Talkative, Evolving & Never Missing A ‘Mulakat’: Umar Khalid After 2 Years In Prison

13 Sep 2022 17 min read  Share

Two years after incarceration and being charged under India’s anti-terror law in a case marked by a near-absence of evidence, political activist Umar Khalid is navigating Tihar jail, buoyed by weekly visits from his friends, who find him ever-talkative but changing as the process becomes the punishment. Charged with planning the Delhi riots, Khalid follows the bail hearings and the campaigns to free political prisoners but rarely lets himself hope.

Political activist Umar Khalid speaking in Kozhikode, Kerala, on 31 December 2019 during the anti-CAA movement. Photo: Ahtesham Ul Haque

Delhi: After two years of incarceration in Delhi’s Tihar jail, political activist Umar Khalid has settled into a pattern of reading voraciously and never missing the two “mulakats” (meetings) he is allowed every week. There is a physical meeting with a friend and a video conference with his parents, who, with age, find it harder to make the 45-minute drive from their home. 

His friends, who Article 14 spoke with recently, said that Khalid has always talked a lot and continues to do so, coming to the “mulakats” in high spirits and prepared with the points he wants to discuss, writing them down before every meeting. 

With a momentary chuckle in an otherwise sombre conversation, Anirban Bhattacharya, a researcher and a friend of Khalid’s from when they were graduate students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said, “He has his very immediate points and his normal points…his absurd dream from that night before, who is getting married, who is broken up, what book he is reading, his opinion on an opinion piece…there is a range.”

Jokes too, Banojyotsna Lahiri, a researcher and Khalid’s partner, said with a comical resignation. 

“Usually, his jokes are very bad, and the ones he jots down are even worse. I told him after you come out, I don't know what you will do, but stand-up comedy is not going to be an option for you,” said Lahiri. “We try to have a happy conversation. We don't want to make it sordid, dark and diabolical. We keep it happy, so both our spirits are lit.”

The march of time since the Delhi police arrested Khalid, 35, a PhD from JNU, on 13 September 2020, in connection with the Delhi riots, has moved his conversations with his friends and family from being solely about his physical safety and how bleak things were in the country losing its core values, to a less vulnerable and despairing place. 

Their worries and outrage about the police case, the lack of evidence against him, and the deepening anti-Muslim sentiments co-exist with the rigours, joys and mundanity of their lives.

No Trial, No Bail 

The Supreme Court has said that speedy justice is a fundamental right. When a timely trial is not possible and the accused has been incarcerated for a significant period, bail has to be given, even in cases under the Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (UAPA), 1967, India’s terror law, which makes it harder to get bail. 

The Delhi Police have invoked the UAPA in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, yet to go to trial even though the first information report was filed on 6 March 2020. The police, for months, delayed giving a physical copy of the 17,000-page chargesheet to the 18 accused. 

Despite the Supreme Court’s observations on speedy justice, Khalid’s bail hearings have lasted for over a year, for eight months in the trial court, where the public prosecutor Amit Prasad introduced a fresh allegation on the day Khalid’s lawyer, advocate Trideep Pais, was closing his arguments. Another four months passed in the Delhi High Court, where Justices Sidharth Mridul and Rajanish Bhatnagar recently reserved the bail order. 

The majority of 53 people killed in the riots were Muslim, as were 18 people accused of hatching a conspiracy to instigate communal violence and charged with terrorism under the UAPA and murder, sedition, and over two dozen other crimes under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. 

The year-long hearing has shown the prosecution’s case to be largely without evidence. Indian jurisprudence acknowledges that conspiracies are seldom open affairs and direct evidence is hard to come by. But it exacts a very high standard of circumstantial evidence to establish a “meeting of minds”. 

The police evidence against Khalid includes a publicly available speech that does not incite violence, contradictory police witness statements, and messages from WhatsApp groups to coordinate the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, where he was barely active. 

In September 2021, an Article 14 analysis of 40 court orders connected with the Delhi riots found a trail of false statements, fabricated charges and police unaware of their own investigations. Some of the comments made by various Delhi courts about police investigations into riots: 'Absolutely evasive,' 'lackadaisical,' 'callous,' 'casual,' 'farcical,' 'painful to see,' and 'misusing the judicial system.' 

