out forcefully.

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Moreover, operating out of a typically basic and underfurnished hostel room in JNU and without much money, Khalid turned out a superb PhD thesis on the history of Chotanagpur.

Think of this for a moment, a scholar who’s assailed constantly, lives with the prospect of unjust arrest and prosecution, still manages to plumb the archives in four states as a history student, commands the academic literature and writes, in the words of his external examiner, a “compelling [doctoral] thesis” that “challenges several of the dominant frameworks in which histories on the Adivasis have thus far been written.”

A PhD thesis is meant to be a singular, distinctive contribution to new knowledge and Khalid achieved that by interrogating an entire historiographical tradition in trying circumstances – which most can’t do in ideal conditions. He could have chosen a very different life, pursued a detached academic life, perhaps abroad, and yet he chose to stay back, devote himself to scholarship and advocacy, and prison is what he is getting in return.

Imposing limits on Muslims in public life

Khalid’s arrest is no doubt part of a wider clampdown on dissent. The incarceration of a promising scholar and leader is also about imposing limits on Muslims in public life. It meant to reiterate that they have no place in India’s public sphere and is a chilling reaffirmation that politics in ‘New India’ will only be the majority’s salon game.

Muslims in India cannot stay where they want, eat what they like, dress what they will – and now they cannot speak (with the rhetorical force that Khalid is able to marshal) and interfere in the future of the republic which is not supposed to be their business. Before there is the electoral reality of a Congress-mukt Bharat, there needs to be a psychic and political reality of a Muslim-mukt Bharat.

Umar’s arrest is also about the moral journey that the BJP wants to take India on. Hindu nationalism cannot countenance Indians contemplating the suffering of Muslims for too long, and so it needs to create distractions.

This year Muslims were unjustly blamed for the spread of coronavirus, Kashmiris are having to face the future with the loss of political rights and their land besides seeing the eyes of their young shot at with pellets, a man was seriously beaten for driving away cows from his field, and, this month, a son helplessly heard his father on a phone being lynched by a mob after he was told to say “Jai Shri Ram”.

The grieving son movingly told a reporter, “We are Muslims, but we have a right to live.” The BJP clearly does not want the majority to reflect on these events and assess the moral costs of its rule. Instead, keeping a Muslim figure constantly in the public eye displaces the need for ethical reflection.

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Hindu nationalism seems to have no virtue in itself that it and the nation can aspire to, save the daily demonisation of fellow human beings.

Umar Khalid, on the other hand, is among India’s best and the brightest. A party that backs its speech with blows, swords and sticks cannot really comprehend a person who deals only with words and reason.

A right-wing universe that stereotypes religion cannot deal with an individual with an expansive political imagination that invokes Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar. A party that has a narrow view of a nation cannot countenance a scholar who is staking a claim on the full measure of his citizenship.

The BJP is taking on a lot in its effort to destroy Umar Khalid.

Sushil Aaron is a political commentator. Twitter: @SushilAaron