As Umar Khalid, PhD, completes 100 days in Tihar Jail, the second time he has been incarcerated in four years, former prison mate and friend Anirban Bhattacharya spoke about the power of conversation between friends and foes behind bars.
New Delhi: When Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid stripped for a mandatory medical checkup when they first entered Tihar Jail here in India’s capital on 1 March 2016, the doctor looked at their slight figures, turned to the Delhi Police officers and said: “Are these your terrorists?”
The story is narrated by Bhattacharya, 34, who with Khalid spent a trying week in police custody that year. They were accused by the police of raising “anti-national” slogans, and subjected to a media trial, but the two PhD students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) found a moment of peace on their first night in Tihar and ended up having many heart-to-heart conversations that, in Bhattacharya’s words, elevated their friendship.
The university students were placed in separate cells, but they could hear each other through a gap in the wall that separated them, recalled Bhattacharya. They spoke for hours about everything that had happened in the three weeks since they had organised an event on 9 February 2016 on the JNU campus to oppose the hanging of Mohammed Afzal, a Kashmiri man found guilty and sentenced to death for his role in a terror attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.
Afzal’s treatment by the courts was regarded by some as unjust, and his out-of-turn execution on 9 February 2013 was carried out by the then ruling Congress Party to appear tough on terrorism before the 2014 general election. The Congress lost, and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power.
On that first night in Tihar, they were just relieved not to have their legs shackled to a desk, as they had been at their local police station, or hauled off at midnight for an interrogation to be asked questions like, “where did you print posters for the event” and “who paid for the posters?”
“I know it sounds funny, but that first night in Tihar was actually the first time that we could breathe a sigh of relief. There was no interrogation,” said Bhattacharya, who is out on bail and a researcher at the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies. “The night was calm. We talked, talked, talked.”
“Then, there was silence. Then, after 10 minutes, Umar said, ‘Ban are you awake?’ I said, ‘Ya.’ For the first time, his voice was shaking. He said, ‘Thank you, Ban.’ I remember that moment and that feeling,” said Bhattacharya. “It was the acknowledgement of vulnerability and relief that we were there for each other.”
100 Days In Jail, With No End In Sight
Bhattacharya’s former jail buddy is now back in prison, this time in connection with the communal riots that erupted in Delhi in February 2020. Khalid is charged with terrorism under sections 13, 16, 17 and 18 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, apart from 26 sections under the IPC, including murder, sedition and promoting communal enmity.
The Delhi Police have arrested at least 21 people, including six students who led protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, a law that makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship to undocumented residents from six faiths who have fled religious persecution from three neighbouring countries, but not Muslims, and has accused them of instigating the riots.
On 22 December, Khalid completed 100 days in jail. Getting out will be much harder this time because the police have deployed the UAPA, which allows 180-days custody to investigating agencies, with the onus of proof largely on the accused.
Critics have frequently said the law is biased against suspects.
As lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 in April 2020, the provisions of the UAPA are “criminally overbroad and excessively vague” and those charged under it must “suffer the punishments of the process to get [their] day in court and prove the lack of any intent.”
India has seen a spike in sedition cases over the period of the BJP government. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 93 cases of sedition were filed in 2019, a 165% jump from 35 cases in 2016.
More than 80 cases of sedition were reported nationwide until June 2020, more than any six-month period since the NCRB began counting such cases in 2014.
The conviction rate in sedition cases in 2019 was 3.3% and for UAPA cases 29.2%, indicating how the process often becomes the punishment for the vast majority who are eventually found to be innocent.
Even as academics, activists, and some former police officers have accused the Delhi police of bias, media stories have pointed to discrepancies in the investigation. While one district court judge called the probe “vindictive” and betraying “total non-application of mind,” the Delhi police maintain they are carrying out a fair and impartial investigation.
Fifty three people were killed in the Delhi riots in February, 40 Muslim, as per the Delhi Police. Most of the property damage was suffered by the Muslim community. Most of those accused by the police of instigating the riots are Muslim.
Life Lessons From Prison
Bhattacharya spoke about their first time in jail and the life lessons that they took away from those 18 days behind bars in 2016.
In a country that was being polarised on religious lines then, and is even more divided today, their long conversations with the prison guards taught them that differences and misunderstandings could be resolved, when people took the time to speak with and listen to each other.
