It was still dark outside when Umar Khalid sat down to make the farewell video. He had stayed up all night at a close friend’s apartment, where he had just celebrated his 33rd birthday, blowing out candles and cutting a chocolate cake. Now he sat on the couch stiff with tension, dark circles under his eyes, his face tinged a sickly yellow. He had been smoking nonstop for hours and eaten so little that he was feeling unwell. His friend was seated on the ground nearby, his phone ready to record.
“If you’re watching this video,” Khalid said, “it means that I’ve been arrested.”
It was September 2020, on a hot, stuffy morning in Delhi. Seven months earlier, in late February, a wave of sectarian violence had ripped through the Indian capital. Amid mass demonstrations against a restrictive citizenship law that targeted Muslims, a mob goaded by a local leader clashed with Muslims in the area. Over the next four days, violence swept through predominantly Muslim neighborhoods; at least 53 people were killed and 14 mosques gutted.
The timing was noteworthy: US President Donald Trump arrived in India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the day after the riots erupted. While Trump and Modi hugged and lavished each other with praise, Delhi’s northeastern district burned.
As the violence unspooled, Khalid was halfway across the country in Bihar. He was headlining a protest where he told the audience seated cross-legged before him that many Hindu supremacists “have nurtured the dream that Muslims will leave the country, that they will go to Pakistan”.
“They have spread hate to make it happen. They have nothing but hate. But we will respond with love,” he said. “They are trying to provoke us. They are trying to start a riot. They are saying, ‘Shoot them.’ What are we saying? We are saying, ‘There is no better place in the world than India.’”
The secular activist rose to national prominence giving powerful speeches criticising Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party for leading a campaign of repression previously unseen in independent India. Khalid has compared Modi to India’s British colonisers, whose centuries-long stranglehold was enabled by policies that pitted religious and ethnic groups against each other, fueling mutual suspicion and resentment. A target of the Modi government since he was a university student, Khalid was now among the leaders of a broad-based movement that had emerged to protest the prime minister’s anti-Muslim policies – and the government was eager to squash its momentum.
In March, Amit Malviya, the social media chief of the BJP, tweeted a video of a speech Khalid had given ahead of Trump’s visit in which he urged protesters to fill the streets and tell the US president that Modi was dividing India and mocking Gandhian values of nonviolence. Malviya described Khalid’s audience as “largely Muslim”.
“Was the violence in Delhi planned weeks in advance by the Tukde Tukde gang?” he wrote on Twitter, using a pejorative to refer to the BJP’s political critics. This single tweet was turned from a question into a statement and reported as fact by cable news channels aligned with Modi. It soon became the basis for accusing Khalid of masterminding the riots.
The Covid-19 outbreak and the government’s nationwide lockdown forced an end to the demonstrations, as well as Khalid’s speeches at protest sites. Exhausted, Khalid and his partner of 10 years, Banojyotsna Lahiri, went to visit her family and unwind.
In April, while Indians were ordered to stay in their homes, the Delhi police began arresting student leaders and activists who had participated in the citizenship protests, charging over a dozen high-profile activists with a slew of offenses, including murder, sedition, and, not long after, terrorism. News of the arrests put Khalid on edge. Lahiri recalled, “There was crazy tension in the air.”
In August, Khalid received a phone call from the Delhi police. The summons was couched as a request for help with the police’s investigation into the riots, but Khalid knew his turn had come.
Over the next few weeks, Khalid was called in twice for questioning. He knew the interrogations weren’t intended to establish the facts; they were a sham to make it seem as if the officials were doing their job. He was fully aware of how this would end.
He decided to record the video, telling his close friend to release it at a press conference when the police finally made their move.
“They are silencing me,” Khalid said, staring into the smartphone camera. “They are putting me behind bars. But they also want to imprison you – with lies. They want to frighten you into silence. I’d like to end with an appeal: Don’t be afraid. Raise your voice up against injustice.”
Three days later, on September 13, the police called Khalid to the office of the city’s counterterrorism unit. This time, they didn’t let him leave. Nearly three years on, he remains in jail without a trial date.
The Modi government has made a habit of hounding anyone who criticises the prime minister’s efforts to transform the world’s largest democracy into a majoritarian state. Since Modi came to power in 2014, his government has wielded the law to target every kind of critic on every platform, from students expressing opinions on social media to human rights activists investigating atrocities.
Two decades-old laws have been Modi’s favorites for suppressing dissent and removing his critics from public life: the colonial-era sedition law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a so-called anti-terror law. Khalid is among the few Indians who have been charged under both.
Between 2014 and 2020, more than 7,000 people were charged with sedition, according to a database published by the Article 14 news site. The UAPA accounted for more than 8,000 arrests between 2015 and 2020, according to a study by the Indian human rights nonprofit People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
“These laws were already on the books – what we are seeing now is malice,” said journalist Aakar Patel. “This is a government that has weaponised the legal system to ensure that dissent is curbed through jail.”
When I visited Delhi late last year, even mere conversations about the state – or “the regime,” as many called the Modi government – were steeped in fear. People wanted to communicate with me through secure messaging apps. When we met, it was at places such as a park at dusk, where they could not be recognised or overheard. A transcriptionist based in India later declined to work on this piece for fear of being implicated in journalism that was critical of the government. The culture of pluralistic debate that inspired economist Amartya Sen to coin the term “the argumentative Indian” has been all but wiped out.
