Looking for the 'Terrorist' in Umar Khalid

When he laughed, it bothered him. Umar's own happiness upset him at a time when millions were hungry and unhappy.

This article, first published on October 13, 2020, is being republished on September 13, 2021, to remember one year of Umar Khalid’s incarceration.

While some have vouched for Umar Khalid’s innocence, others have said that he will be freed if he was indeed not a terrorist.

A large section, in the meantime, have said that there would be no smoke without a fire. This might have been true until a few years ago, but in the present age of social media, both fire and smoke can be generated through computer graphics.

The question is: Is Umar Khalid a terrorist or not?

I do not have the answer. Neither have I met a terrorist, nor am I acquainted with one. I have met Umar on several occasions and spoken to him hundreds of times.

I do not know what terrorists talk about. It is possible for Umar to have said certain things to me which made him sound like a ‘terrorist’. Since you seem to have met several ‘terrorists’, I want to share some things that Umar and I had discussed in our conversations.

You might be able to spot the ‘terrorist’ in him.

Until three days before his arrest, he was in Jaipur. Owing to the coronavirus-induced lockdown, I too had left Mumbai a few months ago and had taken refuge in Jaipur. We met everyday for three or four days and talked for several long hours.

My wife met Umar as well and had a detailed discussion with him. After meeting him, she made a remark about him: “Such a calm and cultured boy, educated too. These are the kind of boys fathers look for to marry their daughters to.”

“There are only two problems,” I had jibed. “One, he is educated, so he doesn’t earn much. Two, he is a Muslim, and hence, a terrorist.”

My wife laughed. I didn’t. For I immediately realised that such statements were no longer a joke in India.

Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in JNU. Photo: PTI/Files

Today, the educated indeed do not make money in our country and Muslims are labelled as terrorists. Harvard has been hijacked by ‘hard work’ and people have discarded books and taken up guns. Because after all, “goli maarni hai na, salon ko?”

Also read: Why the Indian Taxpayer Should Be Happy to Pay for Citizen Scholar Umar Khalid

Umar and I share a very nonchalant friendship. He has a habit of standing with one hand on his back, pressing it as if trying to straighten it. When he is listening to someone speak, he constantly keeps uttering ‘Hmm, hmm’, which I found absolutely irksome.

I have pointed this to him many times and told him to at least wait before uttering the next ‘hmm’.

But he is a habitual criminal and the phrase inadvertently escapes his mouth. He has dark eye bags, and his weight is just about enough to keep him standing. Any less would render him as light as a bird capable of taking flight. His remarkable thinking was all he was.

Let me now quickly tell you about the conversations I had with Umar and the things we discussed. Together, let us nab the ‘terrorist’ in Umar Khalid.

The topic we discussed for the most part was his arrest. The question was not whether or not he would be arrested, but when and for how long. Many a times, someone would interject: “But why would he be arrested? What has he done?”

This would make us laugh because we would marvel that even today there were people who believed that the law had been functioning as earlier in out country. This illusion will fade away with time, I am sure.

The Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh had kept Dr Kafeel Khan behind bars for eight months after he was arrested on January 29 for allegedly delivering a “hate speech” against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Kafeel had delivered the said speech at the Aligarh Muslim University campus on December 12, 2019. Are you aware of the charges levelled against him?

Dr Kafeel Khan (C) following his release from Mathura jail after the Allahabad High Court quashed his detention under the National Security Act and ordered his immediate release, in Mathura, Tuesday night, Sept. 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

Initially, a case was registered against Dr Kafeel under Section 153A for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds. Later, he was booked under Section 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), Section 109 (instigation) and Section 502 (2) which deals with statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes. After his arrest, charges under the National Security Act (NSA) were invoked against him on February 13.

What is the NSA?

Under the National Security Act or the NSA, a person can be detained without a charge for up to 12 months, if the authorities feel that he or she is a threat to national security or law and order.

However, the consent of an advisory board is to be sought if the detention is to exceed three months. It means anyone can be easily thrown behind bars for a year without the person’s family being able to do anything.

Also read: What Separates Umar Khalid’s Attackers from Other Islamist Terrorists?

I want to tell those who claim, “If he’s innocent, he’ll ultimately go free,” – why don’t we throw you behind bars for a year? Why not throw all citizens behind bars for a year when they turn 18? We’re all innocent after all, we’ll all ultimately go free.

After eight months of Kafeel’s detention, the high court reprimanded the district administration and noted in its judgement that the NSA charges were invoked without even listening to Kafeel’s entire speech which, in fact, “calls for national integrity and unity“.

The same will happen with Umar – this I guarantee.