As they waited to get bail, they slept, read, and spoke for hours with the prison guards, talking about life, families, JNU, its admission process, news about 3,000 condoms reportedly found in JNU, safe sex, the Hindu-Muslim divide, and the basic freedoms still eluding women in India.
Irrespective of whether the news about the condoms was true or not, with the Indian government spending public money to educate people about safe sex, they asked one disapproving policeman whether or not it was not a good thing that college students were using condoms.
In addition to consuming four books in a week in jail, Khalid, Bhattacharya said, had the “gift of the gab” and he was still deploying it to build bridges.
“Anyone who spends time with him figures out that he is a nice guy with good ideas,” said Bhattacharya.
“It says something about us. Perhaps, deep down, there is a space to have conversations,” said Bhattacharya. “The problem is that the regime does not want us to have that space. That is why they bank so much on vilification.”
When Kanhaiya Kumar was released from Tihar Jail after getting bail on 2 March, 2016, a day after Bhattacharya and Khalid were incarcerated, Bhattacharya was put in Kumar’s cell, where he found the message “inquilab zindabad (hail freedom) ” scribbled on a wall.
A former president of the JNU students’ union, Kumar was also accused of sedition, even though his friends say he was not involved in the planning or execution of the 9 February event, but had nevertheless stepped into the fray in defence of the freedom of speech and assembly.
Kumar was beaten by lawyers inside a court premises on 17 February, 2016. The three JNU students became household names in a matter of days. Some called them traitors. Others said they were heroes for having stood their ground even as the State moved against them.
The Delhi police, which reports to Home Minister Amit Shah, took three years to file a chargesheet in the sedition case in January 2019. It took another year for the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi to sanction prosecution in February 2020, a month before the coronavirus outbreak in India.
In the fours years that have passed since they were first incarcerated, Kumar went on to join the Communist Party of India and fight and lose a national election, Khalid turned to political activism, railing against religion and caste-based hate crimes, and vigorously opposing the CAA, Bhattacharya receded from public view, carrying out his activism more quietly.
The Modi government says that CAA does not impact Indian Muslims, but Muslims fear that when the CAA is coupled with the National Population Register (NPR), a data collection exercise, and a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), aimed at identifying persons living without documents in India, they will be targeted and stripped of basic rights.
This time in 2019, the streets of Delhi were filled with protestors calling for the CAA to be repealed. Hundreds of thousands of people joined in the anti-CAA demonstrations across the country, and Home Minister Amit Shah appeared to step back from his plan to roll out a nationwide NRC.
In August 2018, a gun-wielding Hindu extremist took a shot at him in daylight in the national capital. In 2020, a year after he submitted his PhD at JNU on Adivasi land relations and power structures in Chota Nagpur, he was accused of orchestrating the Delhi riots and jailed.
They felt no shame in going to jail in 2016, said Bhattacharya, who completed his PhD in plantation labour in the tea gardens of North Bengal, and hails from the upper caste Bhadralok community in Bengal. His father, a retired university professor in Kolkata, never believed that his son was wrong, but the experience took a toll on his family.
“My father has always said that he is proud of me,” said Bhattacharya. “He never said that you should be careful about your opinions, but I could see that he was broken.”
Guards And Friends
Khalid’s and his personalities showed in the state of their jails cells, said Bhattacharya.
Khalid’s was a mess, he said. His restless friend, who waited anxiously for a bail order every day, could not have bothered to keep it tidy. Bhattacharya, on the other hand, had mentally prepared himself for a longer haul, and kept things neat.
“Umar just has a very active mind. He talks all the time,” said Bhattacharya. “I would say, ‘Umar, can you please read a book,’ I don’t want to talk right now. He would get annoyed at my tidy cell. He would say, ‘have you come to live here or what.’”
Many of the police personnel and prison guards they encountered in 2016 had seen them on television news and looked at them through the lens of dramatic headlines and the red circles that television news anchors used to point them out in a crowd, said Bhattacharya.
Even the doctors who used to examine them when they were in police custody before going to Tihar jail, Bhattacharya said, would either taunt or lecture him and Umar, especially Umar, going as far as calling him a “traitor.”
