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'You Can't Imprison a Mind': Citizens' Collective Demands Umar Khalid's Release

At a press conference, political leaders, journalists and rights activists accused the police and government of completely derailing the Delhi riots investigation.

New Delhi: A press conference was organised on Monday by Citizens’ Collective to mark one year of activist Umar Khalid’s incarceration under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in the Delhi riots conspiracy case. Hashtag #Umar1YearInjustice was also used on Twitter on the same day to demand his as well as other political prisoners’ release.

Speakers included former member of the Planning Commission of India Syeda Hameed, advocate Prashant Bhushan, former chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission Zafarul Islam Khan, farmers’ leader Jasbeer Kaur, The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Manoj Jha and columnist Bharat Bhushan.

The public meeting was held to discuss “A year of continuing & unjust imprisonment of Umar Khalid” and was moderated by writer Farah Naqvi. The main demand of this press conference was to “Free Umar Khalid and all other anti-CAA protesters”.

Khalid and 12 others, including several students, are in jail facing trial in a case registered under the UAPA in the Delhi riots case.

Speakers at the press conference. Photo: Ismat Ara

Hameed, speaking about the rise of mob lynchings in the nation, asked why it is that the word “lynching” – despite being an English word – has come to be understood by even those who don’t speak the language.

Khalid’s name had become associated with the case in March 2020, when BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya shared a clip of Khalid’s speech from Amravati where he had asked people to come out to protest during US President Donald Trump’s visit to India. Malviya used this to allege that the riots were pre-planned ahead of Trump’s visit.

Parts of Khalid’s Amravati speech were played during the meeting. Naqvi, speaking about the speech, said that Malviya had tweeted it out of context as the total speech was 21 minutes, while Malviya had only tweeted close to 40 seconds. “In his Amravati speech, he has spoken about Mahatma Gandhi, progress, brotherhood…” Naqvi said.

Varadarajan said that the story of the past one year is not just the story of the “gross misuse of police power to prosecute innocent men and women, but also that of a massive cover up to allow criminals to get away”.

The collateral benefit for the police was their attempt to rewrite the history of the anti-CAA protests, Varadarajan said.

Also read: Wounded, Paralysed, but Still Jailed: Delhi Riots Victim Recounts 17-Month-Long Ordeal

Talking about the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest and the anti-CAA movement, he said that it was an inspiration for people and especially women everywhere not just because of its peaceful nature, but because it was a grassroots effort without the involvement of any political parties or leaders. He said, “This protest came from among the people. In the absence of experience of dealing with the Indian state directly, they turned to the constitution of India.”

He added that the charge sheets filed by Delhi police in these matters should be read by people to understand the “convoluted” arguments made by them. “Why would CAA leaders, considered by the police as masterminds, want to spread the message about CAA worldwide when the international media was already heavily covering the protest?” he asked.

Bhushan, speaking about the police reforms suggested by the Supreme Court in 2006 in the Prakash Singh judgement, said that it is high time that those guidelines are implemented. “The law and order and police should be separate from investigation,” he said.

In the 2006 judgement, the Supreme Court had directed that the investigation and law and order functions should be separated in order to improve policing. It also ordered the setting up of a State Security Commissions (SSC) that would have members from civil society, and forming a National Security Commission.

Khan said that anti-CAA leaders like Ishrat Jahan and Tahir Hussain should not be left out from the discourse because they are or were affiliated with political parties. He also pointed out the need to fasten the trials not only in the UAPA cases, but all cases related to the Delhi riots.

“There are many innocent people from both Hindu and Muslim communities kept in jails and nobody even knows their names,” he said.

Speakers at the press conference. Photo: Ismat Ara

Jha said that all the student leaders in jail under UAPA charges, and all others whose names don’t figure anywhere, are unsung heroes of our time. “In my parliamentary history, there are two times when I came back completely dejected. One when CAA was passed, and second when farm laws were passed. The manner in which they were passed, and also the intent, are questionable,” he said, adding that the anti-CAA protest in Shaheen Bagh provided hope to him after the dejection.

Referring to Khalid as “one of the brightest and most uncontaminated minds of this age”, Jha said that people should not forget others in jail awaiting trial including student activists like Meeran Haider, part of the RJD students’ wing in Jamia Millia Islamia.

He said that people now want a clear cut position from political parties and leaders. Taking a jibe at opposition leaders, he said, “You cannot be on both sides. You must pick sides.”

“If Umar Khalid had really done the things that the police are accusing him of, he would have been the chief minister instead of rotting in jail,” he further added.

Jasbeer Kaur, a farmers’ leader from Punjab, said that farmers had taken great inspiration from the Shaheen Bagh movement. She said, “Similarly, we also heard many slurs such as atankwadi (terrorists), Khalistani, dangayi (rioters) and Maoists. We have been sitting for 9.5 months at the borders of Delhi, protesting against the three farm laws. The government, just like in the Shaheen Bagh movement, is also trying to derail our protests. This government is a fascist one, and we all must unite and come together to fight it…”

Also read: ‘Sole Act of Protest Cannot Justify Incarceration’: HC Grants Bail to 5 CAA Protestors

Bhushan asked, “I want to start by asking a basic question. Why is Umar Khalid in jail but Anurag Thakur a minister? Why is Umar Khalid in jail while BJP’s Kapil Mishra roams free?”

He added, “We have to understand the nature of this increasingly authoritarian regime in the country. Its entry point is communalism, and it has been shaped for several decades by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). For them, the internal enemy are Indian Muslims. But why is Umar Khalid, despite openly saying that he is not a practicing Muslim still in jail? Because the RSS feels threatened by young, non-institutionalised, educated, assertive leaders like him.”

Further, he said that the mainstream Indian media is also complicit in his arrest and the suppression of voices like his. “There is no institution in the country which has not been communalised, including the police and parts of the judiciary,” he said.

He added, “But we must remember, even prison is a lesson for political people. You can imprison a body, never a mind.”