Despite India’s divisive and unstable political environment, Modi remains very popular among voters and is almost certain to win a third term next year. The BJP has spent crores of rupees in taxpayer money to build a cult of personality around him. His face is everywhere, from front-page newspaper ads to Covid vaccination certificates. A satellite launched into space in 2021 carried a photo of Modi. Despite being only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Modi towers over the Indian people in giant cardboard cutouts that have popped up all over the country.
The purpose of this symbolism is not lost on Indians. It is a loyalty test. Long after Independence Day last August, petrol pumps, homes, and even street vendors in Delhi continued to fly the Indian tricolor. One woman told me that as a personal act of resistance, she had decided not to display the flag. Then she heard that gangs of Hindu vigilantes were roving the area, noting down the names and addresses of those who refused to fall in line. She went up to her terrace and raised her flag.
Growing up Muslim in India
Last September, two years after Khalid was arrested, I spent time with his family in Delhi. Their elegant apartment was full of books and photographs. A domestic worker moved about in the open-plan kitchen while one of Khalid’s younger sisters chatted with a cousin. His father, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, brought out a tray filled with snacks and served tea. At first, Khalid’s parents were politely reserved. But when his mother, Sabiha Khanam, a soft-spoken woman who wears a hijab, sat down next to me, she planted her feet firmly on the ground as though determined not to hold back.
“My son had a bright future,” she said. “He could have moved abroad, bought a nice house, a nice car. It was all within his grasp. But he said, ‘I only want to live in India.’” She shook her head. “And he’s the one they call a terrorist?”
Khanam’s parents moved from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi when she was a child; she grew up among a large extended family helmed by her father, a sales tax officer. Ilyas came from an activist family: his paternal grandfather had been a freedom fighter with the Muslim League and after Independence joined the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a movement to establish Islamic fundamentalism in India that later moderated its views because they were so unpopular among Indian Muslims. Khanam and Ilyas met as members of Students’ Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, launched in 1977 to offer Muslims moral support and camaraderie in a nation that was often openly antagonistic toward them.
The friction around the acceptance of Muslims as Indian can be traced back to Partition. Though 35 million Muslims chose to stay in India, the Hindu supremacist groups that mushroomed in the run-up to Independence – most prominently, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideology’s mothership, which Modi joined as a child – viewed them as an even greater threat after the subcontinent was split.
Since then, despite being India’s largest minority religious group, the country’s more than 200 million Muslims have been systematically underrepresented and discriminated against in virtually every area of public life, from education to employment to housing. SIMI impressed upon members the need to uplift the community through education and job training; the group came to be known for its cadre of educated Muslims, including Ilyas, who has a PhD in chemistry.
By the time Ilyas became SIMI’s national president in the 1980s, Khanam was in charge of the Delhi women’s wing. “When it was time to marry,” Ilyas told me, “I wanted someone related to the movement. So I married her.” Was it a love marriage? I asked. “No, no,” he replied, looking offended. “Not at all.” Khanam burst out laughing. “Not for me either,” she said.When their first child was born in 1987, Ilyas and Khanam named him after their favorite religious figures: the second caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who is regarded as the father of Islamic jurisprudence, and the seventh-century military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Khanam took her son everywhere she went, including to religious gatherings.
To his parents’ disappointment, Khalid showed no interest in Islam. In his late teens, he declared himself an atheist. If Khalid had a religion, it was cricket. His dream was to play for India, like his hero Irfan Pathan. Khalid was an all-rounder with a special gift for fast bowling and he gained a reputation for trash-talking opponents. Doted on by his family, the eldest child and only boy out of six kids, Khalid grew up self-confident and resilient. But starting in his late teens, he became preoccupied with the abject state of his neighborhood.
Khalid’s home was in Zakir Nagar, a Muslim area of the capital known for being overcrowded and unsanitary. Dangerous coils of electric wires hung over the streets, and the pungent combination of sewage, livestock, and exhaust fumes lent the area its signature smell. “We [can’t] get pizzas delivered, you don’t get internet, you don’t get home loans,” a teenage Khalid had said about his neighbourhood in a student documentary.
“He’d look at his classmates and think, ‘These people are from the same social class, so why do I live in a ghetto?’” said Anirban Bhattacharya, the friend in whose apartment Khalid recorded his farewell video. Khalid would come to realise that even privileged Muslims would rather raise their families in a ghetto than in a religiously mixed area, where their Hindu neighbours might turn on them.
Khalid’s political consciousness developed as he grew into adulthood. In 2008, when he was 21 and studying history at Delhi University, a police inspector and two young Muslim students who police described as terrorists were killed in a shootout near where Khalid grew up. The Batla House encounter – named for the area where the incident took place – remains controversial. Police have used so-called encounters to mask extrajudicial killings and support official narratives about threats to national security, including in Kashmir.
The police used the Batla House encounter to increase surveillance of Muslims in the area; stop-and-frisk became routine. For Khalid, it was a seminal moment in his understanding of how security agencies violently target Muslims, regardless of whether they commit a crime.
“I was in the kitchen, and he came over and rested his head on my shoulder,” Khanam told me. “I could see how deeply the injustice had affected him. He insisted on being present when the students’ last rites were carried out.”
The stereotyping and ostracisation of Indian Muslims had increased since September 11. Days after the attacks, US President George W Bush told a joint session of Congress, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Eager to please a powerful ally, and with its own axe to grind, the Indian government, which was then also run by the BJP, banned SIMI, declaring it a terrorist organisation.
Ilyas and Khanam had long left SIMI. In 1985, Ilyas started working for a media company; Khanam launched a boutique selling hijabs and organised literacy classes for adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the stigma of having once belonged to SIMI haunted the couple: the anti-terror law the BJP used to crush SIMI was the same one that, years later, it would deploy against Khalid.
