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On February 9, till 1.20 pm, Umar was in my office. Anirban was presenting his chapter before a group of students undertaking PhD or MPhil research under my supervision. Umar was one of them. With rapt attention, he heard the presentation, contributed to the discussions, and we fixed a date for his presentation that was to follow. Little did I know as I hurried Umar out that day that things would change so dramatically for him, for me, and for all of us at JNU.
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Within a few hours, that fateful meeting was held on Sabarmati lawns. And then, all hell broke loose. Umar was no longer just Umar, but Umar Khalid as TV channels repeatedly underlined: He was the “anti-national” who cried for the dismemberment of the country, an “Islamic terrorist” who was funded by international organisations, a “traitor” who had just returned from Pakistan. He was supposed to have “masterminded” the event at JNU. Every day, more followed: He was a “Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser”, had been on the IB’s radar.
I Googled his name and found that he was said to have hailed from four states: J&K, UP, Bihar and Maharashtra. Here was a victim of a media trial, put in the dock because he was Muslim, condemned before his guilt had been proved, denounced as a terrorist for whom there was a hunt.
It is difficult to grasp the anguish of his family as they contemplate what the future holds for him.
Let me talk about Umar as my student, one of the brightest I have taught, and whose supervisor I have been for almost five years. Umar joined the MA programme at the Centre for Historical Studies in 2009.
What distinguished him was the intense expression in his eyes. As he focused on lectures and engaged in discussions, he seemed often to be thinking about something that went beyond just the lecture.
From him I received some of the most serious feedback on my course: My constant attempt to engage students in discussions, he felt, was sometimes intimidating for those who were not so articulate in English. A comment I have never forgotten.
Umar engaged with Adivasi history and politics with passion and commitment. He was awarded an A for a seminar paper he wrote on the politics of categorising Chhotanagpur as a “scheduled tract” in colonial times; he was also awarded an A for his MPhil dissertation on the Hos of Singhbhum. Through a study of the colonial state’s intervention in Singhbhum, Umar, in his dissertation, sought to question the simplistic opposition between the state and tribal societies. The object of his research was to reflect on contemporary society; understanding conflicts and struggles of the Adivasis in the past, he believed, would help him understand Adivasi societies in the present.
His deep empathy for the marginalised would constantly emerge in the course of discussions. His PhD proposal extends the research focus to the present times, making his study even more socially relevant.
I always look forward to having Umar in student discussions for he brings into them a vibrancy. And a laugh. I remember how he grinned at his own ignorance when there was a discussion on Islamic jurisprudence. “Ma’am,” he laughed and said, “I know nothing of all of this.” I could not persuade him to apply for a year’s exchange programme at Yale. It was in India that his social and academic commitment lay. Once in a while, he would come to me with a sheepish grin, and I knew that he wanted a meagre contribution for an event he wanted to organise on a social issue.
Let me end by quoting from the acknowledgement section of his dissertation. For him, the “vision” that he shared with many of his friends was “to transform every… moment into a fight for the better”. Poignant thoughts that today exist only in a utopian world. There is nothing unconstitutional about these thoughts. Please. Do ask those of us who have shared the corridors of this university with Umar for so many years what kind of person he is. Or has the vicious din around “sedition” made our voices ever so redundant?