On the evening of 9 February, 30 minutes before the scheduled start of a cultural event organised by the Democratic Students Union (an ultra-leftist group) titled ‘A Country without a Post Office’ to protest against the “judicial killing” of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, the university administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University cancelled the event. Dozens of students gathered on the Sabarmati lawns — including Kashmiri students — to protest against the cancellation and raised slogans. One among them was Umar Khalid.
Former DSU leader Khalid, 28, resigned from his post in November 2015 along with 10 others and is now doing his PhD at JNU's Centre for Historical Studies.
His college and university mates say he was always vocal and believed in extreme left ideology.
Khalid wore a maroon printed muffler and a grey-and-white sweater while he spoke to a television channel after the protest. In the subsequent days, he appeared on different television channels defending the event. On Friday, immediately after Delhi Police arrested JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of 'criminal conspiracy' and 'sedition' under Sections 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code, JNU students say Khalid went missing from the campus.
His disappearance led a certain section of the media to claim he was a Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser and that he had links with terrorist organisations. Other reports in media and posters outside JNU in the Munirka area described Khalid as a “Kashmiri traitor”.
A few clarifications are required:
First, Umar is not a Kashmiri. His parents live in Delhi and he is actually from the Amravati district of Maharashtra. His family moved to Delhi 35 years ago and they live in the Jamia Nagar area — they have no connection with Kashmir.
Although his views on Kashmir are known to everyone on campus, according to some JNU students he would encourage Kashmiri students and those from other parts to speak about their experiences in Kashmir.
After the 9 February rally, this is what Umar told a television channel, “I am not from Kashmir, but what is happening there is Indian occupation of Kashmir. Just like one territory is occupied by Pakistan, another territory is occupied by the Indian State. (Jawaharlal) Nehru’s words in 1947 were very clear — Kashmir will be given a plebiscite.”
Umar’s father, Syed Qasim Ilyas, says he is not the first one to say what he has about Kashmir. “Many politicians, authors, journalist have talked about separation of Kashmir. Then should they also be charged with sedition?” he asked.
Second, he is a communist and self-proclaimed atheist — not an Islamist, according to his friends at JNU. This is why there has always been some distance between him and his father Ilyas, a social activist who also runs an Urdu magazine in Delhi. “He is not at all religious and we always have disagreements on the issue,” Ilyas said.
Joyeeta Dey, a family friend of Umar's, wrote on her Facebook page that she heard her friend (Umar's sister) saying on many occasions that her brother was a "communist pagal".
Dey wrote during her extensive stay at Umar's house that she noticed “the grief he caused his family (who are believers) by fiercely renouncing religion (as it clashed with his political ideology) was palpable".
Third, did Umar travel to Pakistan? The former leader of the DSU faces far graver charges than sedition — those of having links with militant groups, as reported in the media.
Ilyas denied these claims and said his son had, until now, never even applied for a passport, despite receiving offers of international scholarships. “My son and Kanhaiya Kumar are the worst victims of the media trial. My son is being called a terrorist and someone who travelled to Pakistan, even though he doesn’t have a passport. He may be anything but he's not a terrorist,” Ilyas said.
His friends inside the JNU campus do not believe the allegations. Aparna (name changed), a classmate of Umar's, did her MA in History from JNU and has known him for many years, ever since he was an undergraduate student at a college in Delhi University.
“He (Umar) is being targeted because he is a Muslim. His face, name and his political views provide the best fit for media and State to brand him a terrorist. The ABVP pasted his posters in Munirka saying he is a traitor and militant sympathiser while as far as I know, he believes in the Constitution of this country, but has his views on issues,” she said.
Fourth, if he believes in the law of the land and the Constitution, why is he hiding and where?
His father denied having any information and said the last time he spoke to his son was when he was coming out of the studio of a TV channel. This question was posed to many students during a protest rally organised by the students of JNU who've known Umar for years.
“Do you think he would be safe, if he was to come out in public? Lawyers and goons want to kill Kanhaiya in court and lynch him; how can you trust institutions of the State that have failed to protect Kanhaiya? Imagine a Muslim student — bearded and having radical views — who has worked with adivasis and is not scared like most of the Muslims in India today. They would lynch him,” said Supriya, a student of JNU who was part of a protest match organised by the university students in New Delhi, on Thursday.
Ilyas said he asked his son to return home on the day Kanhaiya was arrested, but his son refused saying he was going to JNU.
“His ideology has become his worst enemy. He is a meritorious student, did his MA and MPhil in such a prestigious institution. The country’s media is slowly turning on him because he is a perfect fit: A Muslim face with views that don’t gel with the State's opinion on things,” he said.
“I wish and appeal that my son returns soon to face the law of the land if he has done something wrong. Our family is worried about his safety and I am worried about him. We have been receiving threats. If he has raised any slogan that the state thinks is seditious, he should face the law of the land,” said Ilyas.
A WhatsApp conversation between Umar and his friend, which is in Firstpost's possession, reads:
Friend: Bhai, calcium tablets khalo. Is umr mein daant jhadna think nahi. (Take calcium tablets. At your age, you don't want to lose teeth) You should take care of yourself
Umar: Hyper mat ho. Thik hoon mein. Is desh ke logon ko do waqt ka khana nahi milita. Tum log selfish ho. Kabhi toh bada socho (Don't be hyper. I'm fine. In this country, people don't get to eat two meals a day. You people are selfish. Try and think big).