A brown sweater to combat the cold bites of Delhi winter and an unwavering determination encircled the eternal smile as Umar Khalid went back to Tihar again. It was December 30, 2022. He was out on interim bail for seven days to attend his sister’s marriage. No, he couldn’t speak to the media. There was a gag. The only communicating medium was a smile- uninterrupted either by the state repression or the consecutive bail denials.
As the former JNU scholar completes his 1,000 days in prison, the question of delayed justice comes back to the fore again. Charged under the draconian UAPA for his alleged role in the Delhi pogrom that took away 53 lives in 2020, Umar was frequently denied bail.
On December 3, 2022, although Delhi High Court discharged him along with Khalid Saifi from FIR 101/2020 related to the violence in Khajuri Khas area of North-East Delhi, he couldn’t get out of jail. As another FIR 59/2020 has UAPA attached to it, the chances of getting bail are rare.
Frequent denials of bail were coupled with the abrupt termination of calling facilities by the prison authority which was later revoked with the intervention of a court in January 2023. But what all was he offered? 5 minutes call- thrice in a week.
The continuous legal battle and media trial that has been haunting him for years now, however, couldn’t break his optimism. Nor his friends and fellow comrades lost hope. While writing for India Love Project, a page curated by journalist Samar Halarnkar, Priya Ramani and Niloufer Venkatraman that celebrates the love beyond the limits of caste, religion and faith, Umar’s friend Banojyotsna Lahiri registered his hopes through these words: “I have already started buying new bookcases for everything he has read in jail... They took Umar’s liberty away, but for happiness, we are still fighting.”
The hope stems from a determination to not concede the space to any majoritarian rhetoric. In 2018, when an unidentified person wielded a gun towards Umar outside the Constitution Club of India, the life threats regularly peddled on social media became real. But a graver threat perhaps awaited him.
Apeksha Priyadarshini, one of Umar’s closest friends, after her ninth meeting with the scholar, in her Facebook post spoke about his real concerns- the anxiety of being forgotten by the friends whom he walked along. While Priyadarshini was going back, Umar said, “You know, I'm trying to be as rational and prepare myself for what lies ahead as much as is possible, but sometimes, you can't help but think about whether those who knew us, those who fought alongside us, are starting to forget that we are still inside.”
Lest we forget that Umar along with several others have been languishing in jail for years due to their dissent against the current political dispensation. When jail has become the rule and bail is the exception, Outlook dives into its archives to bring out what Umar Khalid wrote for us from prison in January 2022. The article was later taken up in the book titled For In Your Tongue, I cannot Fit edited by Shilpa Gupta and Salil Tripathi. His words continue to resonate in our ears. The freedom that he is denied of comes back to haunt again and again- captured best in his words, “It was a fascinating sight—the sight of free people. I was reminded of the past when I too, like the people I was staring at, had been free. The words of Iqbal came to me:
“Aata hai yaad mujhko guzra hua zamana
Wo baghon ki baharein, wo sab ka chehchahana
Azaadiyan kahan wo ab apne ghosle ki
Apni khushi se aana apni khushi se jana”