Three, six or nine months or perhaps a year later, the court will assert that Umar’s speech, his actions, his ideals, all reflect the spirit of national unity and integrity. But until that time, a full year of his life would have been wasted in jail. Just as eight months of Kafeel’s life were snatched away.

Umar Khalid. Credit: YouTube screengrab.

We had heard about the Emergency during which all the opposition leaders of the country were imprisoned. But at least they called it what it was – the Emergency. This present is a new kind of Emergency – working its way in slow motion. All voices will be gradually silenced, thrown into prison one by one. There is no getting away from them. Those who are deceived that democracy is still alive in the country, will soon get a reality check.

Going to jail in one’s fight for truth is not an unfortunate event.

Also read: Justice Lokur: Our Fundamental Rights to Free Speech and Protest Are Being Eroded and Mauled

On the contrary, for a revolutionary to see the inside of a prison is like winning the Ashok Chakra. It is a medal that every revolutionary proudly wears on their chest. But it is pertinent to talk about those who are incarcerating innocent people merely because they dislike the words they utter and about those who are antagonistic to heads that lift up in defiance and refuse to bow down before them or faces that display expressions of disapproval and reproof. What would you call such people?

Oh, I forgot! I have to share the things Umar and I had conversed about. So, you and I can spot the ‘terrorist’ in him.

He often used to tell me, “I am fighting for the Muslims because they are the ones being oppressed. Had the Muslims been the oppressors, I would be fighting against them. I will fight for all those who are weak, whether they are Dalits, labourers, artisans, or other economically backward people.”

When I tell him that he seems to have an affinity for fighting, he said, “As long as they keep persecuting people, I will keep up my habit of fighting. Let them give up persecution, I will give up fighting.” I went silent.

Also read: A Month After His Arrest, a Letter to Comrade Umar Khalid in Jail

I told you the man is nasty but has a beautiful way of thinking. One day, the topic of our discussion was ‘strings of dirt’.

You must be wondering what the phrase means. When you rub your skin with a finger, tiny black wicks of dirt and sweat form on the body. They are the strings of dirt. One needs a couple of conditions to achieve it – a thin layer of sweat on the skin surface and a gap of at least one hour after having taken a bath. Now that you know what ‘strings of dirt’ are, you must be curious to find out about the discussion Umar and I had.

Umar believes that strings of dirt have a profound connection with India. Only those who have lived and felt them, understand what India is. These strings of dirt are a state of mind. Every hardworking individual of the country is aware that they remain covered in countless strings of dirt all the time. They can never look as clean as those who appear on television. But these very strings of dirt are their armour and the reality of their existence.

Millions of people are feeding their families and raising their voices on the streets through these strings of dirt. They are the soul of the country. Soaked in sweat, these strings of dirt are our strength.

Umar Khalid at JNU on the night of February 21, 2016. Credit: Abhinav Prakash/Twitter

Towards the end of the discussion, Umar asked me, “Tell me, buddy, do those who live in air conditioned rooms throughout the day, also have strings of dirt?”

I do not have the answer. Perhaps you do.

We have discussed many such other things. He believes, “No one has the right to take someone’s life. But it is the duty of everyone to save another’s life.”

“How much affluence is enough affluence?” he once asked. “Is there a limit to being rich? At a time when 200 million people sleep hungry in the country, shouldn’t there be a cap on luxury?”

It bothers him to think that though he became a leader because he had a chance to get educated, the boys and girls in his neighbourhood with whom he spent his childhood, some of whom were quite intelligent, and millions of others like them, are rotting across thousands of such neighbourhoods.

He has a tendency to speak a lot, and there’s nothing stopping him once he has begun his speech, his eyes reflecting his pain and his tone sorrowful. When he laughed, it bothered him. His own happiness upset him.

He knew he would be arrested before he was. He was determined to quit smoking too. He had even made a list of all the books he was going to read in prison. He was alert, and ready.

What kind of system is it, fellow country-beings? We are aware that an injustice is going to occur and we gear up to endure it. There is neither a medicine nor a treatment for such an ailment. We have almost become used to enduring the persecution.

Also read: ‘What Was Umar Khalid’s Crime?’: Over 200 Thinkers Across the World Extend Solidarity

By now, I hope you have identified the ‘terrorist’ in Umar Khalid. If not, you would certainly find it in his name. After all, his name is Umar Khalid.

Satyamev Jayate, the emblem of India, stands for ‘truth alone triumphs’. Perhaps, the mission of India is to discover the truth. But today, we are not looking for truth. Today, we are looking for terrorists in names.

Satyamev Jayate may still be India’s emblem, but with the direction in which the country is moving, the day is not far when the emblem will be ‘Nafratev Jayate’ because it seems hate alone is triumphing.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman

Darab Farooqui is a screenplay writer. He wrote the screenplay for the film Dedh Ishqiya.