‘My upbringing has inculcated a tradition of questioning the dominant narrative’
Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) students’ leader Umar Khalid, against whom a police complaint was filed after the unrest at Koregaon-Bhima, speaks to Prateek Goyal about how BJP and RSS are his worst enemies.
Q: Tell us about your life before joining JNU.
I graduated from Kirorimal College before joining JNU. I think my upbringing has inculcated a tradition of questioning the dominant narrative and oppression. JNU is the place where this tradition of questioning got a more solid logical founding.
Q: Were you always an atheist? When did your political awakening happen? What made you renounce your religion?
I am tired to answer this question as my religious belief should be personal to me as it is to anyone. I made public the fact that I don’t believe in any religion at a time when I was being subjected to a vicious media trial by select media outlets who spread lies about me and tried to portray me as an Islamist terrorist who has been to Pakistan. Various kind of false stories were spread about me in order to create hatred against me. Before this incident, only the people close to me knew that I am an atheist as I have never advocated wearing your atheism or religious beliefs on your sleeves. However, what I have realized now is that it doesn’t matter whether one is a practicing Muslim or non-practicing Muslim, if a person is Muslim by name he/she is going to be branded as a Fundamentalist or a terrorist . Since BJP came to power, hate politics of this kind has been legitimized.
Q. What was your parents’ and friends’ reaction to it?
My parents are an example as to how democratic relations between parents and children should be. They treat me as an adult who can make decision about his own life and my parents have always given me that freedom and space. They have inculcated in me the tradition of questioning. After Koregaon-Bhima incident and also two years back at the time of attack on JNU, a section of media tried to bring my father’s association more than three decades back with SIMI to say that I have a familial relationship with SIMI. My father left SIMI in 1985 which is two years before I was even born. Moreover, at that time it was neither a banned organization or had any criminal case filed against any of its members which happened only from 2001 onwards. The fact that most of the cases where young muslim men were framed as SIMI terrorists have collapsed in the courts is another story. But the fact remains that in 1985 when my father left that organization, there was not even a single FIR against any of its members. This kind of irresponsible reportage that is being passed off as journalism is only meant only to create hysteria and spread disinformation and hatred. In this case, they have not only castigated me but they have also castigated my parents and this clearly indicates the mentality of hatred of the people who are on the far right and in power. But such attempts at intimidation through these vicious disinformation campaigns will not make me nor my parents back out, because we know we are standing for truth and justice.
Q. What did you want to become when you were a child?
I wanted to become a cricketer, not many people know that I have played a match with Virat Kohli in college. I never thought of joining civil services or to be in power, I have always seen myself on the other side of power, standing up for the rights of people.
Q. According to media reports, you have worked in Jharkhand. Why Jharkhand and what was your work there?
I have not worked in Jharkhand, but yes, I am doing my PhD on Jharkhand. I am doing my studies on Singhbum and my work is based on how colonialism and policies of post-colonial India have worsened the life of Adivasis (tribals).
Q. You hail from Maharashtra where, in Surjagad, State is oppressing the people to help promote mining projects. Is anybody from your group working here for people?
ANS: Yes I hail from Amrawati but I am not a part of any all India group. My organisation Bhagat Singh–Ambedkar Students Organization is JNU based. But there are various other groups who are working in Surjagad, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh where people are being displaced due to the usurpation of their lands by mining corporations. I stand in solidarity with the adivasis resisting such displacement and demand that Indian government should scrap all Mou’s with mining corporations. The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution clearly states that the tribal land cannot be given to non-tribals without the consent of the tribals through their gram sabhas. But then, this is being flouted regularly – from the past several decades. This has only intensified under the current regime that is giving away tribal lands and forests at a pittance to the likes of Gautam Adani.
