Skip to content

TO BE DEMOCRATIC IS TO BE RADICAL: An Interview with Umar Khalid

By Malavika Binny

In many ways, Umar Khalid was the most ‘controversial’ face of the JNU protest movement. A brilliant research scholar, he presented an academic paper on the Adivasis a day after he was granted bail. Following the 9 February incident, he was witch-hunted by the a section of the  media, which referred to the unassuming researcher as a ‘mastermind’ and ‘an agent of the Jaish-e-Mohammed’ (claims which have been since proved to be utterly  untrue). It precipitated a situation where there were threats to his family being mob-lynched and even his twelve-year-old sister being threatened with death. He is now out on bail. As we met him in his hostelroom, it was heartening to see his unbroken spirit, his absolute resolve to stand up to the might of the state and his intense conviction and commitment to fight for the oppressed.

Malavika Binny: Let’s start by discussing your political stand and academic interests, as in the case of JNU, these are often inextricably entwined.

Umar Khalid: Yes, these two are informed by each other. I consider myself a Marxist. When I joined JNU for my Master’s in History, that was the time that the Central government had launched a  massive military onslaught in Central and Eastern India. The government was carrying out an attack in these areas for the previous many years, but this was the period when the attack was escalated in the form of an all-out military war codenamed, Operation Greenhunt. It was also a period when issues regarding the rampant land-grab and encroachments of tribal rights were quite in discourse. We, in JNU, tried to form a forum against the Green Hunt where we tried to unite various democratic forces, irrespective of their political position vis-a-viz the Maoist movement. We tried to bring in the Left, Radical Left, CPI, Lohiate groups and other democratic forces  – all under one banner. In fact, I was very new at that time and was only a part of the campaign with others. This was a Delhi-level campaign which also had a JNU chapter, and I was more involved at JNU level. This was the period which informed my initial politicization on JNU campus. This is what interested me initially – how to understand what was unfolding in the Central and Eastern heartland India. This was also a time when in the  third semester of our MA, we had a course in ‘Tribes in History’. It propelled me to do further research on tribes and Adivasis and their present predicament. Also, as a Marxist, a sense of history is very important to understand the present and to understand the conflicts of the present day. It was also a debate within the civil society – how do we understand the entire situation? There was this argument that Adivasis are sandwiched between the state and the Maoists. Was that actually the case? Because Adivasis had fought against the state in the past also. Would one say that during Birsa Munda’s rebellion against the colonial state the adivasis were sandwiched between them or in the case of Santhals, whether adivasis were sandwiched between them and the state? How much of the present-day rebellion is a continuation of the past and how much of it is different from the past? How does one understand resource-appropriation within these areas? On the one hand, there are large MNCs going after these areas and on the other hand there is class differentiation within these communities – both of these play out in the politics of this region. Politically, I started aligning myself more and more with the radical Left perspective. The problems of Central and Eastern India, I did not see them as isolated problems but as symptoms of a larger structural problem of the Indian society. Also, I started dealing or struggling with the problems of structural transformation.

MB: How has been your experiences as a student and a political activist in JNU prior to the 9 February incident?

UK: JNU is a relatively more democratic space compared to many other universities. However, JNU is no island, and all the problems in the society are reflected here. But since the university has had a strong students movement for the past three decades, it has democratised the space, somewhat. At both a discursive level and on the ground, there are several issues which can be raised here which, in other contexts, might be unthinkable.That is a space we have built; a space we have cherished. You can see that even on 9 February and  post the 9 February incident, the people who came together to fight back the state onslaught, they all have differences with each other, but we all came together because we have a right to differ. And that is something that the space of JNU offers to students – that you can put forth your perspective without being threatened. Having said that, I must also say that JNU student politics have its own problems which are symptomatic of larger problems of Indian politics. Though we claim to have an alternative space where we seek to challenge the mainstream space, these are not two structurally split domains. Mainstream politics also overwhelms the JNU politics. The problems that we see outside JNU, we also see inside JNU. For example, one of the issues we have raised is that both the Sacchar Committee and the Ranganathan Misra Committee have pointed to the under-representation of Muslims in educational institutions and in jobs. On the face of it, JNU seems a very democratic place because it has a sizeable population of Muslims on campus, but if you do a slight deconstruction, you will see that they are restricted to the courses on Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Hindi. Beyond these three centres, their percentage drops to 5-6%. This is despite the fact that JNU has a system of deprivation points which ensures that persons from depraved communities can get certain extra marks in the entrance examination. That is one of the questions we raised, that is, if we stand with the findings of the Sacchar and Ranganathan Committee, which also argues for affirmative action and reservations for Muslim community, we should fight to ensure deprivation points for Muslims, until we have the reservation law passed by the Parliament for the Muslim community. These problems demand further probing and this is just one aspect of it. At times, unfortunately, there are some occasions where you can see the Left, and I mean the mainstream Left, marginalising certain issues. These are challenges before any radical and democratic force; and I use the terms democratic and radical both together because in today’s times to be democratic is to be radical! We have to bring all these questions centrestage and that is the challenge.