Khalid was a prominent face of the movement against the new citizenship law that only precludes undocumented Muslims from Indian citizenship, as were some of his co-accused. And so far, the prosecution’s submissions about the locations of the anti-CAA protests in poor Muslim areas and whether Khalid was an atheist or an Islamist appear communal and aimed at delegitimising the anti-CAA movement and him in the court of public opinion.

While granting bail to student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the same case, the Delhi High Court found the police had not made out a prima facie case of a terrorist act, and the use of “superfluous verbiage, hyperbole and stretched inferences”, did not make it one.  Furthermore, the division bench of Justice Mridul Siddharth and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani asked whether the crimes alleged threatened the defence of India, warranting invoking of UAPA, observing that in its “anxiety to suppress dissent,” the state was blurring the lines between the right to protest and terrorist activity. 

While Narwal, Kalita, Tanha, and Safoora Zargar, have received bail from the Delhi High Court, and Ishrat Jahan from the lower court, others charged under the UAPA, Khalid, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Shifa-ur-Rehman, Sharjeel Imam, and Meeran Haider, have had their bail rejected by the lower court.

Process Is The Punishment 

But even as Khalid remains lively and animated, those closest to him see the change in how he thinks and what he lets himself believe. He is no longer the “restless optimist” they knew but someone far more patient and practical. 

Seldom allowing himself hope, measuring the trajectory of his own life in terms of events beyond his control, and a muted sense of resignation is all part of what Khalid’s friends feel is the process punishing him.

“As students at JNU, we kept saying the process is the punishment. We used to talk and write about it all the time,” said Bhattacharya. “It is painful to see your friend coming to terms with the punishment. And the process is long and unfair.”

When they were incarcerated together for three weeks in Tihar in 2016 following an event at JNU, marking the execution of the 2001 parliament attack convict, Mohammad Afzal, whose extent of involvement and death penalty sentence have been debated, Bhattacharya said that he would often advise Khalid to calm down and give things some time to sort themselves out. 

“There would be an effort on my part to tell him that he should not think in terms of one or two days but have a longer sense of time. I didn't want him to count the days and be restless every day,” said Bhattacharya. “Now, he knows there is a particular arc this country is passing through, and there will be an end to it, and he is someone in that history. He is locating himself in that picture and seeing himself from a distance and with a longer sense of time.” 

“I advised him, but when I see him internalising it, I don't like it," he said. "He is no longer restless, and it doesn't feel right.”

Criminalising Dissent & Dissenters 

Khalid was 29 when his name first appeared in the news along with Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar, then JNU Students’ Union Vice President, after the event on Afzal, a Kashmiri man, who, critics say, the Congress Party-led government executed on 9 February 2013 to appear tough on terror before the 2014 election. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election in a landslide. After two years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist party at the centre, people with a different point of view were being vilified as “anti-national” and getting slapped with sedition cases, a colonial-era law used by the British to silence Indian freedom fighters. 

Kumar’s arrest in February 2016, on the heels of the Dalit student Rohit Vemula's suicide in Hyderabad, sparked a furore, with thousands of students, led by then JNU Students’ Union vice president Shehla Rashid, carrying out rallies in the national capital.  

The Delhi police, reporting to Home Minister Amit Shah, said they raised anti-India slogans at the event and charged them with sedition. The pro-government media called them the “tukde tukde gang” (break up India gang), despite conflicting reports on whether they had raised the offensive slogans. 

While all three students were jailed in Tihar, Khalid, a Muslim whose father, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, founded the Welfare Party of India, was the only one accused in the media of having links with a terrorist group in Pakistan; a claim so far-fetched that the Home Ministry had to step in and refute the slander. 

The JNU students returned as faces of resistance amid the growing authoritarianism of the BJP government. While Kumar joined politics and fought an election, Bhattacharya retreated from the spotlight and worked quietly as a researcher. 

With his being Muslim making it harder for him to find a toehold in mainstream politics, Khalid remained in the middle of public life and oblivion, finishing his PhD while helping set up a people’s collective,  United Against Hate, and speaking against the attacks on civil liberties. 

With his popularity growing, and many Muslims looking to him to speak for them, the Hindu right and the pro-government media continued vilifying Khalid, sometimes as a communist and other times as an Islamist, with extremist views and radical designs. In 2018, he survived an assassination attempt by a Hindu extremist who said he was a “nationalist” and “gau rakshak” (cow vigilante). 

