Umar Khalid on how India is criminalising dissent

Umar Khalid is not known for mincing words. In an exclusive interview to Sabrang India, he lays threadbare the state’s agenda in curbing the burgeoning student movement in India by questioning the patriotism of it leaders and discrediting the movement’s goals. Here’s the first part of a two part interview.

Umar Khalid
Image: Hindustan Times

“That was the time when the attack was, if not the most intense, but certainly the most theatrical,” says Umar Khalid speaking of the state’s clamp down on JNU students and their agitation in Feb-Mar 2016. This period marked the beginning of a new chapter in the student’s movement in India, one where the ruling dispensation of a country with a large youth population appeared to be invested in making them out to be enemies of the state, merely for exercising their right to protest peacefully. “The modus operandi of the regime at that point of time was to vilify us on national television and portray us as ‘anti-national’ who should not be getting tax payer’s money which is very instructive because this was an attack on public funded education,” he surmises. But though it has been 19 months since the first FIR was filed in the case, the charge-sheet has still not been filed.
But according to Umar Khalid, the matter did not end in 2016. “For us who are in JNU, we are seeing the attack unfold on a daily basis in multiple ways,” he says highlighting the change in the state’s strategy in curbing student dissent. When the HRD Ministry changed hands from Smriti Irani to Prakash Jawdekar, the clampdown moved away from TV screens. “The Vice Chancellor is going about subverting all democratic procedures and norms. He runs the University in a dictatorial manner without consulting any of the stakeholders, primarily the students,” he alleges. He lists the reduction in the number of seats for PhD students allegedly without the approval of the Academic Council, doing away with deprivation points that were awarded to students from backward communities and the flouting of constitutionally mandated reservations as examples of this dictatorial stance.

He goes on to highlight that while right wing students organizations are allowed to carry on with their hooliganism, there is a crackdown on even the smallest actions of other students. He says, “Dissent is being criminalized in such ridiculous ways that recently one of my fellow students was asked to explain why he ate biryani in the admin block during the protest!” The admin block meanwhile has been cordoned off. Umar also has a serious question about the present government’s majoritarian agenda within education, commonly called ‘saffronisation’. “JNU is now offering a Certificate Course in Yoga. Now we have nothing against Yoga, but these people who believe they are custodians of our culture, know very little about Yoga themselves,” he says. But the results of successive elections at universities across India where right wing students groups have been defeated with decisive margins, offers a fresh lease of life to the student’s movement. 
Finally on the subject of how the police manhandled Fatima Nafees, mother of missing JNU student Najee Ahmed, Umar says, “The police’s attitude towards Najeeb’s mother has always been hostile. The Delhi Police has been acting like Modi’s private agency.” He says that given how all agencies that are investigating the case are under the purview of the central government and that the key accused in the case are affiliated with a right wing students group that is in turn in ideological alignment with the ruling dispensation, it is not surprising that no headway has been made in the investigations into Najeeb’s disappearance. “From the point that his mother was filing the FIR the police was trying to dictate what to include in her complaint. They are trying to terrorise her into withdrawing her petition,” he alleges. “The CBI has been chastised by the High Court for their ineffective investigation. They are rattled by this and are taking out their frustration on Fatima Nafees,” explains Umar. “Just as they are making wild allegations about Najeeb having joined ISIS, they are alleging that Rohith Vemula wasn’t Dalit. They are harassing both mothers. This is what the system has to offer to these two mothers who have been fighting this battle. They hate both these women because instead of being overcome with grief, they forged ahead in their quest for justice and are fighting back. The forces of Bharhminical patriarchy cannot tolerate women fighting back,” he says.

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