In a recent court hearing, student activist Umar Khalid, who was arrested on September 13, 2020, in a case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly being one of the conspirators of the February 2020 riots in New Delhi, told the court that the prosecution needed to decide what exactly was the case against him.
Khalid was detained on the charge of conspiring communal violence in Delhi at the onset of former US President Donald Trump’s visit to India. He was also charged with sedition and 18 other sections of the Indian Penal Code, including murder and attempt to murder.
Two years later, Khalid’s parents still await justice and the return of their son. In a conversation with Maktoob, Khalid’s father Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, and his mother, Sabiha Khanum discussed their hopes, injustice, and their brief conversations with their son during the past two years of his imprisonment.
Here are the edited excerpts of their conversation with Maktoob.
How did Umar get into activism?
Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas: Umar has always been shy, truthful, and helpful toward everyone. After joining Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he moved to the hostel to be able to concentrate on his studies properly. He post-graduated from there, then did his M.Phil and finally his PhD from there. I believe that JNU was a turning point in my son’s life. He wasn’t into traditional activism. There are a lot of leftist organizations in JNU. he along with others created a new organization called Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization. While living and studying there, he got involved in activism. Through his activism, he got the opportunity to travel the entire country but it was only to help people. He never had any careerist approach to his activism. During his PhD at JNU, he received offers to work outside the country but he declined them because he clearly said that he wanted to help his people. He doesn’t even have a passport.
The topic of his thesis during his M.Phil and PhD was the Adivasis and he visited their areas. He rose his voice for Muslims for the first time during the anti-CAA protests. Umar started to realize that currently, Muslims are the most persecuted community in India. He started questioning why it was being done to Muslims and he realized that belonging to an Islamic ideology was the root cause of the discrimination. This brought him closer to the community.
Two years have passed since Umar’s arrest, how do you feel about it?
Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas: When my son was arrested, I knew that they weren’t going to let him out easily, when I saw the First Information Report (FIR), it had 28 sections, including UAPA and the arms act. His case was fabricated, we knew that the government wanted to take action against all those activists who protested against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). But I really didn’t know that it would take them this long. The court charged him on the basis of the charge sheets prepared by the police. This is something that we hadn’t expected to happen. We were hoping that he would be given bail but that didn’t happen. Their evidence is not proper and even the statements of evidence are contradictory. Also, even the evidence has not been brought forward in front of the court and their full names were not mentioned.
Umar wasn’t even in Delhi during the riots. They detained him and called him the main accused and the mastermind behind all that was happening. Then the main reason for his arrest became his speech in Amravati. They had only extracted a small portion of the speech and used it as evidence against him. Later our lawyer presented the entire 20 minutes long speech in front of the court and proved that the context of his speech was being changed. We later moved to the high court. Now we are hoping that this time, they might just let him go after the hearing after the summer vacation of court.
As a parent how difficult has it been for you to come to terms with Umar’s imprisonment?
Sabiha Khanum: His father has been into activism for many years and then Umar also became one. We were ready for the consequences. As a mother, these two years have been really hard for me. While eating food or when the temperature is very harsh, I am often reminded of my son and how he would be dealing with things. I often go out deliberately to feel how Umar would be feeling in this harsh weather. I open my eyes in the morning with his thought in my mind. During these two years, whenever I have spoken to him, he has never complained. He just continues smiling on the video calls.
Whenever I go out, I constantly keep looking at young boys and I often think that these men don’t know how lucky they are to be able to walk freely. Imagine being kept in a small space with locks on the door. A person can get claustrophobic.
I remember once Umar told me that he keeps thinking that he is imprisoned and has so many locks keeping him away from home. A lock on the door of his cell, then at each step yet another lock. Another time he said, “Ammi, I was sleeping and I suddenly heard the voices of crackers. I looked through the window and saw the sky lit with crackers and I realized that it was the new year. I just kept thinking that another year passed and I am still behind the bars.”
Why do you think the court is denying Umar’s bail? And how do you see the current situation in India in terms of what’s being done to Muslims including your son?
Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas: I believe that the government of India wants to demoralize anyone, who they see as a future leader for Muslims. They don’t want him to remain capable enough to come out and work for his people. But they are wrong because whenever he comes out, he’ll be stronger than he was.
The current government is vilifying a particular community by talking badly about our past and our present, talking about us breaking temples and building mosques. There have been incidents of lynching, and demolition of houses of Muslims, love jihad was made a law, and now they talk about population control. If all of this had happened to some other community, it would have ended and surrendered but they cannot demoralize Muslims through this. We won’t become subservient. This situation is only forcing Muslims to strongly follow their faith and come together as one.
What are your hopes from the judiciary?
Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas: The behaviour of the judiciary not just in his case but in every situation related to Muslims has been biased. But I want to believe those good judges are still there. And if his case goes to one of those judges, my son will get justice. Till when can they keep him behind the bars? From the beginning itself, Umar has never said anything that you can call unconstitutional. He has always followed the constitutional framework. I am sure when my son will come out he will be a very strong man. In the past two years, he has read around 800 books and he has also written a few articles.
Umar kept himself away from politics. His situation is such that in order to survive in India he will have to associate with some political party in order to survive the onslaught. But even now he doesn’t want to work with some well-established political party. He believes that all of these are opportunists in nature. He wants to associate with a political party with no internal politics. He is at that point in his life where it will be very difficult for him to completely dissociate from activism which means either affiliating with some political party or remaining independent.
Sabiha Khanum: I am hopeful. Even my Lord is against the oppressors. Sometimes I keep thinking of the day he’ll finally return home. I feel a connection through the things that we send for him. Recently he once told me that when he received his clothes he kept smelling them long because they smelled like home.
My trust in God is keeping me going. I keep praying for justice, for him, and for others like him.