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

Dear Comrade,

The best minds among us are behind bars today; the vilest are working from parliament.

It has been a month since you were taken into custody, yet my mind is still taking its own sweet time to process this – time, which we unfortunately do not get these days. There has been no breathing space between the arrests that have been happening over the past few years. Mentors, friends, comrades, fellow activists, students, teachers, lawyers and artists – everyone who is left with any ability to critique the state’s actions, even after the relentless attacks by the regime on each and every thing that we value, is now the state’s enemy.

I won’t call it surprising, it is but natural for any fascist force to do everything in its means to silence uncomfortable questions. We have known, from the time the BJP-RSS returned to power in 2014, that this country would suffer irreparable damage to its already fragile and wounded idea of India. What we have not known, at various steps, is when a tiny candle would turn into a wild blaze of resistance among the oppressed. And what an experience it has been to pass on the torch from one of us to another, so that we may see a way through this darkness.

Yet, even the most exhilarating memories of fighting arm-in-arm, sometimes, cannot douse the sharp pain one feels when one of our own is forcefully snatched away. And that’s how fascism works – the deepest, most lasting attacks of this system of oppression are on our minds; physical wounds can heal and be forgotten, but the bruises on our minds cannot.

While we remember, they will want us to forget. While we simmer, they will want us to lower our gaze. They will never allow us to come out of this paranoia, and yet want us to believe that all the wrong that they have done, which generated this paranoia in the first place, never actually happened – so why worry? That’s perhaps why we see this as a battle of memory against forgetting. Memories of wounds that once were, paradoxically also must be held on to even as they continue to remain traumatising.

You always held on to a criticism about me – which angered me, brought me to tears, it but also stuck with me. You have always held that I get too affected. After all these years of fighting your criticism, I feel like perhaps you are right. Perhaps, dulling our senses to the point of numbness is the only option left to hold on to any vestiges of sanity. “Thick-skinned” – that’s the phrase you used – the “thick-skinned” nature that allowed you to survive and keep fighting in spite of every attack they launched, be it the media channels baying for your blood, or the bullets that missed you but had your name on them.

The author with Umar Khalid. Photo: special arrangement.

Make no mistake – you’re not a very tender teacher. In fact, for most of the people I know around you, convincing you or questioning your opinions is quite a challenge. You’re not easy to agree with; your ideas and articulation are always in flux. Of course, that is also why learning from you is rewarding. You have taught me that we don’t have to speak to make anyone comfortable with our ideas – the net result of our articulation should be quite the opposite. We should break the status quo and irk the political complacency that we see on various issues. That is also perhaps why a lot of well-meaning “allies” are discomforted by your political persona.

But the other side of your ruthless criticism is your childlike energy for welcoming new ideas, your undying enthusiasm to debate and discuss – even if it is at the oddest hour of the day. These personal traits, in their own strange ways, combine to make you a voice that sways thousands with the clarity in its vision.

I remember you teaching us that as activists, we must make the language of our politics accessible. We must speak a language that engages, not confounds. And that has always reflected in your practices. It is this very clarity that they fear – this ability of yours to get the most obscure policies of the state right across to people in a lucid way. It’s because the more people understand what this regime is doing, and undoing, the more they would outrage and organise.

I have heard a lot of activists speak, even those who have become netas today with their witticisms, but never have I heard anyone empower their audience with their words as much as you do. It is a very simple act that you do every time you speak – you always put the people at the centre of the conversation. You reaffirm people’s faith that indeed, it is them, in their united echoes, who have sent the voices within the power corridor in a tizzy. Perhaps that’s why these lines by Otto Rene Castillo are so dear to you, “We believed in people and life, and life and the people, never let us down.”

To be you takes a lot of courage, my friend. To not be affected by the downpour of assaults, to keep writing and speaking about what you believe in in the face of abuse and death threats, to keep moving ahead without losing the roadmap, the bigger picture of social upheaval, is a challenge that people like me may not be fully prepared to face yet. On one of the countless nights that I spoke to you, completely broken, you said something that would always stay with me,

“Fascism se ladai ka ek pehlu ye bhi hai ki khush raho (one of the facets of the fight against fascism is also that you should learn to be happy), because that is exactly what they don’t want you to be.”

While you remain incarcerated, we keep your ideas and your fight afloat in our laughter, our pain, our struggle and our shared love for people. While I cope with seeing you at the receiving end of this regime’s blows yet again, it is the hope that we fight for which softens the edge of the wounds.

Waiting to see your annoyingly buoyant face again.

With love,
Your Comrade

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 provided by the author