Umar Khalid, the Historian: His Continued Imprisonment Is a Loss to the Academic World

Even for someone who worked extensively on Adivasi history, his thesis 'Contesting Claims and Contingencies of Rule: Singhbhum 1800 – 2000' offers new insights.

Muslims in India, somewhat like Adivasis, are always being told to ‘integrate’ and to join the ‘mainstream’. The difference between Muslims and Adivasis is that the former are seen as unwilling to be ‘mainstreamed’ and the latter as incapable of it. The assumption is always that the ‘main-stream’ is an upper-caste Hindu river, singularly flowing without any input from minority streams. At the same time, when Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis fill the jails disproportionately and are denied bail when others get it for the same offence, then there is no admission of how the mainstream has excluded them.

When a Muslim like Umar Khalid crosses boundaries, there is a further panic attack. A young articulate Muslim man who does not wear a skull cap, who is an atheist, who did his Ph.D. from JNU in history on Adivasis in Singbhum is seen as an anomaly in the segregated world the RSS wants to create. The attempt is then to reduce him to just one aspect of his identity – so that whatever else he does or says or writes in the end he must be seen merely as a Muslim, and by extension, violent, anti-national, and a threat to the “Indian mainstream”. So dangerous that he has been in jail for three years without bail. It is not surprising that so many of the young people who were arrested for the anti-CAA protests were Muslim students at India’s leading universities.

A number of people have written about how flimsy the legal case against Umar is. Among other absurdities, he is charged with being on a WhatsApp group and for using phrases like inquilabi salaam (revolutionary greetings). It is pure judicial bigotry to call his speech ‘obnoxious’ when he is talking of pitting love against hate, even as the obnoxious Kapil Mishra or Anurag Thakur, whose hate speeches served as a spark for the attack on Muslims in Delhi 2020, roam free and prosper with official posts.

But I want, instead, to focus on Umar the historian, and the loss to the academic world by locking up this brilliant mind. As someone who has worked extensively on Adivasi history, I truly felt that I was learning something new when I read his thesis. And when one considers that the thesis was written while the student was still under trial for sedition, had already spent time in jail, had been fired upon and narrowly survived, and had been the subject of such mass media defamation and hysteria that he could not travel freely, it is not only brilliant but heroic.

This is not to mention the fact that he had been rusticated in his last semester of thesis writing when one needs the university the most, and had to go to court in order to be allowed to submit the thesis. It is ironic that the same judge who enabled him and others to submit their theses at JNU later denied him bail. Surely, he knew the odds this young man had faced, obstacles that would have ground down any lesser person.

Umar could have chosen to lie low, and like other recent PhDs, busy himself in applying for post docs or jobs, or, as those who want to get ahead in the current system do, publish in predatory journals. But he chose the hard way, putting his heart and soul into the struggle for universal citizenship, against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Contrary to the usual assumption, the CAA would have disenfranchised not just Muslims, but women, Adivasis, Dalits, the poor more generally – all those who do not have records or written genealogies. But his only reward for this extraordinary selflessness in attempting to uphold Indian democracy has been a jail term, which has already stretched for three endless years.

Umar, the historian 

Umar’s thesis, titled ‘Contesting Claims and Contingencies of Rule: Singhbhum 1800 – 2000’, is a well-researched and deeply insightful exploration of the relationship between Adivasis and the state, in what is seen as one of the most ‘isolated’, ‘backward’ tracts of India, even as it is the site of extensive mining.

Umar argues that contrary to the received wisdom which has pitted a homogenous Adivasi society against the state, the state intervened through the fractures within Adivasi society. The colonial policy of indirect rule helped to strengthen a particular class within the Ho community. Existing hierarchies were strengthened and new ones created.

The thesis looks in detail at the creation of Singbhum as a region and the way in which the Manki-Munda (local headmen) system was co-opted into colonial governance structures. He analyses how this system helped in extending arable land, raising rents, and managing the forests. He then places Jaipal Singh’s Adivasi Mahasabha within this longer history, showing how it drew on colonial ideas of exceptionalism and Adivasi difference to negotiate a position of autonomy, albeit limited, within the Indian constitution.

Nothing in the thesis shows the mark of someone who desires to engage in a bloody revolution. Everything in this thesis shows someone who is engaging deeply with democracy and its practice.

Umar has put this jail term to productive use by reading extensively. In between, he also managed to write an obituary of Ranajit Guha. Speaking purely as an academic, this young man needs to be out of jail as soon as possible, to live a normal life and eventually find the time to publish his thesis as a book. The last para of his thesis ends on a poignant note:

“I specifically wanted to look at the manner in which those at the very margins of even the Adivasi communities related to, and negotiated with, the various dominant structures of their communities, even as they were in the process of creating new ones. But as fate would have it, for reasons and events beyond my control, it became impossible for me to travel back to Jharkhand after 2016. Hopefully, at some saner time in the future, I hope to return to this story to interrogate the possibilities, as well as limits, of radical social change, that this rebellion promises.”

One can only hope that the Supreme Court will be a harbinger of this saner time, releasing Umar and all those young people unjustly imprisoned, essentially for coming out of their campuses and homes and protesting against the CAA. The courts would be striking a major blow for academic freedom.

Nandini Sundar is a Delhi-based sociologist.