Today, Umar Khalid completes a thousand days behind bars. Three summers and winters ago, we were robbed of the colours that seasons bring with them, when our lives were painted over by a stroke of rage and helplessness. Our world came to a standstill as we witnessed our friend being snatched from us and put away in another world, where the only thing that festers is the monotony of an uncertain wait.
Anyone who knows Umar even a little bit, knows that he is a dynamic and restless mind. I met Umar for the first time in 2016, when he was just out of jail in the 2016 JNU sedition case and we had invited him to a protest programme to talk about the mainstream media blackout on the state-backed plunder of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh. If the 26 days that he had spent in jail had really done anything, it was only to sharpen the articulation of his anger at the injustice that he had been so vehemently fighting against in the years before. His vilification by TV news anchors on 24×7 news channels and the media trials that he was subjected to which had a section of people baying for his blood, had only made him more determined to expose the real crises in the country that these anchors really didn’t want people to be talking about.
But the Umar I meet in Tihar now is different. He has had years of experience in tackling extremely dangerous public perceptions about himself and the work he does, carefully built by newsrooms that stand only to do the dictator’s bidding. But the challenges that he has faced in these three years behind bars have been unprecedented. And yet, they have brought about a calmness in his personality. At times, when I see him, this calmness unnerves me. It fills me up with incredible uneasiness to imagine what he must have been witnessing all these years, day in and day out, that he has fought his instinctive restlessness to sober down to this extent. And yet, what keeps me tethered is the knowledge that it isn’t a calmness of resignation or of defeat. I see an Umar, more observant than ever before, more empathetic and patient, more considerate and more mindful of his demands, more measured in his articulation and more thoughtful in his writing. I see an Umar who doesn’t shy away from a fleeting but warm embrace, knowing fully well the value of touch while living in a world saturated with the numbness of forgetting what love feels like. I see an Umar who reflects on and revisits his work, his beliefs, his ideas and aspirations, as his thought process transforms with the countless books he reads and the experiences he gathers. I see an Umar who holds on to his sabr, by looking at what he is being subjected to as symptomatic of the larger progressing rot in our society, which has been facilitated by those who sit in power today and who are rendering our sense of community and collective empathy hollow from within.
There is a particular speech which he gave in Amaravati, one among the countless ones that he delivered while contributing to the equal citizenship protests from the forefront in 2019-2020, that has been picked up, circulated, vilified and made the subject of discussion on social media and consequently in the courts. But for me, it is the words he uttered on another particular occasion, on the completion of 50 days of the Shaheen Bagh protests across the country, standing in Jantar Mantar, that hold the pithy summation of the consolidation that these protests were able to facilitate. He said that when people asked, “What did these protests achieve?”, the answer of those who were bearing the torches of these protests, the Muslim women who led Shaheen Baghs across the country, was that this movement helped a community, a people overcome the atmosphere of fear that has been set into motion by this regime ever since it set foot in the corridors of power. The spectacle that violence against Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis was made into, through the numerous acts of lynching, through judicial decisions that were made in the favour of the brahminical majority, through unilateral legislative decisions like the revocation of Article 370, had made the air heavy and unbreathable for the oppressed communities in our society. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill into an Act was another brick that was being laid in the wall by the BJP-RSS regime to push the Muslims of India into a corner. It was these protests, he said, that enabled people who were being driven to the margins in their own homeland, to put together their spirits and break the atmosphere of enforced silence with their cries of inquilab. It was these protests, he said, that shattered the arrogance of those who believe they can get away with any kind of injustice that they perpetrate, to sit up and realize that their every act of violence, of subjugation and of dehumanization, is being watched, remembered and recorded in the history that people are writing beyond their dictated textbooks.
Today, when I see him languishing in jail, Eid after eid away from his mother, unable to witness his young nieces and nephews grow into promising human beings while showering them with his love, mischief and stories, away from friendships that he has nourished and nurtured for decades with his care and wisdom, I try to remember these words of his while I look for reasons to keep fighting. It’s true that this uncertainty in our wait is in itself an injustice and Umar’s identity as a vocal, political and most importantly, a fearless Muslim in today’s India is the real reason behind his incarceration. But even though today seems dimmer than yesterday as everyday violence takes the shape of institutionalized cleansing, we must remember that it is because people like him, Gul, Sharjeel, Khalid, Meeran, Shifa, Athar, Shadab and the others continue to be jailed that we don’t have the privilege to say “there’s no hope anymore”. There’s no time to spare because those who will lead us into the future of an equitable and just society are being punished for standing up for all of us in the past. If the saffron tint of our history textbooks must come undone and the vibrant colours of every season must return, if the erasures must speak up from the interstices, if newer, more inclusive histories of our people must be rewritten, then those who have played such an important role in shaping these histories must be allowed to speak again, from beyond the iron bars.
Apeksha Priyadarshini is a PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Councillor, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union. She is also a member of the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization, JNU.
Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.