The government’s determination to stamp out terrorism didn’t extend to Hindutva supporters, and by the early 2000s, Hindutva groups had been linked to numerous deadly attacks on Muslims, including the bombing of a train connecting India to Pakistan, a blast at Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, and another blast at a mosque near Mumbai at the end of Ramadan.
The most notorious episode of Hindutva violence in India’s recent history occurred under Modi’s watch in 2002, when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. After a train full of Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59 people, Modi declared the incident a “terrorist attack” and had the charred bodies put on display in the state capital. According to Human Rights Watch, Hindutva mobs immediately responded to the dog whistle with a frenzy of bloodletting that lasted three days and left at least 2,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead as police either stood by or participated in the violence.
Despite accusations of complicity from several domestic and international human rights groups, Modi was reelected in a landslide victory later that year and became Gujarat’s longest-serving chief minister.
In 2005, after an investigation by the government concluded that the train fire was an accident, the US State Department denied Modi a visa to speak at Madison Square Garden in New York under a law that prohibits the entry of foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. The Obama administration lifted the ban after Modi became prime minister.
As India’s top elected official, Modi has harnessed the country’s already rampant anti-Muslim bigotry and weaponised the law to reward his acolytes and punish his detractors. The Modi government has empowered local sympathetic officials and Hindutva vigilantes to make life for many Indian Muslims not just difficult, but unbearable. Muslims have faced economic boycotts of their businesses and bulldozers destroying their homes after officials arbitrarily deem them illegal constructions. Several states have adopted laws that target Muslims, including criminalising the slaughter of cows, possession of beef, and interfaith marriage.
Few Hindutva vigilantes who have lynched dozens of Muslims have been convicted – even though many of these crimes were committed in public, captured on video, and shared online.
“Towards what end?” said Patel, the journalist. “Exclusion. Apartheid. To say, ‘We don’t want you.’ This is ideological. [Hindu supremacists] genuinely hate these people.”
Even punishments for past wrongdoing can be reversed at the government’s whim when the victims are Muslim. In August 2022, 11 Hindu men convicted of gang-raping their Muslim neighbour during the Gujarat riots walked free after an intervention from the government. Bilkis Bano was five months pregnant at the time of the attack. The men killed her 3-year-old daughter by smashing her head to the ground, as well as 14 other family members, including female relatives who were also sexually assaulted. They had been sentenced to life in prison, but a review committee decided to release them. A BJP politician on the committee told a news outlet that the men were “honest people. … Their behavior in prison and the behavior of their family is very good.”
In a statement released by her lawyer, Bano said the decision left her “bereft”. “I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma,” she said. “The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice.”
From the bold-faced discrimination and subjugation of Muslims emerged a vocal opposition to Modi and his Hindu supremacist agenda. In response, the government has used a legal dragnet to sweep up his critics and stifle dissent.
When it was first passed in 1967, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was only applicable to organisations; the Islamic State and Al Qaeda were later banned under the law. When Modi came to power, his government amended the UAPA so individuals could be accused of terrorism and detained for up to six months without formal charges.
“Every country has counterterror laws, but the UAPA does not meet international standards,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Is Umar Khalid really comparable to the 9/11 terrorists? And if not, the government is undermining the entire principle of a legislation that is meant to protect the public from extremely brutal acts.”
Like Khalid, many Indians who have been charged under the UAPA are public figures who have spoken out against injustice and command widespread respect for their work. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest with Parkinson’s disease, was among 16 prominent human rights activists arrested on terrorism charges in 2018, accused of engaging in a Maoist plot to assassinate Modi. Swamy had moved to Jharkhand about three decades earlier to live among Adivasi communities under threat from mining corporations.
In prison, Swamy was deprived of a straw and sipper he needed to drink water. His requests for bail on medical grounds were denied multiple times. When he died of cardiac arrest in 2021, he was still awaiting trial. A US-based digital forensics firm later found that the computers owned by Swamy and at least two other activists had been infiltrated by a hacker who planted evidence that was used to arrest them.
When courts do grant bail in UAPA cases, it is under conditions that force once outspoken activists to exist as half-citizens. Safoora Zargar, one of the student leaders arrested after the citizenship protests, was granted bail two months later because she was pregnant. However, she was forbidden to leave Delhi without permission from the court and had to call the investigating officer on her case every two weeks. Zargar told me that her lawyers advised her not to speak publicly “just to be on the safe side”. Though she hasn’t given speeches since her release, she still attends protests and is active on social media, a decision she said she makes at “great personal risk”.
Modi’s critics have also been charged under an anti-sedition law introduced during British rule to imprison freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi. According to Article 14’s database, from 2010 to 2021, 149 people were charged with sedition for making “critical and/or derogatory” remarks against Modi; the maximum penalty is life in prison.
Notably, young people are the most vulnerable to sedition charges. From 2015 to 2020, most of the people arrested for violating this law were under the age of 30.
“By crushing students of any sort, the government is stifling the political future of the country,” said Ganguly, “because from these students will emerge a democratic space with a variety of political opinions and a diversity of political thought that will enrich any democratic process.”
Last year, in response to nine petitions challenging its constitutionality, the Supreme Court suspended the law, asking the government to stop issuing sedition charges or punishing those already charged while the terms of the law are reassessed. The Law Commission of India, which is under the government’s purview, has argued not only that the sedition law should be reinstated, but also that the punishment should be more severe.
