The perils of being Umar Khalid
The atheist youth leader may have identified himself as a Marxist but the State meticulously wrapped around him the identity of a Muslim, to the extent that it eventually became a threat to him
You could read this piece as a story of the trial and metamorphosis of youth leader Umar Khalid. Or as India's inexhaustible capacity to weave the web of identity from which none can escape. Or as a case study of the abandonment of Muslims.
Consider this: In 2015, a few resigned from the Democratic Students' Union, a wing of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, in protest against their leaders insisting on a certain line on gender relations. Patriarchy oppression, the RDF leaders declared, was because of the "vulgar cultural imperialism." No, argued the dissidents, it lay in India's "Brahminical feudal" structure. The dissidents were aghast at the leadership's description of the live-in relationship as an opportunistic alliance.
Umar was among those who quit that rarefied world. Months later, he joined others to organise a cultural programme against capital punishment in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, on February 9, 2016. On that date, in 2013, was hanged Afzal Guru, a convict in the 2001 Parliament attack case. All hell broke loose as the Hindutva brigade alleged that anti-national slogans had been chanted at the programme. Student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. Umar and his mate, Anirban Bhattacharya, went into hiding.
Now, consider this: Over the next 20 days, Umar watched the TV identify him as a Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser. When Umar resurfaced in JNU, to surrender to the police, he declared, "I never projected myself as a Muslim, but I have been now made to feel as one." Umar had the freedom, like all of us, to define himself — his Muslim-ness, until then, had been incidental to his primary identity of Marxist.
But a person is also how others define him. For the Indian state, Umar was Muslim. Period. His interrogation in custody revolved around the media narrative that he was a terrorist sympathiser. In a speech delivered on his release, Umar said, "I felt it was the trial of the whole Muslim community. My defence was that I am not a practising Muslim. But what if I had studied in a madrasa, wore a skull cap and a beard, would all that had been justified?"
Thus was straitjacketed the Marxist PhD scholar as Muslim. Yet he pushed back against the State's attempts to reduce him to just his religious identity, evident from his decision to join others to float the Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar Students Organisation. He was recognised in cafes and malls, some even taking selfies with him. Others would glower at him, their eyes taunting — "You terrorist sympathiser" — and even accosting him once in a cinema hall. Umar was saved because some threw a cordon around him. His friends decreed that he would travel out of Delhi, on speaking tours, either by road or air — and never alone, as death threats on social media became routine.
Would it not be natural for both his Marxist-Muslim selves to worry over the violent targeting of his ordinary religious brethren? To assure the families of victims of lynching, to assist them for securing justice, Umar teamed up with Khalid Saifi to design, in 2017, the United Against Hate campaign. They sought to turn the essential unity of people into a bulwark against the rising tide of hate. At a programme, Khauf Se Azadi, on August 13, 2018, a man pulled the trigger on Umar, but the pistol jammed.
Yet the escape only underscored the extent to which his religious identity, maliciously spun, dyed and wrapped around him by the State, had become a threat to him. With his PhD complete and residency in JNU over, where was he to live in Delhi, without worrying about a killer stalking him? He chose the Muslim ghetto of Zakir Nagar. The prodigal son, so to speak, had returned home, courtesy the State.
As he set out to become the articulate voice of those people who had become his safety net, there were some who defined him as the Communist who did not believe in Allah. But then, in December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, and Muslims countrywide took to inviting the atheist Umar to speak at sit-ins. His religious brethren had warmly embraced him.
Much has been written about Umar having been falsely implicated in the conspiracy to instigate the Delhi riots. So let us skip that to ask: Is Umar destined for electoral politics? Which party could he join? Which constituency could he fight from? Before you reply, consider this, too: Kanhaiya, now in electoral politics, broke his prolonged silence on Umar to recently issue a statement in which he had just a passing mention. It is hard to second-guess Kanhaiya's compulsions, but his shying away from Umar replicates the reluctance of most secular parties to stand up for Muslims.
Currently reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy in jail, Umar will realise that suitability is rarely a consideration in Indian politics. Even Abul Kalam Azad, among the foremost leaders of the national movement, was fielded, much to his dismay, from the Muslim majority constituency of Rampur in India's first election. Umar, take heart — India would have reduced even Karl Marx to either his Jewish or Christian identity.
The writer is a senior journalist
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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