By Abhimanyu Singh:
On the day Kanhaiya Kumar – JNUSU president who is currently under judicial custody on charges of sedition – made the speech which would land him in Tihar, I met Umar Khalid.
We had corresponded earlier. Umar was one of the fifteen comrades who had quit the Democratic Students Union – which the government considers to be a Maoist front – a little while ago. Those who quit the organisation had issues regarding the lack of gender sensitivity in the top leadership and they wrote erudite explanations stating their positions. We at Youth Ki Awaaz published them and it was in this regard that I had the e-mail exchange with Umar.
On Thursday last week – it already feels like an age has passed so much has happened in the last few days – I caught with Umar. I had not met him before but I had looked up his Facebook profile and knew how he looked. I walked up to him and introduced myself, asking for an interaction and reminding him of our previous correspondence. He instantly recognised me and said that he would speak to me but asked for a few minutes. He was sitting on the same stairs to the Administration Block on which Kanhiaya would stand in an hour and deliver his by now famous speech, ripping into the RSS’ Hindutva agenda, among other things.
In a few minutes, Umar walked up to me, with a friend and comrade, also one of the organisers of the event ‘The Country Without a Post Office’, who chose to remain anonymous.
He told me that they had secured the permission for the event from “one faculty member, Dean of School, Chairperson of Centre and Dean of Students Welfare (School stands for School of Social Sciences where Umar is enrolled; his centre is the History Department)” for an event where poems were to be recited and songs to be sung. However, he said that the ABVP complained against the scheduled programme and permission was withdrawn. “We decided to go ahead with it as the denial of permission amounted to censorship,” he told me. He added that artists, writers and journalists like Farah Bashir, Panini Anand, and Inder Salim were invited for the event, among a total of seven guests speakers/performers. “The main issue was Kashmir and the oppression that has taken place there,” he told me. He also said that Afzal Guru’s hanging was part of the problem. “He was denied a fair trial and even a lawyer. The evidence presented against him was circumstantial. And the judiciary said that he was hanged to satisfy the collective conscience of the people. This is shameful.”
He added that his clemency petition was rejected and his hanging was expedited although there were others already on the death row before him. “Even his family was not informed beforehand,” he said. He pointed out that eminent personalities like Shashi Tharoor, Omar Abdullah and others had raised these issues before.
Umar and the other organiser also said that it was not only about Guru. There had been instances of right-wing aggression whether it was regarding film screenings – screenings of both ‘Caste On The Menu’ and ‘Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai’ were disrupted by ABVP – or the more recent instance of a professor being charged with disrespecting religious sentiments by the same organisation. Umar termed the charges as being “trumped up”. On the issue of disruption of screenings, he said that the members of ABVP appeared to be acting with “absolute impunity” and were most likely in “collusion with the security guards.”
He told me that the central government appeared to be cornered on all fronts and was quite possibly “suffering from a security-centric paranoia”. “We follow the democratic traditions and we need a space to articulate our positions,” he told me.
The proctorial enquiry had already been announced by then. Umar and the fellow organiser told me that they believed the Vice-Chancellor had links to the RSS. They termed the enquiry as a “witch-hunt”. The enquiry is currently stuck, according to reports.
They added that there seemed to be an attempt at “criminalising student politics”. “We question the State and for that reason JNU has become a target,” they told me.
Before taking his leave, I asked him if I could cite his name in my report. He shrugged and said yes. The next day, Kanhaiya was picked up and since then, I have had no contact with Umar.