Despite the high-profile nature of many of the arrests, they rarely result in widespread protest, in part because the arrests are often the culmination of a media campaign in which government critics are vilified as anti-Indian. By the time these dissidents are imprisoned, the tide of public opinion may have turned against them.
Indians are so consumed by Modi’s brand of politics that they overlook the lack of jobs for young people and any real hope of a promising future, Harsh Mander, a human rights advocate who himself has been targeted by the government, told me. “They are persuaded by the idea of scapegoats, and they are willing to accept anything – hunger, joblessness, even bodies decimated by Covid floating down the Ganges – because they are preoccupied by something else: hatred.”
Khalid became one of Modi’s targets in 2016, when he and a group of fellow graduate students who had spent most of their adult lives with their noses stuck in books were branded enemies of the state.
‘Creating a witch hunt’
I met Khalid in May 2016 while reporting on the events that had led to his arrest and those of other student organisers accused of sedition at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Khalid, who had recently been released after nearly a month in jail, invited me to tea at the same outdoor café where, three months earlier, he and other students had held a vigil for a Kashmiri man accused of terrorism and hanged after a botched trial – an annual demonstration that the media blew up overnight into a national news story.
The JNU campus – like cinemas, malls, and other public venues in Delhi – had private security personnel at the entrance. When I arrived, there were also police officers in their trademark khaki uniforms, extra security introduced after the vigil. The air buzzed with the sound of walkie-talkies.
Once through the gates, I was transported from the crowded street full of potholes to broad, spotless vistas, lush greenery, and the unvarnished brick structures that the architect CP Kukreja had left exposed to match the red soil upon which they were built.
It was morning, and the café was full of students. Khalid was sitting at a table talking to a friend. He wore a kurta with jeans and stout sandals, a shawl thrown around his neck and shoulders. Though he appeared gaunt, Khalid was full of energy, his eyes intent, his speech fast. Between his fingers rested a Navy Cut cigarette, his favorite brand, which he bought in packs and smoked one after the other.
Khalid was working on his history PhD at JNU, a liberal arts institution known for fiery intellectuals who have gone on to mold global ways of thinking, becoming political leaders, Nobel Prize winners, and renowned novelists. Here, Khalid was introduced to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Leo Tolstoy, and studied Karl Marx, whose vision for a stateless, classless society he came to believe was the best solution for a country as unequal as India. Khalid’s doctoral research focused on an Adivasi community’s struggle to maintain control over their land. He was so sure he wouldn’t leave India that he had never applied for a passport.
To some at JNU, Khalid’s ideas sounded like loony leftism. But his restless optimism, inquiring mind, and activist spirit made him popular and easy to get along with. He loved films and pestered friends to watch them with him, offering a play by play. He was also known as a prankster with what some have fondly described as “a cringeworthy sense of humor.”
“In the milieu in which I’ve grown up, I’ve known people who have been arrested on false charges,” he told me during our meeting, referring to people he’d met through his parents’ activism. “I know of people who have been brutally tortured or forced to sign false confessions or spend years in prison before being acquitted of all charges. I only spent 24 days in jail. That’s nothing compared to some.”
On the evening of February 9, 2016, Khalid, Bhattacharya, and other students marked the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri shopkeeper, Muhammad Afzal Guru. Though he had denied aiding the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament that killed nine people, Afzal Guru was sentenced to death based on what novelist and activist Arundhati Roy described as a “pile of lies and fabricated evidence”. For many, including the JNU students, Afzal Guru’s case represented a confluence of injustices: the use of capital punishment, the unfair treatment of Muslims by India’s criminal justice system, and state repression of Kashmiris. Past events to commemorate him had been held on campus without incident, so the students were taken aback when a TV crew showed up.
Members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad also came out. Since Modi’s election, the ABVP and other Hindu supremacist student groups have increasingly acted as proxies for the BJP on college campuses. They rejected the existence of caste-based discrimination and used claims of “Hinduphobia” to deflect criticism. A month before the JNU event, members of the ABVP at the University of Hyderabad were alleged to have targetted a doctoral student who was Dalit. Rohith Vemula was subsequently suspended for fighting caste discrimination on campus; after the university upheld the decision, he hanged himself.
At JNU, the ABVP had prevented the screenings of two documentaries critical of the BJP. But among most students, the group wasn’t despised so much as dismissed for being on the wrong side of history. Khalid referred to the ABVP’s joint secretary as bhai. Another member of the group was Khalid’s neighbour, and Khalid often stopped by his place to bum a cigarette or a lighter.
At the event commemorating Afzal Guru, ABVP members heckled the organisers. “He who speaks of Afzal will die Afzal’s death,” they shouted.
The students replied with a call-and-response chant borrowed from India’s feminist movement: “What do we want?” “Freedom from hunger! Freedom from casteism!”
The scene was chaotic, but no one was hurt, and by the time the students were back in their rooms, many had already chalked up the evening as just another unpleasant encounter with India’s emboldened Hindutva supporters.
The next day, however, #shutdownJNU was trending on Twitter. Confident that they had nothing to hide, Khalid and other student organisers responded to media requests for interviews. This proved a costly mistake. That evening, Khalid appeared on Times Now, a cable news channel known for its right-wing bias, as part of a panel discussion about the vigil.
“You are more dangerous to this country than Maoist terrorists,” screamed Arnab Goswami, the channel’s editor-in-chief at the time. “Someone is going to name you as anti-national, and I’m naming you as anti-national tonight.” Khalid, struggling to get a word in over Goswami’s berating, responded with a bewildered smile.
