We ought to feel outraged at yet another fake case being slapped on a friend. But such are the times that when we heard of you being brought back from Tihar jail to police custody to be interrogated in yet another FIR, the first thought that came to our minds was that we would be able to catch a glimpse of you in person. And we did, however shortly.
We are aware that any letter written to you will be pried into by several pairs of eyes. But then, there is nothing that we can’t talk about that isn’t fit to be shared by other people. Hence this open letter. The gatekeepers are welcome to join. We only hope this reaches you in due time.
Time. You are probably settling into a parallel routine of time, a slow and sluggish one. It has already been more than a month. As we think about you, we realise that the phrase “doing time” is very unsettling. Even after all the reformatory thinking that has gone into the idea of prisons in the last century or so, this appears to be the pithiest expression of what one effectively does in jail. One does time, after all.
However, it is not so much the length of time that irks us, at least not yet. And that is because this is a witchhunt that had been unfolding for some time now. We all knew this was coming. The prominence that was being ascribed to you in the media trial had preceded your arrest made it amply clear that it was only a matter of time before they’d come for you.
For you, the context had been laid ago. The barrage of hateful content, misinformation and outright lies pumped into the public psyche by the media trials of the concocted Jawaharlal Nehru University case in 2016 had already made you the “seditious villain”, one that yielded them high TRPs. All that they needed to do this time is to ignore the real culprits of the February violence in Delhi, discredit the people protesting peacefully against the Citizenship Amendment Act and repackage you as the mastermind. So what, if you only spoke about harmony and equality? With a pliant media at their disposal yet again, the script remains the same.
At times, we feel you were probably over-prepared for this. So much so that in the weeks before you were finally detained, every odd knock on the door would trigger a firmness in your jawline. It is an irony that finally when the bearer, a constable, came with the summon, you weren’t home. And he didn’t want to hand it to your mother because the Indian Penal Code, it seems, does not allow a summons to be handed over to a woman. Such a colonial throwback.
Did you know that? While the proportion of women behind bars reflects a certain gender parity in the ranks of the dissidents, the penal code remains sexist and regressive.
Anyway, to some extent, this time around, we all were prepared, ammi, us and you, obviously.
What irks us in fact is the sinking feeling that we will get used to your absence, that will let this get normalised.
After all, haven’t we become used to a lot in the last few years? We have become used to the incarceration of young minds who have been vocal advocates of equal citizenship that the Constitution guarantees.
We have become used to the incarceration of some of the best defenders of our hard-earned rights after fictitious charges have been used to frame them. As a nation we have become used to lynchings – of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis – while they are recorded, live-streamed, shared, relished and even become the backdrop for selfies.
We have become used to a daily dose of misogyny, jingoism and hate-mongering on prime time television. We have become used to a lurking sense of fear, of midnight knocks, of self-censorship.
The gangrape and death of the Dalit woman in Hathras a few weeks ago and the perversion of justice that followed shows the deep the rot that has set into our body politic. The fact that we move on so easily shows the toxicity we are getting used to.
Come to think of it, your real crime was that you were one of the handful who have refused to get used to these realities, who have refused to be browbeaten into silence.
Your crime was your ever-restlessness and the fact that you refused to be paralysed by fear. Sedition charges, an assassination attempt, incessant social media trolling, death threats, media trials – even you’d agree that they gave you a fair share of warning.
Ziddi; stubborn you. As stubborn as Shaheen Bagh; as our octogenarian Bilkis daadi, now of Time magazine fame, who survived the harshest of winters on the streets to secure a future with izzat, dignity.
But it is your restlessness that worries us now when you are doing time. You must not live by the day anymore. Slow down. Don’t rush. The last time, at least one of us was there with you to reign in your disquiet. This time you have to do it by yourself. Put the rush to rest.
