Days before his arrest, activist Umar Khalid spoke to Newslaundry about Delhi police’s ‘narrative-based investigation’ into the February carnage.
Umar Khalid had sensed trouble in March. On the second day of that month — hardly a week after the carnage in Northeast Delhi — the national head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell, Amit Malviya, had tweeted a speech by the activist.
“Umar Khalid, already facing sedition charges, gave a speech in Amravati on 17 Feb, where he exhorted a largely Muslim audience to come out on streets in huge numbers when Trump arrives in India on 24th,” Malviya wrote. “Was the violence in Delhi planned weeks in advance by the Tukde Tukde gang?”
The Delhi police’s special cell arrested Khalid on the evening of September 13. He had been slapped with provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in April this year.
“The Delhi police’s investigation into the riots is a narrative-based investigation, not a fact-based investigation,” Khalid, 33, told Newslaundry days before his arrest. “They have a predetermined theory and they want to vindicate it by sidelining the facts.“
The activist, who has been accused of hatching a “premeditated conspiracy” behind the riots, said that he had reconciled himself with a police witch-hunt in March. “After Malviya’s video, and the right-wing media’s campaign, I was expecting to be questioned. I was mentally prepared to be arrested back in March and April,” he said.
Hours after Malviya’s tweet, several right-wing portals picked up the video, and with it, Malviya’s dubious claims.
“Delhi riots pre-planned? Umar Khalid seen inciting people to take to the streets against Modi govt while Trump visits,” ran an OpIndia headline on March 2. Zee News boldly flashed, “Sedition accused Umar Khalid’s inciteful video viral”. On March 5, Republic TV did a primetime debate using Khalid’s video, playing it along Harsh Mander’s speech in Jamia: “On Tape: How Lobby Planned Violence”. India TV asked whether the video was the link between the riots and the “tukde tukde gang”. Times Now regurgitated Malviya’s allegations and played Khalid’s speech with the ticker running text like: “Tukde Link To Delhi Danga” and “Lens on Tukde Poster Boy”.
Khalid rubbished these claims, calling the coverage a “motivated campaign” against him. “This is something that can be objectively verified. If you see that video, or any video of my speeches, you’ll see that I have always advocated peaceful methods,” he said.
In his Amravati speech, Khalid had accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of tarnishing Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals. “We won’t respond to violence with violence. We won’t respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it with love. If they thrash us with lathis, we keep holding the tricolour,” the former JNU student proclaimed in the video.
On March 3, a day after Malviya’s tweet, the Times of India published a strikingly one-sided report which claimed that Khalid was “under the scanner of intelligence agencies” for the speech. The IT cell head’s selectively trimmed clip was quoted in Hindustan Times and India Today magazine without challenge.
More than a month later, on April 21, Khalid was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The FIR alleged that Khalid had made “provocative” speeches before the violence in Delhi.
The activist, who came to light after a sedition row in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, was first interrogated by the special cell on July 31. “It was clear to me that the police first came up with the conclusions and then conducted the investigation accordingly,” Khalid told Newslaundry. “They want to delegitimise the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, while overlooking the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and the state in the communal violence.”
‘They don’t have any evidence against me. They have to invent the evidence’
When Newslaundry spoke to Khalid in late August, he had been perturbed by a slew of news stories against him and other activists and politicians who had supported the anti-CAA protests. These were reports on “confessions” by various other accused in the riots. Most of them appeared in Zee News and were sourced from the Delhi police. As Newslaundry reported last week, Zee — and often the Print and ANI — packaged legally inadmissible disclosure statements as “confessions” of former Aam Aadmi Party councillor Tahir Hussain, Jamia Millia Islamia students Meeran Haider and Asif Iqbal Tanha, and Delhi University student Gulfisha Fatima.
“They don’t have any evidence against me. They have to invent the evidence,” said Khalid, who believes that the police are trying to mould public opinion against critics of the Modi regime. “I am sure that when I am arrested, there will be fake stories about me in the press. The Delhi police’s everyday business is manufacturing lies and deceit.”
In early September, the activist alleged that the special cell had pressured his acquaintance to sign a false, pre-drafted statement against him. “Despite not having a legal case or evidence against me, they [Delhi police] are attempting to build a narrative in the minds of the general public to create ground to take action against me based on such obviously false accounts and fabricated statements,” Khalid wrote in an open letter to SN Shrivastava, Delhi’s police commissioner.
Khalid had an array of roles in the stories that appeared on Zee News in August. On one hand, he was “instructing” Hussain to collect glass bottles, stones, petrol and acid at the roof of his house in Khajuri Khas; on the other, he was asking Tanha to hold a “chakka jam” during US President Donald Trump’s February visit to India. He was mulling a “war against Hindus” at the Popular Front of India office in Shaheen Bagh with activist Khalid Saifi and, in another story, assuring a DU student that there was “no shortage of money” for financing the riots, thanks to his PFI links.
Khalid laughed off these allegations. “I have never had any links with PFI, nor was I ever in touch with them as the police suggest. PFI is a convenient bogeyman: it looms large in their theories, but strangely they never do anything about it. If being in touch with that organisation is a crime, why has the government not banned it?” he said.
‘Today, tomorrow, or a year later — I will come out of this’
Khalid, an aspiring historian, believes that the riots investigation is strategically cornering not just Muslims, but also students and activists. “Somewhere at the top, there is a line of thinking that the civil society in Delhi must be attacked,” he said. “They are building tempo towards more arrests.”
He divided this attack into three tiers. “The lowest tier includes the residents of Northeast Delhi,” he explained. “Above that, there are students from universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Delhi University. The top tier are professors and civil society members who are standing up to this regime.” He added that if the protests had happened in a smaller city, and not Delhi, he and others “would not have been able to carry the movement this far”.
The former JNU student saw his arrest as imminent. “This is not the first time I’m being targeted. It is possible that I will be in prison for a few years — not just me, but others as well.”
Khalid anticipated prolonged incarceration. Since the police did not have any evidence against him, he said, “the process will be the punishment”.
To illustrate this, he brought up the Bhima Koregaon trials. “Look at how letters were leaked in Sudha Bharadwaj’s name even before the trial began. They were never actually produced in court. But she’s still under arrest,” Khalid said. “People are being kept in jail for their political opinions. We are descending into a deeper abyss of majoritarianism.”
Umar Khalid’s arrest came days before the Delhi police is supposed to file a chargesheet into FIR 59/2020, pertaining to the alleged conspiracy behind the riots. For the activist, the claims around this case have been “malicious” and “politically motivated”.
Noting his volleys of admonishment against the police and the state, I asked him if he saw any light at the end of the tunnel. “I’ll speak out even if I come out of this. And today, tomorrow, or a year later — I will come out of this for sure.”
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