But there was one night when they were too deflated to respond to a lecture on nationalism that one doctor was giving them, and the policeman on duty spoke up for them, said Bhattacharya.
“This doctor was going on and on, and we did not have it in us to respond,” said Bhattacharya. “Suddenly, this cop said, ‘Ab doctor sahab, bas chup kijye.’ (Now doctor, please be quiet),” he said. “The doctor was flabbergasted, and so were we.”
Even prison guards who seemed hostile were curious about them, said Bhattacharya. And what they had in common was a lot of time on their hands. Umar and Bhattacharya had managed to negotiate for six newspapers in Tihar, but they spent most of their time talking to three guards who watched over them, two from the Tamil Nadu Special Police, which guards Tihar, and one from the Delhi Police.
The Tamil guards spoke in English and were the same age as them, Bhattacharya said. It was easy to speak with them because they seemed removed from the deep divisions that were growing on account of BJP’s politics in India’s Hindi-speaking belt, he said.
While television news in those days was projecting JNU as a hotbed of “anti-national” activities, Bhattacharya and Khalid were explaining how the admission policy was based on quartile and deprivation points, so that a student from a village in Balangir, Odisha, who was disadvantaged compared to city students, had a chance of getting in.
Bhattacharya and Khalid tried explaining to the guards why their idea of an education transcended “careerism.”
“We told them about us, who we are, where we come from, and what we wanted to do,” said Bhattacharya. “We found out who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted to do.”
“We broke a lot of barriers that the media puts between people,” he said.
One Delhi policeman, they discovered, was an ardent follower of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit icon and principal author of the Indian Constitution, and spoke with sadness about Rohith Vemula, the 26-year-old PhD Dalit student who killed himself on 17 January, 2016, on the campus of Hyderabad Central University. In the tragic note that he left behind, Vemula wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident.”
After politics, the state of the union, and the nation’s many tragedies had been debated and dissected by the prison guards and the two inmates, the discussions invariably turned to their hopes and dreams.
The Delhi policeman, Bhattacharya said, told them that he wanted to get a teaching degree and become a school teacher in the hope of giving back to society.
One policeman, who was deployed to protect Khalid after the assassination attempt in 2018, wanted his girl to be educated at Jamia Millia Islamia University and asked for his help to arrange tuitions.
Khalid did help, said Bhattacharya.
“What we realised was that when you show people with a big red mark around them, you become a different person for the world,” said Bhattacharya. “They are saying this is what a ‘terrorist’ looks like. You become unrelatable.” said
“But ultimately, what we found out is that if we are given a chance to speak with each other, there is more than a chance to have a reasonable conversation. There is a chance to have a lot of agreements and some disagreements.”
“Really Really Sweet Moments”
A lot was happening outside the walls of Tihar in March 2016. The Jats in Haryana were demanding reservation under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. Environmental activists were warning that spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s “World Cultural Festival” would destroy the Yamuna floodplains.
On the windswept day of the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar event, Bhattacharya recalled that Khalid was sleeping and he was sitting near the jail bars staring out at the rain, when one of the Tamil guards came and gave him a paper boat that he had made for him.
One day, Bhattacharya recalled the other Tamil guard telling him that he missed his wife, with whom he shared a nightly ritual of looking up at the same star.
On another day, Bhattacharya recalled the Delhi police guard told them that he spoke to another guard about how the whole country was obsessing over the differences between Hindus and Muslims, but they—Anirban and Umar—were a Hindu and Muslim, helping each other through a difficult time in their lives.
There was a radio jockey at Tihar from Begusarai, Kanhaiya Kumar’s hometown in Bihar, who offered to play songs they liked, Bhattacharya said. He had requested Akshay Kumar’s Soch Na Sake from the movie Airlift.
“These were really really sweet moments,” he said.
The evening of 18 March, the day they were leaving jail after getting bail, was filled with tears and hugs.
“It was like brothers were parting. We kept hugging and crying. The Delhi cop gave me a Parker pen and said, ‘please remember me with this.’”
“It all meant a lot to us,” he said.
Bhattacharya still has the paper boat and the Parker pen.
(Betwa Sharma is an independent journalist who covers politics and civil liberties. She was the politics editor at HuffPost India.)