Over the next few hours, other cable channels adopted the same rhetoric, describing the students as pro-Pakistan and secessionist while running clips from the event on a loop. Khalid, with his Muslim name, was singled out. The channels labeled him the event’s “mastermind” – foreshadowing the accusations that would lead to his imprisonment years later – and falsely claimed that he had visited Pakistan. They called him a sympathiser of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group listed by the US Treasury Department as a terrorist organisation, an accusation the media claimed was based on an Indian government report. The government later denied the report’s existence, but none of the news outlets issued a retraction.
“The regime wants to portray young Muslims as people influenced by Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Muslim fundamentalism,” Shuddhabrata Sengupta, an artist and writer who is a close friend of Khalid’s, told me. “By selecting Umar for persecution, the government sent out a signal to people like him.”
Within days, Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that he had ordered Delhi police to “take strong action against the anti-India elements” at JNU. The rhetoric ignited a public frenzy. Mobs of furious people converged outside the university gates, where they had to be held back by riot police. Fearing they would be lynched, Khalid, Bhattacharya, and other students fled the campus.
The mainstream media’s dependence on state support has enabled the Modi government to put political pressure on journalists, and as a result, most news outlets have yielded their independence. Veteran journalist Ravish Kumar – who coined the term “Godi media,” or lapdog media, to describe pro-Modi news outlets – has direct experience of what happens when news outlets resist falling in line. NDTV, where Kumar worked as managing editor, was subject to repeated raids by the income tax department before Adani, the billionaire businessman, bought the channel last November. On the day the buyout was made public, Kumar resigned.
As the mobs hunting the JNU students spread across the city and beyond, Kumar watched from the window of his apartment. “The atmosphere was terrifying,” he told me. “I’ve never seen TV used so successfully to whip up mass hysteria.” The next day, Kumar ran a black screen on his prime-time show, telling viewers, “This darkness is the picture of television today.”
The police issued wanted notices and warned border authorities not to let the students leave the country. On February 23, Khalid and Bhattacharya returned to campus prepared to be arrested. Bhattacharya referred to what happened next as being “pulled into a social experiment.”
The Delhi police charged Khalid, Bhattacharya, and three other students with sedition. Bhattacharya, an upper-caste Hindu, told me that prison authorities were baffled by his presence: “Khalid getting embroiled in these things one can understand, but why are you here, Bhattacharya sahib?”
Prison guards never spared an opportunity to taunt Khalid: “If you have to fight, why don’t you fight for reform in Islam?” He distracted himself in jail by rereading a favorite book that Lahiri, his partner, brought him on a visit, Roy’s The God of Small Things.
When the two friends were released on bail nearly four weeks later, the JNU administration fined them for holding the vigil. Most of their fellow students, however, welcomed them back as heroes, a response observers declared a “Student Spring.”
On the night of his release, Khalid gave a speech attended by thousands of people at an open-air courtyard christened Freedom Square.
“Friends,” Khalid said when the cheers died down, “I don’t know how to put my feelings into words. Things happened so fast that even now I haven’t been able to make sense of them. I think about them every day and wonder, ‘What happened?’” The crowd roared. Khalid took a beat and switched from English to Hindi, his tone becoming serious.
“But the one thing that’s crystal clear,” he said, “is that if the government, the RSS thought that by profiling some of us, by creating a witch hunt, that they could break us and destroy our movement and unity and courage, well, they were delusional. Today, as I stand before you, I feel even stronger than I did, and this is a huge victory for our fight.”
“What do we want?” he shouted. “Freedom!” the crowd screamed back.
“It was very clear that students would play a vital role against the authoritarian regime,” Bhattacharya told me. “And it was evident from the way the government moved that they believed the attack on JNU was going to silence students in this country for some time to come.” But for Khalid, this was only the beginning.
As we chatted at the café a few months after his release, Khalid was constantly interrupted by well-wishers. He politely stopped talking to respond to the “hellos” and “how are yous.” I got the feeling that after the initial shock had worn off, Khalid had accepted that his life would be very different — and that he would embrace his new role as an act of citizenship.
“People are listening to us,” he told me. “Our task is to foreground questions that haven’t been highlighted.” His immediate goal, he said, was to bring together students, activists, Adivasi communities, and trade unions in a broad-based “anti-fascist front.” For a moment before the pandemic hit, his vision of popular resistance became a reality. But it cost him his freedom.
A national figure
Khalid’s powerful campus speeches gained national attention, and soon, he was getting invited to share his message all over the country.
But some were bent on keeping Khalid from the podium. On August 13, 2018, while he and Lahiri were waiting for chai at a tea stall outside Delhi’s Constitution Club where he was scheduled to speak, a tall, beefy man lunged at Khalid and threw him to the ground. Lahiri and some others hurled themselves at the assailant, but he shrugged them off and pointed a gun straight at Khalid. “The man’s face was blank,” Lahiri told me. Suddenly, he ran away, tossing the gun.
When police retrieved the weapon, they discovered six live rounds. “You’re a very lucky man,” an officer told Khalid. “He pulled the trigger, but the gun somehow jammed.” The alleged assailant and an accomplice were later arrested but released on bail. The next year, the assailant was backed by the Shiv Sena to run in a local assembly election, which he lost.
The assassination attempt convinced Khalid that the only place he would be safe was in a Muslim neighborhood. Khalid stopped taking public transport, friends recalled, and he wouldn’t travel alone. He was constantly looking over his shoulder. “Earlier, the threat to his life was hypothetical,” Lahiri said. “Now it was real.”