MB:You were formerly with the Democratic Students Union (DSU) and later resigned from the party. What prompted the resignation?

UK: I was with the DSU ever since I joined JNU; however differences emerged within DSU. Differences emerged with a context of questioning of the prevelant understanding on the gender and patriarchy. We saw problematic dominant ideas also informing the ideas of the Revolutionary Left’s understanding on these issues. We thought that in a constructive way, we will debate these issues and enrich the understanding of the Revolutionary Left forces. These questions, in a way, were not specific to the Revolutionary Left in India alone, these were questions which were not looked at by the Communist movement historically in the entire world – gender being one of them. And these are questions  from the 1960s onward that the feminist movement or the women’s movement outside the Communist Party fold have brought to the centre stage, etc. This is not to say that we should go out of the Communist fold to resolve these issues, but to acknowledge there are democratic movements happening outside the Communist fold as well which the Communists also need to sincerely engage with, rather than dismiss them as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘diversionary’.

In the context of India, there is one more question that is added to it – that is, the caste question. If you look at the revolutionary movement, you see the same problem in the initial stage that it did not give the kind of importance to caste which it merits. But that changed, owing to internal questioning. We were expecting that sort of a change, but unfortunately that did not happen. In fact, we did not resign because of a debate, but because we were not even given a space to debate these questions. When we resigned, since the entire thing was precipatitated because of ideological questions, and since we were not quitting politics, but resigning from a certain organisation, we came out with a three part public critique making known to the students the reasons why we were resigning. It was a conscious decision and we did so because we felt we were accountable to the students and we were accountable to the people we worked with. The decision to go public was with an intent to debate these questions, but unfortunately these questions have gone unacknowledged so far. Our intent was to correct certain wrong perspectives which we were convinced were wrong perspectives. Politics is primary for us, political-ideological convictions and clarity are what guide our interventions in this campus.

MB: Could you explain what happened on 9 February as I was present at a dhabha near where the event took place and we could not understand what was happening as the situation was quite chaotic and  no one could make out what the slogans were. We were pretty astonished when we saw the video clippings as it was sort of impossible to make out any sort of individual slogans even when we were right there.

UK: I am sorry I cannot answer the question even if I want to, as the matter is sub-judice and I do not want to prejudice the investigation in my favour or anyone else’s favour. However, none of us are in any illusion that what happened post 9 February happened because of 9 February. Our “crime” was not the 9 February event. Rather our “crime” was what we have been doing for years. What unfolded in the last couple of months was as much a  witch-hunt of a few students while also being an ideological attack on the students’ movement as a whole. If you see, for the past two years the students’ movement has been on the upsurge across the country; students protests and rebellions have been happening across campuses. Small protests have always been happening across colleges, but if you see the movement at Jadavpur, it emerged as a mass movement where it was not only the students, but different sections of the city also participated in the movement. Then, there was the FTII protest against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, the way that galvanised the country and Delhi being an important centre and JNU being an important uiversity in Delhi was instrumental in organising, leading and taking part in these protests when FTII students came to Delhi. Students from JNU have been quite active in coordinating between various universities and organising various protests in Delhi and elsewhere. The FTII movement was continuing when the decision to scrap Non-NET fellowship was taken. That further strengthened the student protests. The JNUSU and JNU students played a significant role in the Occupy UGC movement along with students from other universities. While that movement was still on, the Rohith Vemula incident, which we are referring to as institutional murder, happened. It was in many ways a culmination of what had been going on in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) for a long period, which was the witch-hunt of the Ambedkarite activists there. If the government thought that their actions in HCU would dilute the Occupy UGC movement, they were wrong because the solidarities that we had forged during the Occupy UGC movement further helped the cause of the HCU movement.