In 2019, Khalid’s role in championing the popular movement against the new citizenship law that only precludes undocumented Muslims from Indian citizenship, making religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship, further elevated him as a young Muslim leader of the embattled minority. 

Despite the domestic media campaign characterising the protests as some kind of Islamic conspiracy where Muslim women protesters were used as fodder, the success and global coverage of the anti-CAA movement startled the government that appeared to be fairly sure of having stamped out dissent in the five years since they first came to power at the centre. 

To ensure there was no challenge from Muslims in the future, the government moved to criminalise the movement and its primarily Muslim leaders by holding them responsible for the riots and charging them under the UAPA, which makes it harder to get bail. 

While almost all political parties try and exert control over the media during their time in power, the scale and expediency at which it happened under Modi was a throwback to the dark days of the Emergency, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi curtailed freedoms, suspended the rule of law and made political prisoners of those who opposed her. 

The credibility of the case mounted by the Delhi police against Khalid and other anti-CAA protesters has been questioned by Delhi judges, civil society, sections of the media, and some retired police officers who have called it “partisan and politically motivated”. 

The Delhi High Court order, even though the Supreme Court said it was not precedent in any other case, was a moment of respite, and the statements of support from Noam Chomsky, the renowned MIT-based philosophy professor, and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, meant a lot to them, Lahiri said. 

“The ultimate feeling is often of helplessness, but that was special,” she said. “We were very touched.” 

From Behind A Glass Window

The three weeks that Khalid spent in Tihar jail when he was arrested with Bhattacharya in February 2016 were different from what he has experienced since his incarceration in September 2020, some of it in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Lahiri recalled the weight of arresting university students registered with the police five years ago. They were given special protection and extended a few niceties, like being able to meet in the jail superintendent’s office. 

Four years later, anti-Muslim sentiments and muscular majoritarianism had deepened even further, and Khalid was a terror suspect accused of planning a communal riot in the national capital. 

The first time that Lahiri saw him after he was arrested, Khalid was behind a glass window, and they spoke over a landline. 

“The first time I saw him behind the glass, it was awkward. It is not like meeting in person. But I could see he was smiling,” said Lahiri. “That made up for the awkwardness.”

“When they were arrested in 2016, this kind of witch hunting at JNU was new. It was a very high profile case, and we were fairly sure that nothing was going to happen,” she said. “These days, one can never be certain that he is safe and secure, but we have settled down more. The nagging feeling is always there, but it is less.”

When he isn't reading the steady supply of books dispatched by his friends, devouring 150 of them in two years, Lahiri said that Khalid tries to write, but it is difficult for him to do without his laptop. He also watches cricket, making exhaustive notes about the scores and including them in his talking points for the meeting with his friends. 

In those early days, Bhattacharya recalled how they would keep asking him about how many books he read, making suggestions about other books he should read until he recalled Khalid saying, “‘Guys, I'm not in a boarding school.’”

“That was funny,” said Bhattacharya. 

One recent “point,” Bhattacharya recalled, was Khalid telling them that from what he had seen in jail, Hindi-language newspapers are how most inmates got their news. If they were running public campaigns to persuade the BJP government to release political prisoners under their regime, they should start writing in Hindi. 

Lahiri recalled that while English-language newspapers carried both the prosecution and defence arguments of Khalid’s year-long bail hearings in the trial court hearing the Delhi riots conspiracy case and then the Delhi High Court, the Hindi language newspapers barely reported the arguments Khalid’s lawyer Trideep Pais made in court. They, however, carried the claims made by the police in a prominent place, with headlines that made allegations sound like facts. 

Khalid, Bhattacharya said, told them: “You guys should write in Hindi. Only our circle reads English.”

Friends And Foes

Two years later, the jail visits are a part of their lives, but finding a glass window clean enough to look at each other and find a working phone is a battle each time, Khalid's friends said. 

There are times when even the jail staff helps them find the cleanest possible window, said Bhattacharya. 

“Most people who know him for a while like him, and the stereotypes fall away. Even the jail staff are nice to him. ‘Khalid ke liye window dhoondte hain’ (Let's find a window for Khalid), they say,” he said. 

But there have been problems. 

Khalid has complained to additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat about the jail authorities isolating him in his cell and not being given timely medical treatment. He has even been produced before a judge in handcuffs. But when he contracted Covid-19 in the second wave, Lahiri said that not only was he well looked after, but the jail authorities kept his friends and family informed about how he was faring. 