But Khalid was undeterred from his mission to rally the masses against Modi. During a Facebook Live event with the human rights activist Teesta Setalvad in January 2019, he told viewers that Modi’s regime was based on “jumlebaazi” and “nafrat,” the Hindi words for false promises and hate, adding: “His government is run on lies.”
He also continued to face hurdles on campus. The JNU administration refused to accept Khalid’s PhD thesis, effectively preventing him from receiving his degree. The Delhi High Court intervened, and after a successful thesis defense in August 2019, Khalid found himself at a loose end. He thought about applying for a postdoctoral research fellowship, but he didn’t exclude the possibility of becoming a politician.
“Earlier, his ideas were evolving within a university campus,” Bhattacharya told me. “Now the canvas was much larger. It was no longer about putting out a pamphlet or having a polemical debate – it was about community, aspirations, and citizenship.”
Bhattacharya said Khalid wanted to shape how Muslim youth facing second-class citizenship envisioned their futures. “He was frustrated that the community was reduced to saying, ‘Humko bas jeene do’ – ‘Please let us just live,’” he said. “Muslims were being lynched, so of course safety was important, but he was also trying to broaden the idea of citizenship to include other rights. He wanted people to live in full bloom.”
On the second anniversary of Khalid’s imprisonment in September 2022, I went to a public park in central Delhi to meet Lahiri, Khalid’s partner. It was dusk when I arrived; a human-made lake glittered in the dwindling light, and birds of prey surveyed the grounds with sharp-eyed interest. Though Lahiri was only a few minutes late, she was very apologetic. She explained that she lived in Jamia Nagar, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood about 40 minutes away, near where Khalid grew up. She had remained there so that he would one day have a familiar place to come home to.
Lahiri, a 39-year-old research scholar focused on minority rights, was born in Kolkata to a biology teacher and a chemist who were members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Lahiri was a student at JNU when she first met Khalid while counseling students harassed by police in the aftermath of the Batla House encounter. When Khalid enrolled at JNU the following year, the two reconnected. He and Lahiri helped co-found a group called United Against Hate after Khalid’s 2016 arrest to address the rising mob violence against Muslims.
“We were, like, very hot-headed radicals and all that,” Lahiri told me with a laugh. “Politics was and continues to be the cornerstone of our relationship.”
Less than a year into Modi’s second term, the government passed a citizenship law that signaled to Indian Muslims that they were no longer welcome in their own country. The Citizenship Amendment Act was twinned with a planned nationwide campaign to force people already living in India to prove they belonged there.
Mander, the human rights advocate, called the citizenship law the first of its kind in India’s history to target one community. “It was meant to destroy the way we imagined this country, how we built it, and the promises of the Constitution,” he told me.
The potential impact of the plan was already playing out in Assam, which is controlled by the BJP. The state, which shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, has long been depicted by the right as a hotbed of illegal immigration. As a part of the citizenship drive there, the state’s 33 million residents, many of whom are poor, illiterate, or itinerant, had to produce documents certifying their date and place of birth. The cruelty of this laboratory experiment became clear when 2 million people, including many Muslims, were struck off the citizenship rolls.
Declared “foreigners”, many were sent to detention camps within existing jails. In January 2023, news reports said that detainees would be transferred to India’s first immigration detention center as more such camps sprouted, creating the fearsome spectre of a country where Muslims are kept in cages.
Protests started in Assam and quickly spread to the rest of the country. In several cities, the peaceful gatherings, known as the anti-CAA protests, were led by students on Muslim-majority campuses. They recited the preamble to the constitution, which mandates a secular state. They unfurled the national flag and shouted slogans such as “Keep dividing, we will keep multiplying”, and “Asking questions isn’t anarchy; abusing power is.”
Days after the law was passed, police unleashed their arsenal on student protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia, a renowned Muslim university in Delhi. CCTV footage showed police in riot gear storming the glass doors of the library, where students were engrossed in their work, and thrashing them with hefty bamboo sticks. One student was so badly wounded that he lost his left eye. In a hearing calling on the Delhi High Court to investigate the violence, a lawyer representing injured students said the police fired 452 tear gas cannons.
Lahiri told me she could hear the firepower from her and Khalid’s apartment: “I felt like I was in a war zone.”
The government imposed an internet blackout to try to stop the protests. Still, they continued. So many hundreds of people were detained in Delhi that the police sought permission from the city to convert a sports stadium into a temporary prison.
As the protests and police violence raged, about 100 women sat down to block a main road in the largely Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh. Their sit-in lasted through the night into the morning and kept going. Every day, more and more people from all over the city joined them. Hum Dekhenge, or “We Shall See,” by the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, became their anthem:
“Underneath our feet – we the governed.
The ground will echo like a thumping heartbeat
And the sky over the heads of the rulers
Will echo with the sound of thunder.”
“It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” Lahiri told me. “I haven’t seen the Paris Commune, but I’ve seen Shaheen Bagh.”
Shaheen Bagh inspired sit-ins across the country, and Khalid was deluged with speaking invitations. From December 2019 to February 2020, he spoke at almost 70 sites.
“Seventy-two years after Independence, Muslims are still being told to prove that we are patriots,” he told a crowd of protesters in Mumbai on December 27. “Even today we’re told, ‘You got Pakistan, what more do you want? You’ve divided the country once, now what do you want?’ To them I’d like to say, ‘We’re not Indians by chance. We’re Indians by choice.’’’