Q. Do you think the youths are being influenced negatively by social media?
Ans: I am actually a supporter of Social media. If there would not been social media that our source of information will be limited to a few media houses which are also controlled by big business interests. Social media has changed the entire dynamics and the source of our information has been decentralized. However I do understand that there are many negative aspects to social media as it has become a place of abuse, hate mongers, trolling of dissentors. Fake news is also a big problem but then we have to understand that fake news is not only circulated through social media but also through main stream media. I am myself a victim of fake news played by main stream media. They linked with me Jaish-e-Mohammad, similarly they linked the missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmad with ISIS despite the Delhi police, in both incidents, clearly saying that nothing of such sort was found in investigation. When we talk about fake news we cannot link it only with the medium. We need to understand that the current fascist regime, in order to hides its failures of Vikas and Ache Din, thrives by creating such disinformation campaigns - be it on TV, print, online spaces or simply by word of mouth.
Q. Do you think a huge rift has been created between Dalits and other communities in Maharashtra after the Koregaon-Bhima unrest?
I think there was a well-planned conspiracy by Sangh Parivar to create a rift on basis of caste and religious lines. The promises made by them of ‘vikas’, ‘acche din’, MSP and loan waiver turned out to be lies. RSS is imposing the cultural agenda of converting the country into a Hindu Rashtra and this is helping BJP in electoral politics.
Q. What was the main purpose of Elgaar Parishad?
According to me, it was to gather all the oppressed and marginalised groups to fight against the new ‘Peshwai’ of BJP-RSS. To fight against caste atrocities, economic distress, farmers’ distress and other issues.
Q. BJP and Congress have been accused of playing politics on religious bias. Isn’t the same now happening along caste lines?
Ans: The history of both these parties - the BJP overtly, the Congress covertly - is riddled with promoting majoritarianism and casteism in our society. Just look at the recently concluded Gujarat elections. BJP was trying to say that Rahul Gandhi is not a Hindu, and in his defence Congress was saying that Rahul Gandhi is a Janeu-dhari Hindu. In a secular country, which is what we claim to be, how should this matter? However, if by your question you meant to say that dalit leaders are doing caste politics, then by that logic we would start saying that Dr. Ambedkar was also doing caste politics because he was the one who forcefully highlighted and fought against the caste based exploitation. In order to end caste, we have to acknowledge that caste exists. We cannot be in a denial mode that caste doesn’t exist. My politics is not caste politics, it is a politics which seeks to take forward Ambedkar’s vision of annihilation of caste.
Q. In retrospect, do you think that choosing Shaniwarwada as the venue could have been avoided?
Not at all! We are not living in a feudal age where such forts should become fiefdom of any particular community. I understand the sentiments associated with it. Actually before coming to Pune I didn’t even know what Shaniwarwada was. But Peshwai ended around 200 years ago. It is a public place. If somebody has an objection they can hold a parallel programme at Shaniwarwada or for that matter India Gate, Taj Mahal or wherever they get permission.
Q. Statements inciting violence and humiliating certain communities were made in the Elgar Parishad by some leaders. In retrospect, do you think it could have been avoided?
Its factually wrong! No community was being humiliated even through the plays. I think some people want to divide the society like what Sambhaji Bhide, Milind Ekbote and the ruling regime is doing.
Q. Your speech was not controversial yet there are cases against you. Have religion and your political ideology become your worst enemies?
I think BJP and RSS have become my worst enemies and I don’t mind being their worst enemy as well. Because I think I am standing for democracy and they are against democracy.
Q. Chandrashekar Prasad, former AISA leader was allegedly killed by RJD leader Md Shahbuddin’s men. But then one of your comrades, Kanhaiyya Kumar went and touched Lalu Prasad Yadav’s feet. Don’t you think this is a case of double standards?
Ans: Me and Kanhaiya do not agree on everything. But I think too much is being made of this double standard, when today our entire country is being ruled by double standards. Lalu is called corrupt, and his indictment in the Fodder Scam is being seen as evidence of the zero-tolerance policy of the Modi regime to corruption. But on the other hand, the likes of Mukul Roy, the primary accused in the Sharda Scam is inducted into the BJP with much fanfare. Or, to take another example the PM does not even acknowledge the Vyapam Scam, and so many deaths around it, in the BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh.