By Soutik Biswas and Umang Poddar
BBC News, Delhi
In an interview in January 2020, Umar Khalid introduced himself as an “unemployed 32-year-old Indian”, with a doctorate on indigenous people from a prestigious university.
“Ideologically, you could say, I’m a radical democrat. I believe in democracy, and I believe in democracy that is not limited until your voting,” Mr Khalid told VICE Asia.
“It must come into practice in everyday life in a way you can voice your issues and concerns with democratic functioning.”
Mr Khalid had already gained prominence in 2016 as one of five Indian students charged with sedition for organising a protest at his alma mater, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), over the 2013 hanging of a Kashmiri man.
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He, along with another student, had surrendered to the police and had been granted bail months later. In 2022, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended the colonial sedition law, instructing the government to halt all trials until the law’s validity was conclusively determined by the court.
Four years later, in September 2020, Mr Khalid was arrested again and accused of being a “key conspirator” in violent clashes in Delhi that killed 53 people, mostly Muslims. The February riots in the Indian capital occurred amid massive months-long protests against a contentious citizenship law.
Since then the activist has been languishing in a maximum security prison in the city. Mr Khalid, who was one of several students and activists held for the violence, has denied the charges against him. The 36-year-old says he only took part in a peaceful protest.
Two police cases were lodged against Mr Khalid. One case has been dropped, while in the other, he hasn’t been charged in court yet, and the trial hasn’t begun. Denied bail twice in the second case, he has faced prolonged incarceration as the police invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – a stringent anti-terror law notorious for making it exceptionally challenging to get bail, often resulting in years of detention until the completion of trial.
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In May last year, Mr Khalid’s lawyers sought bail from the Supreme Court. Despite 11 scheduled dates over the past eight months, the top court has not yet heard the bail petition.
Lawyers on both sides were occasionally absent; at other times, changes in the bench hearing the case prolonged the delay. Kapil Sibal, Mr Khalid’s lawyer, has told the court that he would need only “20 minutes” to show that the police did not have a case against his client. The next hearing is set for 24 January, with the judge insisting that the proceedings must commence on that day.
The prosecutor said Mr Khalid was identified meeting people accused in the rioting by a witness. His lawyer argued that Mr Khalid was neither present in Delhi when the violence broke out, nor was there any other evidence to link him to the crime.
Under the UAPA, the activist has been charged by police with a “larger conspiracy” of terrorism, criminal conspiracy and engaging in unlawful activities, along with charges of rioting.
The police has described him as a “remote supervisor” and “mastermind” behind the riots, relying on what they said were statements made by unnamed witnesses, Mr Khalid’s membership of WhatsApp groups, phone calls made to him by other accused when the riots began and his presence at various demonstrations.
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They also say that unnamed witnesses have told them Mr Khalid supported the overthrow of the Narendra Modi government, making provocative speeches. While denying him bail, the Delhi high court also said that Mr Khalid had called for a revolution, which may not “necessarily” be bloodless. Mr Khalid has consistently denied making any provocative speeches or instigating violence.
The trial court and the Delhi high court, which have denied him bail, are not convinced; they believe the allegations against Mr. Khalid are, on the face of it, true.
Legal commentators say the evidence produced against Mr Khalid is “weak”.
In October 2022, a former Supreme Court judge, three retired high court judges, and a former federal home secretary examined the UAPA case against Mr Khalid as part of a larger report on the riots. They wrote that they found no substantiating evidence to warrant the imposition of terrorism charges.
The prosecution “relies on material that is intrinsically unreliable in law”, they wrote. They found inconsistencies in the claims made by the police which “further corroborates the possibility that the witness statements gathered have been fabricated”.
“The prosecution really needs to make up its mind as to what is the case against me,” Mr Khalid’s lawyer told a court in 2022, challenging refusal of bail. “I have to bear the brunt of two years of imprisonment because you have a [hearsay] statement [from an uncorroborated witness].”
Amnesty International has said that denying bail to Mr Khalid is a “huge blow to free expression and peaceful assembly in the country”. The rights group said it reflected a “rapidly shrinking space for critical voices”, setting a “chilling precedent” for dissenting views.
Meanwhile, in prison, Mr Khalid reads voraciously, writes applications for fellow prisoners, and watches cricket on the TV. He also writes diligently, aiming to craft a prison diary of sorts that has already piqued the interest of publishers.
Mr Khalid’s family is allowed a 20-minute video call each week, and his friends can have a half-hour physical visit at the prison. The family is holding up: after years of editing an Urdu newspaper, his father launched a small political party, while his mother, who used to work as a doctor, now runs a boutique. In July 2022, they had a brief respite: Mr Khalid was granted temporary bail for a week to attend his sister’s wedding.
“It is not a very hopeful situation. But Umar is fine, keeping his spirits up,” says Banojyotsna Lahiri, Mr Khalid’s long-time partner. The two met as students in 2008 and started dating five years later.
Ms Lahiri has written evocatively of how the two have been in a “long-distance relationship while being in the same city”, meeting across a glass partition in prison and talking on the intercom.
“We laugh, joke and don’t discuss sad things… He calls me too, and we have court dates, pun intended. In court we talk in sign language,” she told India Love Project, an Instagram account celebrating unions that defy “the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity, and gender.”
Last week, Ms Lahiri visited Mr Khalid in prison with six new books, including Paul Lynch’s Booker-winning Prophet Song, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and works by Saadat Hasan Manto and a book on Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. She reckons Mr Khalid has read close to 200 books in incarceration, and she has bought bookshelves to store the ones he returns after reading.
In his prison ward, where he’s permitted to leave his cell during the day, Mr Khalid shares space with convicted criminals, including murderers and those guilty of other heinous crimes.
“Why am I here among all these people?” he often asks Ms Lahiri during their meetings.