NEW DELHI — Umar Khalid, until recently a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was attacked by an unidentified person near the Constitution Club of India on August 13, just two days ahead of Independence Day. Since then, there have been contradictory claims that the attacker, who had a gun, either shot at Khalid or that his gun jammed before he could do so. While the Delhi police has registered an FIR based on Khalid's complaint, within a few hours of the attack a section of the media called it a staged encounter.
While many people expressed their outrage on social media, some said they were disappointed at the assailant having missed his mark. Khalid, no stranger to vitriolic attacks by TV anchors, had not thought that the attack on him would also be picked apart and subjected to falsehoods.
Over two years have passed since 31-year-old Khalid was accused of raising "anti-national slogans" and arrested on charges of sedition. While the police haven't yet filed a charge sheet in the case, Khalid has persisted in questioning the ruling dispensation. In an interview with HuffPost India, Khalid spoke about his treatment by the media, the consequences of the hate and how it makes him feel on India's 72nd Independence Day.
What flashed through your mind when you were struggling with the attacker?
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I felt like I was going to die. I thought my time had come. It wasn't the only time I have thought like this. In the past two-and-a-half years, the thought that anything can happen has come into my head my head many times.
You did not freeze?
No, I did not freeze. Everything was instinctive.
Are you tired of narrating what happened?
It's important to tell the story because I want to remind certain other journalists, people who call themselves journalists, that there is a consequence of false propaganda and the demonization they have been doing of me and many of us. There are certain people who have whipped up hatred against me and incited violence against me. These are people who call themselves journalists. These are people who appear on television every night. They accuse me of being anti-national. They say I want India to break into pieces.
I have never said anything against India. The police have no evidence of my involvement in those anti-India slogans. The police have not been able to substantiate its accusations against me even by filing a charge sheet, which is a prerequisite for a trial to begin. When they say this, these media anchors, the self-proclaimed voice of the nation, they do it without any legal basis. The truth is that they know they are doing false propaganda. This is just politics. The section of the media is doing politics to help the ruling party.
There is a consequence of false propaganda and demonisation.
You blame sections of the media for the attack against you?
They are responsible for creating this situation. One TV anchor said that I have visited Pakistan twice, insinuating that I had links to terrorist groups in Pakistan. They know that this is false propaganda. If something happens to me tomorrow, they have conspired to create this environment of hatred against me.
How are you feeling about Independence Day this year?
Seventy-two years ago, when we became independent, we had a dream, and that dream was enshrined in the Constitution. It was a dream of being a democratic republic, a secular republic. People who had absolutely no role to play in the freedom struggle, people who think the thoughts of M.S. Golwalkar and the Manu Smriti are the Constitution, they are trying to redefine our national project in terms of a Hindu Rashtra where minorities and marginalized do not have any rights.
That is what they have been doing, time and again. Even the previous NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regime, when (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee was prime minister, there was a committee set up to review the Constitution (in 2000). Prior to the Karnataka election, BJP leader Anant Kumar Hegde, who is also a union cabinet minister, said that we have come here to change the Constitution (in December 2017). They have made their intentions very clear. They don't share a vision of independent India that our forefathers had.
They don't share a vision of independent India that our forefathers had.
How independent do you feel this Independence Day?
Freedom to think, freedom to speak is being criminalized and criminalized in a variety of ways. It's not necessary that someone has to be assassinated or there has to be an assassination attempt. You create a threat perception—if not a threat to your life, then a threat to your job.
We see what happened at ABP News just because a journalist went ahead and busted (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's claims and said a woman from Chhattisgarh was tutored to speak so. The journalist is out (of the channel). We are seeing what they do to academics. We are seeing what they are doing to Dalits. Dalits are attacked in Saharanpur and then Dalits are jailed under the National Security Act. Chandrashekhar Azad is in jail.
How do you feel about your freedom?
Bhagat Singh had foreseen all of this when he said that transfer of power from the British to Indians is not enough. We have to work to change the social order. That is the challenge right now. That will be real freedom.
I certainly feel there is an attempt to curb my independence. I'm not free today to go out on the street; the way you came to my house, I'm not free to get out and go to your office. There is a security threat to my life and I have applied for security. There is an attempt to tell me that if you are independent in your thinking, then we can do something to you. If you are independent in your expression, then we can do something to you. But I have an independent mind and I refuse to crawl before them. Till I'm alive, I will live an independent life.
Bhagat Singh had foreseen all of this when he said that transfer of power from the British to Indians is not enough
How safe do you feel as a Muslim, this Independence Day?
When Rohith Vemula ended his life, he wrote a very poignant line: "Never was a man treated as a mind... The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility."
In the past two-and-a-half years, I have been reduced to that immediate identity. A Muslim is all that I am for this regime. I'm not a citizen of this country. They view me as a Muslim and we have seen the disgusting mentality and the lens through which they see Muslims. If you are Muslim, you are definitely anti-national. That is their way of thinking. Three of us were arrested, Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid. Only Umar Khalid was linked to Pakistan. Only Umar Khalid was linked to terror organizations in Pakistan. They defamed Kanhaiya and Anirban but it was slightly different in my case. Why was that?
A Muslim is all that I am for this regime. I'm not a citizen of this country.
Why has student politics revived since the Modi government came to power?
It's an outcome of what the universities have faced in the past four years of this regime. This is an anti-student regime, it is an anti-education regime. This is a regime that has made it clear that it does not consider higher education a right, but a privilege of those who can afford it, those who can buy it. The government (is) cutting funds for education. They attempted to dismantle the UGC (University Grants Commission), there were attempts to do away with fellowships, there is an attempt in my university to fundamentally alter the socially inclusive policies. At the same time, they are bending over backwards to bring private players into higher education. The most brazen example is the Institute of Eminence tag being given to Jio Institute even though it does not exist.
They also want to saffronise our universities. That is why students are fighting back. Leaders come from struggles. Struggles have happened because of specific demands to make our universities socially inclusive, don't privatize our universities, do not bring financial autonomy in universities, put funds in higher education, make universities gender-sensitive, install anti-sexual harassment bodies in universities. These are the demands on which students have protested and that is why you see students' protests intensifying.
What was the state of student politics before the present dispensation?
There were attempts to curb outspoken students even then. There was a feeling that something could happen back then as well. The intensity of it has reached another level now. Four years ago, you felt the proctor will rusticate you from the hostel. You might be leveled a fine of Rs. 5,000 if you speak out against the administration. That you will be suspended, have a sedition case on you, put in jail on fabricated charges, your family will be threatened, your sisters will be threatened with rape, there will be an assassination attempt, that was unimaginable four years ago.
What is the scariest thing that has happened to you in the past two-and-a-half years?
This (assassination attempt) was the scariest because it was a matter of life and death. This was aimed at silencing me. I don't see myself as a victim. That is not the perception I have of myself. I'm a fighter. I believe in fighting back. I'm believing in fighting for my rightful share, the rightful share of Muslims, the rightful share of students. That is what I believe.
What's next for you?
I have submitted my PhD, my viva is remaining, my PhD defence. I write and I freelance. I also have to write on my academic projects. Even for my viva, I need to have one more publication. I have to work on that. That is my priority right now.
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