“The fact of us being here is proof of our patriotism. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not our leader, is not our leader. Mahatma Gandhi is our leader. … Narendra Modi said, ‘I feel happy seeing [Muslims] wave the flag.’ Mr Modi, the flag has been in our heart, and in our hands, since 1947. It took you people more than 50 years to raise the tricolor at the RSS headquarters. We don’t need a certificate of patriotism from you.”
“He spoke very bravely, very charismatically,” said Mander, who sometimes shared the podium with Khalid. “He was by then a political leader with significant clout.”
The moment of mass resistance was short-lived. On February 23, 2020, Kapil Mishra, a Delhi BJP leader, incited his followers to forcibly remove women from their protest sites if the police did not take action.
“Those who clean the toilets of our homes, should we now place them on a pedestal?” he asked at a gathering of BJP supporters. “We will have to teach them a lesson.”
The next day, Hindutva supporters started attacking protesters with guns, swords, spears, and stones. The violence quickly expanded to target any Muslim regardless of their involvement in the demonstrations, as the mob destroyed cars and threw petrol bombs at shops, homes, mosques, and madrasas. Lahiri, who was in Bihar with Khalid at the time, told me her phone exploded with messages from friends in Delhi reporting “horrible violence”.
The next day, Trump landed in India. While Trump was fêted by Modi in front of 100,000 people in a stadium in Ahmedabad and lunched with the prime minister on leg of lamb, mushroom curry in saffron gravy, and date halwa, 53 people, mostly Muslims, died, and more than 500 were injured. Many Delhi police officers either stood by or attacked Muslims themselves, in a display reminiscent of the Gujarat riots 18 years earlier. The deputy commissioner of police had stood beside Mishra during his speech and was later seen shaking hands with members of the mob.
When police began investigating the violence, they focused not on the perpetrators many of whom had been caught on camera or identified by their victims – but on the protesters. Nearly 2,500 people were arrested, including 17 high-profile activists who had galvanised the anti-CAA protests as organisers and speakers. Modi had described the protests as a “conspiracy against the country”, and the activists were charged with conspiracy, as well as sedition and murder.
“Claiming that the violence was a conspiracy by the left and Muslim activists to create an insurrection to force a regime change is fantastical,” said Mander, who was investigated as part of the crackdown but not charged.
Police pinned Khalid as a “ringleader,” despite ample evidence that Mishra had whipped up his followers. A month after many of the arrests, the charges against Khalid and the 17 other activists were updated to include offenses under UAPA.
Khalid was detained on September 13, 2020. In October 2022, the Delhi High Court rejected his appeal for bail, declaring that the charges against him were “prima facie true”. As proof, they pointed to the fact that Khalid was in a WhatsApp group set up by a student activist who had also been charged with conspiracy and was still in prison.
The court’s decision affirmed what human rights defenders have said all along about India’s terror law: that the charge is the punishment.
“There’s no evidence that Umar Khalid was engaged in violence,” Ganguly of Human Rights Watch said. “So on what grounds is UAPA being used against him? Simply because he made statements the government disliked?”
Khalid refused to let his imprisonment take away his voice. In a letter published by The Wire, Khalid wrote: “On Independence Day, in the evening, I sat outside the prison cell with a few others. We saw kites flying high above our jail compound and reminisced about our childhood 15th August memories. How did we reach here? How much has the country changed?”
He spent most of his time in jail alone because he’d grown weary of trying to convince fellow inmates that what they read about him in the newspapers was not true.
“Now, the sight and sound of people and traffic during my visits to court make me irritable and anxious. Far from the madding crowd, the tranquility of jail is starting to become my usual,” he wrote. “I wonder, am I getting used to captivity?”
A taste of freedom
One Friday afternoon in December, Lahiri was startled awake from a vivid nightmare. It was bitterly cold in Delhi, but she was soaked in sweat. Before she could process her dream, she realized she had only three minutes to log into her video call with Khalid. She couldn’t miss it, or he would worry. He would think that now she was in danger.
Lahiri sat up in bed and reached for her phone. When she joined the call, she saw an empty chair, and her face in the small top-right window peering anxiously down at the screen. She felt a pinprick of anxiety. Would the sound work? Would the internet connection be stable? Would he even come? Until Khalid sat down and smiled at her, she could never be sure the call would happen.
After five long minutes, Khalid finally appeared. He affectionately commented on her hair, disheveled from the nap. “Why are you looking like this?” he laughed.
She told him about her dream. In it, the police allowed Khalid to visit JNU to meet his friends, and many students gathered to get a glimpse of him. How happy they were! But then the police, threatened by the growing crowd, chased them away, and suddenly, members of the ABVP, the right-wing student group, emerged from the fog to lynch him.
Khalid burst out laughing. But when he saw that Lahiri wasn’t amused, he reassured her. “It’s just a dream,” he said. “It’s not real.”
“I should be consoling him,” she told me later, “not the other way around. But he does more of the consoling.”
The two saw each other via video once a week. Khalid was also entitled to a mulakat, or in-person meeting, every week at Tihar jail, where he is imprisoned. His family and friends divided the dates to ensure that he always had a visitor.
Bhattacharya told me that visiting his friend in jail evoked a range of emotions from grief to guilt. After being arrested for sedition at JNU, he had stepped back from activism; his case is on hold while the law is under review.
“I come to the office, I have a drink with a friend, go for fieldwork, go to eat out, buy new clothes,” he said. “Of course, there barely passes a day when I don’t think, ‘When will he come home?’ or ‘He would’ve done this,’ or ‘He would’ve loved watching this film,’ or how he is so irritating. But the clock of life hasn’t stopped for me – the way it has for him.”
