Media Matters

Sedition frenzy: How the media painted atheist and communist Umar Khalid as an Islamist

A few news outlets have tried, without any substantiation, to tar JNU student Umar Khalid with the brush of terrorism.

Ever since the news of allegedly anti-national slogans being shouted at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus broke on Friday, the media has been dominated by Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the institution’s students’ union, who is now under arrest for sedition. Five days into the frenzy sparked by this case, the Modi government, it seems, has decided to change tack and go soft on Kumar. On Wednesday, Delhi Police Commissioner, BS Bassi announced that Kumar’s bail plea would not be opposed.

Playing a parallel tune, however, sections of the media ­­– based on shadowy, unnamed sources – have also been targeting Umar Khalid, another JNU student and one of the alleged organisers of the event at which the purportedly anti-national slogans were shouted. Khalid, however, faces an even graver charge than sedition: he has been said to have links with Islamist terror groups. This is despite the fact that Khalid has described himself as an atheist sympathiser of far left communism, making his involvement with religious fundamentalism a highly improbable matter.

Media frenzy

On its programmes, television news channel NewsX fervently informed its viewers that Umar Khalid was a “Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser”. Its only source was an unidentified Intelligence Bureau report. The report omitted to mention what being a “Jaish-e-Mohhamad sympathiser” entailed or how NewsX or the Intelligence Bureau had reached this conclusion. The ominous phrase “Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser” was, obviously, a powerful dog whistle.

There was more. ABP News now came up with another even more damaging and equally unsubstantiated dog whistle accusation. “Umar Khalid’s group had tried to create a furore by sticking naked pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses,” the ABP website reported.

Again, like NewsX, ABP quoted a shadowy report, this time by the Delhi Police. How the Delhi Police came to know of this wasn’t explained. Khalid himself isn’t even blamed but his “group” is. Who or what exactly is “Umar Khalid’s group" is never defined.

The ABP News report
The ABP News report

Not be left behind, Zee News ran a headline using the word “terrorist” for Khalid.

Zee News report
Zee News report

Far left communist

Attempts to paint Khalid as an Islamist are not only based on rather thin proof, they also hit a wall of logic when considered that he was a far left communist. The Democratic Students Union, of which Khalid was a part, had Maoism as its ideology and was left even by JNU’s own rather radical standards. Khalid has described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist” in writings that are publicly available. On his personal blog, Khalid, as an undergraduate student, had angry articles on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Arundhati Roy, Operation Greenhunt and Barack Obama – all from a leftist perspective.

“Even in the context of JNU, he was far to the left and was heavily involved in student politics,” said Pratik Ali, who studied with Khalid at JNU. It was much the same during his undergraduate days at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University (class of 2009). Confirmed Hany Babu, Associate Professor at the Department of English, Delhi University, "He was always active in left politics during his time as an undergraduate.”

An atheist

Given his ideology as a communist, Khalid was obviously an atheist. Khalid’s lack of religious belief is confirmed by his friends, family and acquaintances. “Khalid was irreligious and wouldn’t pray,” said Joyeeta Dey, a family friend of Khalid’s. “In fact, so firm was Khalid in his lack of belief, that it strained his relations with his family.”

Said Pratik Ali: “Umar had broken away from his family due to his lack of faith. This was something everyone knew at the JNU campus."

No journalistic checks

NewsX even claimed that Khalid had visited Pakistan as proof of his being “in contact with JeM top brass”. Khalid’s father, SQR Ilyas rubbished this charge: “How can Umar have visited Pakistan when he doesn't even have a passport?”

NewsX claims Umar visited Pakistan.

“Umar had PhD offers from US universities, yet he chose to stay back to work for India’s oppressed. This charge of him being anti-national is absurd,” said Ilyas. “Even his JNU PhD thesis is on the issues of adivasis in Jharkhand – that’s how much he cared for India and her people.”

What’s more, Khalid even appeared on television debates on Times Now and Zee News, after the slogan-shouting incident of February 9. That a person was simultaneously in contact with the Jaish-e-Mohammad and openly debating his case on Indian television is a near-absurd scenario.

IB reports debunked

After three days of television channels painting Umar as an Islamist, the Hindu, on Wednesday debunked these reports. “We have not issued any such alert," a top intelligence official told the Hindu. "It is a figment of someone’s imagination. You can always attribute anything to the IB, since we don’t come out in the open to deny or confirm.”

Even this, however, did not stop some news outlets. A report in the Hindi-language India News on Wednesday still accused Khalid of having links with terror groups.

In the end, it seems, the media’s reporting on Umar Khalid was not based on any facts and was simply a witch hunt. In Catch News, Aditya Menon blamed this on Khalid’s “Muslim” name:

Umar suits the BJP’s brief perfectly. He has the right name ­– a name around which various conspiracy theories involving Pakistan-based Jihadi organisations, the Inter-services Intelligence and Kashmiri separatists can be woven, with a few critical keywords like ‘indoctrination’, ‘infiltration’ and ‘ sleeper cells’ thrown in.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BULLETIN BY 

In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.