How the singling out of JNU student Umar Khalid is reinforcing prevalent stereotypes about a community.
Photo : Amarjeet Singh

Photo : Amarjeet Singh

It’s rare in history that cultural and political programmes organised within university premises, assume such significance in the entire country, so much so that even ministers feel compelled to issue statements.

Unprecedented in the way it grabbed eyeballs, Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU), known worldwide for its progressive and free thinking atmosphere became the raging centre of a controversy that resulted in strong criticisms arising against the Modi government from intellectuals and academia across the world

The reason for furore was a small programme with not more than a hundred participants, called, “A Country without a Post Office’’ organized by a few students of JNU , including Umar Khalid. The title of the programme was inspired by a poem by Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali which depicts the cloud of political uncertainty hovering over the conflict ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Following this, a section of the media was quick to term the event ‘anti-national’ with ‘jurists’ sitting in TV news studios, pronouncing organisers of the event as ‘seditious’. A concerted media trial by a few media outlets also meant that Umar and others involved in the event, who allegedly shouted anti India slogans, were virtually lynched on social media. In order to avoid arrest or face the ire of the self-proclaimed nationalists, baying for his blood, Umar went into hiding.

The media then ran unverified tickers suggesting Umar’s connection with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and thus, profiling him as a potential ‘terrorist’, who was also alleged to have travelled to Pakistan twice. On the other side some sympathisers, called him their son, a rebel, who had dared to question the values prevailing within his family, while others thought of him fondly as a bright scholar and a gentle human being.

In a bid to understand the real him, TEHELKA met Umar’s friends from school, college and the university, his parents and sisters, who received death, rape and acid attack threats.

What we got to know first,was hardly surprising as it was already out in the public domain – Umar was a radical leftist and a self proclaimed atheist. However, we also learnt from his family how a section of the media ran a deliberate campaign to project Khalid as a terrorist given the fact that his political leanings went against the Establishment. He was projected as an Islamist, contrary to his beliefs and understanding of the world.

To quote Umar himself, he was reduced to “his immediate identity, his name”. It was for the first time that Umar admittedly thought of himself as a Muslim.

His younger sister, Kulsum Fatima recalls how he never intended to move out of the country despite being offered several fellowships abroad, the reason being his desire to work for India and its marginalised people.

“He also refused to go to Saudi Arabia last year, when the entire family was going to perform Umrah instead asked our parents to give him his share of travel money, so that he could donate it to his party.’’

Sarah, youngest among the five sisters who claims to be the closest to Umar said she wants answers for a few of her questions. “How could Bhaiya make 800 telephone calls in four days, when he hardly had any credit in his phone? How could he have travelled to Pakistan, when he did not even have a passport? she asks.

If there is one thing the family acknowledges it is that Umar was deeply political. His different outlook toward religion would often lead to heated debates between him and family members, who are devout believers.

As we sit in the small apartment, in the neighbourhood of Jamia Millia Islamia, the aroma of biryani wafts into the drawing room from the kitchen. Umar’s sister tell us that their mother is preparing dishes to be taken to Umar in the police station.

Meanwhile, Kulsum narrates tales from Umar’s childhood. “My brother was educated at Banyan Tree School , before going to Kirori Mal for graduation and  JNUwas Masters in History in the year, 2009.He wanted to be an astronaut as a child, then a sports writer, eventually a cricketer,” she says. “But a drastic change was seen in his life post Batla House encounter. This was the time when he got actively engaged in politics and started reading Lenin’s works thoroughly. By the time he got to JNU , he was a full time political activist “

Umar’s mother arrives in the midst of our conversation in the drawing room with anxiety writ on her face. “Her condition is much better now,” says Sarah.

The worst time for the family was when Umar went into hiding. “Mother was continuously praying for him during that time. fearing the possibility of him being killed by authorities in a fake encounter,” says Sarah.

Umar’s father, Dr Sayed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, leader of a prominent Muslim outfit, believes that it is his association with SIMI in the past, which has led to the branding of his son as an Islamist.

“It is ridiculous how the media has portrayed my son in an absolutely different light, they have manipulated facts, blown things out of proportion and have tried to project him to a grave danger to society,” he says.

This entire episode has also once again opened up a debate on nationalism and its varying definitions. Commenting on his son’s views on nationalism, Ilyas tells TEHELKA that Khalid was nationalist in a different way. “He did not have any love for geographical boundaries but he was passionately in love with the people of this country. And that makes him a nationalist of its kind.”

Umar’s family says he is honest in all his dealings and passionate about whatever he does. “He was always committed to whatever he was into, be it cricket, politics or anything else,” says Kulsum.

A friend recalls Umar in similar vein as his family members. “Umar is a visionary, who is committed to whatever he undertakes , a vicarious reader a good public speaker and above all a good public speakers. The campus will miss him till he is back again.’’

The family says that despite having grave ideological differences Umar shared a cordial relationship with them. “He would always ask his mother, (who would often bursts into tears, when Umar questioned god and faith) not to worry for him,” says Ilyas. “He would make  it a point to kiss her forehead before leaving for the university.”

The family condemned reports being circulated in the media, that Umar was demanding cigarettes, momos and biryani during detention. “This is another set of blatant lies and Umar was not even allowed to eat the biryani taken by his mother for him. He is only allowed to have the food provided to him by the police, clarifies the family.

Umar’s mother who was present at the police station told this correspondent that he has not been physically tortured in police custody, but has been exhausted by the repeated police interrogation.

Hours before surrendering, Khalid told this correspondent that he was he convinced of his path of struggle and unmoved by media reports about him. He reiterated what he had been saying in his speeches after he surfaced back on the University campus, “I will keep fighting till it is necessary to fight for the most deprived and marginalised people of the world, irrespective of their religious and cultural identities.”In his last message to his friends, he urged that the struggle should go on in his absence.