Upside down world
As for the outside world, the video speech that you recorded to be released in case you were arrested, was a chronicle of events foretold. It revealed, in Eduardo Galeano’s words, an upside down world. One in which hatemongers have a free run with no scrutiny, while those who speak of love, compassion, justice and solidarity are demonised.
One where provocateurs like Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra are hailed as heroes while turning into villains the thousands of people who marched through the streets of India in the winter to defend our Constitution. A world where the investigation into the Delhi riot has been turned into an inquisition of peaceful protestors demanding equal citizenship.
The 11,000-page charge-sheet, which is one of the longest pieces of fiction the world has seen, makes it clear that to oppose any government policy is a crime today. And that, to simply have been born Muslim is a crime.
It is rather amusing that there has been a debate in some circles as to whether you are an atheist or a Muslim. It is amusing because we find this debate quite banal. Because, to you, the answer is simple. You are a materialist with a deep sense of history. That is because your tool to interpret the world both in its physical and metaphysical realms is Marxism. Not as dogma, but more as a navigator.
In fact, Marx himself seemed to detest the silliness of the label “atheism”. In his words, it “reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogey man”. This juvenile banter for him made no sense as it is quite easy to deal with religion by just being against it. But it doesn’t take one anywhere apart from a moral pedestal propped up on some sort of an ultimatistic ultra-leftism.
You were born a Muslim. You have always been reminded of it at every step – while being refused delivery when trying to order pizza from a Muslim ghetto, to seeing extra-judicial police killings (euphemistically described as “encounters”) unfold in front of your eyes.
From being called a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammad group in 2016 to being accused of being a traitor, you have been hunted and taunted for being a Muslim. You couldn’t have escaped it even if you wanted. Your crime is that you refused to be bracketed as just that.
Our rulers today are inheritors of an ideology that believes that if you are Muslim, you are not a citizen of equal worth in India. The recent amendment to the Citizenship Act reiterates this, by making persecuted minorities from the region eligible for fast-track citizenship – except if they are Muslim.
Your crime was that, drawing from Marx, you claimed that one can be both a Muslim and also expect one’s rights as a citizen to be safeguarded. The nation-wide movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the many Shaheen Baghs in fact advocated the same. They rejected any kind of binary politics: Hindu/Muslim or believer/secular. As immortalised in Amir Aziz’s Jamia ki Ladkiyan, what they taught us is that one cannot freeze a community in time. They cannot be easily bracketed into either “fundamentalist” or “atheist”.
A community, any community, is always in a state of flux. That reflects in its past, its present, its choices, its hesitations, its aspirations, its misgivings, its ideas, its contradictions. As we have discussed so many times before, you were a product of that condition of flux.
From the Babri masjid demolition in 1992 to the Batla House encounter in 2008; from your observant parents’ decision to give you the most liberal education, to your engagement with Marxism as a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, you were shaped by your family, your community and the events you witnessed. As your sister Zainab noted “Umar Khalid couldn’t come up in isolation; he is very much a product of the way he was raised.”
How does one encapsulate that many layers in a simple binary?
The hustle and bustle of the protest sites across the country has been stilled by the pandemic. For the moment, there is a lull. We might as well use the time to gather our thoughts. To review our achievements, the lessons we’ve learned and analyse our shortfalls; to evaluate in the fullest sense the potential that was Shaheen Bagh, what it signified for the Muslims as a community and for the citizens of this diverse nation. That would be a good way to do your time, don’t you think?
Life for you, particularly since the sedition case in JNU since 2016, has been more like a rush in the head. It has been one of constant “looking over the shoulder”. It has also been one of being pricked by both foes and friends. Maybe this hiatus will bring some pause, if not peace. As for some of us, it is like a constant (at times even annoying) drone around our ears has suddenly ceased. But as we said before, we hope we never get used to the lull, the void.
Meanwhile, let the physical mulakaat in jail start. We will bring you to speed with all that is worth. And if the gatekeepers are still reading, the first letters of the last words of the first ten paras make for a message.
Until next time,
Daisy & Ban
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