“They informed me right at the beginning, which they did not have to do. They would send reports through the lawyers daily, including his oxygen level, temperature, etc. They took care of him,” she said. 

Discussing this paradox between the kindness and the bigotry that came Khalid’s way, Bhattacharya said, “There is a paradox that exists. Somewhere, this feeling of hatred and suspicion is too deep. Sometimes, it takes just one headline, which is written in a way to titillate, and layers come off. The person you chit-chat with behaves strangely on this subject. They will change the subject because they don't want to discuss it with you.”

A familiar thing about Tihar jail when Khalid returned to it in September 2020 was the Tamil Nadu special police force guards, with whom he and Bhattacharya made friends when they were incarcerated in 2016. 

While the guards kept changing, Lahiri said many of them shared a similar temperament, less communal than people from north India, and Khalid had picked up some Tamil that he showed off at their meetings.

“They know us as the most regular visitors, and they have also become friends. They come with a different sensibility of South India that is more democratic and progressive,” she said. “He sometimes speaks in Tamil to impress me. I suspect he keeps recycling the same sentences – how are you, where is your home, and are you married.”

When The Process Changes You 

Bhattacharya, who kept the paper boat a Tamil guard made him and the Parker pen a Delhi cop gave him when they were leaving Tihar in 2016, knows what it is like to be behind bars in the country’s largest prison complex. 

Having been on the other side with his friend a few years ago and now having to speak with him from behind a glass, Bhattacharya said, was almost always overwhelming and disquieting, even when they talked of mundane things and laughed together. 

The five-minute walk through a narrow passage surrounded by high prison walls feels like a passage between their two worlds, said Bhattacharya, who, sitting in the waiting area, can imagine the activity happening on the other side. 

“It is a solitary walk, and it feels like we are either walking from or returning to our very regular lives after meeting someone in whose life nothing is regular. The thought that comes to my mind is guilt. We are not being able to do enough,” he said. “The position he is in is a travesty. He will come out as a changed person, and we are all responsible for it. 

Physical confinement, day after day, month after month, Lahiri believes, changes a person and limits what they allow themselves to feel and think. 

Khalid’s friends and family were not expecting much from the trial court, given that it is a UAPA matter. Still, when it was rejected, they were shattered because hearing judge Rawat questioning the prosecution, even pressing them on what was wrong with the only speech of Khalid’s presented in evidence, gave them a sense of hope. 

And while he remained cheerful and was “very, very happy” when Narwal, Kalita and Tanha got bail, and more recently Ishrat Jahan—the only one to get bail from a lower court—Lahiri said Khalid rarely allows himself to hope. 

“When you are confined, your possibilities, your mobility, your everything is restricted. For us, mentally, the restrictions are not there, so we can still imagine the impossible. That is why we got our hopes up over the bail, and they were crushed. I started crying,” said Lahiri. “But he says, ‘whether it is the trial court, the High Court, or the Supreme Court, I will never have my hopes up.’”

“This is the starkest change I have seen in him since he was hopeful about everything, mindlessly optimistic to the point that it was irritating,” she said. “It is not that he has become dystopic and given up hope, but he has become more patient than us in the outside world.” 

Giving Courage Back

Sabiha Khanum, Khalid’s mother, said her son was always on her mind, and much of her time was spent thinking about how he passes the time. 

The times when the mother of six—Khalid is the eldest and a brother to five sisters—misses him the most is when there is good news the family wants to share immediately. 

“When I wake up, my first thought is of him,” Khanum said, her voice cracking. “What I keep thinking about is what he is doing. Yes, I know he reads a lot but imagine you are in a cell, and someone else has the key. How suffocating that must be.”

Khanum said she was pleased to hear about the Supreme Court granting bail to Malayali journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police when he was on his way to cover the rape of a Dalit woman in Hathras and slapped with terror charges under the UAPA. Arrested three weeks after Khalid, Kappan has been in jail for two years. 

Even if he felt anxious about his situation, Khalid, Khanum said, did not always tell her about how hard life was inside the jail. There were times when she felt offended by the seeming high-handedness of the prison guards, but she said Khalid tells her they, too, had duties to carry out. 

“He has faced many hardships with a lot of courage and a smile,” she said. “If he gives us so much courage, then we must give some courage back.”

(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)