Tihar is considered one of India’s progressive jails, offering inmates counseling services, yoga classes, and sports facilities. But it is also overcrowded, with more than 13,000 prisoners crammed into a space built for 5,000. When Khalid first arrived, prison staff put him in a cell by himself instead of the army-style barracks typical of Indian prisons. Under the pretense of safety, he was locked up 24 hours a day; after 30 days, Khalid approached the Delhi High Court for relief from “practically a sort of solitary confinement”. The court granted his request, and since then, he has followed the same routine as the other prisoners, who include Sushil Kumar, the Olympic medallist charged with murdering a fellow wrestler.
Sometimes, Khalid can’t help but shake his head at how he ended up here. “Kabhi kabhi, I feel like I have never even hurt a person,” he told Lahiri during another call. “I have never even, you know, injured a person. And here, there are people accused of multiple murders – and we are together, in the same space.”
With his parents, Khalid is less ruminative and more of a jokester. On a recent call with his mother, he quipped, “The other prisoners tell me, ‘We’re here because we killed someone, but you’re here because you did a PhD.’”
When Khanam asked, “And how are you, my son?” Khalid responded, “Very well, you tell me.”
“Very well? Are you on holiday in Switzerland?” Only from Khalid’s lawyer did Khanam learn that her son was strip-searched prior to every court appearance.
Khalid has tried to make the most of the past few years awaiting trial. Under Sushil Kumar’s tutelage, he started lifting weights. He also returned to his first love, cricket, and took up badminton.
Without a phone or social media to distract him, he reads constantly, borrowing books from the prison library and asking friends and family to send more. Lahiri estimated that he’s read nearly 200 books while incarcerated. He recently finished Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Not Just Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey Through Modern India by sports journalist Pradeep Magazine. He has filled dozens of notebooks with musings on prison life and published five articles, including a review of a graphic novel about Shaheen Bagh and an obituary for the Indian historian Ranajit Guha.
After Lahiri recounted her dream, the conversation quickly moved to lighter topics. They joked about how they had missed two “dates”, a pun on Khalid’s court dates that had recently been canceled. Khalid spoke proudly about how he had quit smoking. He told Lahiri that when he is released, he wants to learn how to swim.
The jail imposed a strict 15-minute time limit for video calls, but Khalid often begged for more. Two minutes, please, he asked the police officer in charge. But ultimately, it was time to go.
“Chalo ab jaana hoga,” he told Lahiri – Now I really have to go. “Bye,” he said, “I love you.
“Bye, I love you,” Lahiri replied. He disappeared. The screen was now filled with just her face.
This past winter, a Delhi district court granted Khalid a week’s bail to attend his sister’s wedding. The family had planned three celebrations: a haldi, mehendi, and nikah. The court set strict conditions: Khalid could only leave his parents’ house for the nikah, the Islamic marriage ceremony. He couldn’t talk to the media or the public. Still, Lahiri recalled wistfully, “It was wonderful.”
All his closest friends came to see him, often staying past midnight. “He’s a chatterbox, so most of the time, we were listening,” Bhattacharya told me.
For the first 48 hours, Khalid didn’t sleep. He met his twin nieces, who were born while he was in prison. He ate pizza. He rested his head on his mother’s lap and closed his eyes as she gently stroked his hair. “Ammi, I’ll only eat non-vegetarian food,” he warned her, tired of the prison menu of rice and dal.
Sometimes he went up to the roof of his parents’ apartment building to look over the city. When would he walk the streets again as a free man?
On the day of the nikah, Khalid wore a bespoke black sherwani, a traditional knee-length jacket, over white trousers. Lahiri and his friends stood protectively around him – he was under as much scrutiny from guests as the bride herself. He was overwhelmed, Lahiri told me. Although he enjoyed the festivities, it was impossible to forget that he was on borrowed time.
“This will be over soon,” he said again and again.
An entourage of family and friends accompanied Khalid back to Tihar. When they arrived at 5 pm, sympathetic staff told them that since the prison gates didn’t close until 6, they could hang around for another hour. The group drank chai from a street vendor, but no one spoke much. Khalid wore black trousers and a warm sweater and carried a small duffle bag with items he was allowed to take in: fresh clothes, a second pair of reading glasses. When it was time to go, he raised his fist, a wide smile on his face.
Back inside, Khalid fell into a deep depression. “If you taste freedom for seven days, the ‘unfreedom’ becomes stark,” Lahiri told me. A few weeks later, he was back to what had become his normal routine.
Khalid periodically appears before a judge for a bail hearing over whether he must remain incarcerated, with the next one scheduled for August 9. Eventually, a trial date will be set, said Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, adding that the charges against Khalid are unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny.
“There’s no evidence that he’s engaged in anything that could be considered a violent act against the state,” she told me. “He’s never wielded a weapon. In fact, he’s been targeted and attacked. At some point, a judge will overturn the charges, but by then, he would have spent many years in jail.”
While they wait and hope that day comes sooner, Khalid and Lahiri will keep competing to make each other laugh. The joy they are still capable of feeling, Lahiri told me, is their resistance.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to him. How can we when the whole thing is a farce?” she said. “But it can’t go on for eternity. It will come to an end, and until it does, we must be happy. Because if we are not, they win. So we’ve decided to be happy just as things are. And no one can take that away from us.”
Sonia Faleiro’s latest book is The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (2022).