The situation got quite tricky for the government when Rohitha Vemula, a Dalit student committed suicide; the government thought that it may harm them electorally. So they used the entire 9 February incident with its entire national/anti-national binary to cover it up. We have to remember that it was not the first time that the binary was employed as Rohith Vemula was also called anti-national. The way an entire section of the electronic media and a section of the print media and the police, the government – the ministers, the MPs – the way that they went after us they thought that could bury, they could subsume HCU  through their offensive against JNU through raising the issues of nationalism, terrorism, Islamic terrorism, etc. They thought that it could bury the caste issue that the HCU movement had so forcefully raised and BJP-RSS could stage a comeback after being cornered regarding Rohith’s institutional murder. As it happens in real life, their plan backfired as there was a third party involved which were the students. The students are one of  the most creative and diligent sections and by provoking them, the government is ‘playing with fire’. After the attack on JNU, ‘Stand with JNU’ and ‘Justice for Rohith’ – both these movements converged. On 23  February, when you had the ‘Justice for Rohith’ march, you saw the convergence on the  real ground. It became a massive march – one could very easily connect the dots; how what we are witnessing was an attack on all university spaces. Attack on university spaces had started with the previous government itself, that attack was privatisation of education. It started with the UPA  bringing in the The Private Universities Bill, Foreign Universities Bill and so on. The present government then took it up more aggressively going to the WTO and signing deals with them. But along with all these, they have started pursuing an agenda of saffronisation of education also – an ideological attack on university spaces. It fits well into the RSS agenda of saffronising university spaces; they will attempt to re-write history, they are going to appoint  saffron puppet heads as VCs, directors and heads of institutes.They are going against one university after the other, but inadvertently what they are also doing is galvanising student protests across campuses leading to the forging of new solidarities which is right now in the forefront of  challenging the government. The challenge before the students movement now is how not to make it an isolated movement of the students alone  and connect it to the fights of the Adivasis, dalits, farmers and so on. We have lots of privileges and strengths, but we also have a lot of weaknesses and we can only overcome these weaknesses if we come together with other movements.

MB: Prof. Noam Chomsky had recently commented on the vicious cycle of debt that the students of the private university are caught in, which divorces them from any sort of political activism.

UK: Prof. Chomsky seems to have hit the nail on its head. I remember Prof. Rohan D’souza had mentioned in a public  seminar in JNU on the privatisation of education, that in the US, where student debt is a huge issue, when a professor is teaching in a class, the student is thinking, “I have taken such a huge loan which I have to repay after I finish the course and get a job.” So, in a class, he is thinking he has made an investament  by joining the class and he is looking at how much of the investment he can get back through the class and that’s all he is concerned with – so the whole point of critical scholarship is lost because he is thinking in terms of optimum use of his money. This promotes an environment of rote learning and competitive exams, which we also see in India and that becomes a major challenge. This stifles critical thinking and critical scholarship.

MB: As a student of history, how do you reflect upon the whole movement?

UK: It was a historic movement. The things that have happened in the past two months in JNU have never happened before. I was not born when the Emergency was declared, so I do not know how it might have been then , but I have heard of it. But this was a different witch-hunt altogether where you don’t have the government declaring emergency, but it was an ‘undeclared emergency’. I remember the time when we were ‘hiding’. I felt it was Emergency. That I had to hide in my city, I could not move out  in spite of having done no wrong – for just having a political opinion. But the way, that people fought back was phenomenal. And it is not going to end with these two universities. As I said, it is part of the RSS’ agenda to go after all universities. But in the process, they have activated the students’ movement. A new generation has got politicised. It is upto us where we take it to. Tomorrow, when the BJP is no longer in power, it is not as if these people, the generation which has got politicised, will sit back in their rooms. You have activated them, you have made them critical thinking rational people and tomorrow whichever government is in power, they will question it. That, for me, has been the most significant phenomenon.

As students of history, when we look back at the 1960s and 1970s – the anti-Vietnam War protests, universities being avenues of protest, people taking to the streets, a lot of movements happening even outside the traditional mainstram communist fold because of the stagnation and revisionism of the communist parties at that time.You had new questions being raised related to ecology, gender, queer rights, etc – the new  social movements of post–industrialized countries. This led to a certain different sort of politicisation. In India, we similarly had the Naxalbari movement where students wete leaving universities to join the political struggle. This period seems quite similar to it. With the fascists in power, these are the worst of times, but with the kind of protests we are seeing these are also the best of times.

Pic-credit: Azhar Amin

Malavika Binny
is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She specializes in Ancient History and her research interests include, gender, caste, histories of science, medical traditions and architecture. She has published articles in national and international academic and non-academic journals and loves walking barefoot in the rain.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anon #

    Some questions for Umar Khalid: Can democracy not be understood as the mechanism to make radicalism redundant? Ideologically, the move towards democratization is in itself a radical one, for it calls for structural transformation. But where democratic institutions (if perhaps not the democratic spirit) are entrenched, isn’t a politics of radicalism inimical to democracy? Isn’t the task ahead of us more to make democratic institutions work? Radical politics has a place where democratic institutions and policy have failed. If you believe so, then why not openly denounce democracy? It is time to end this doublespeak on democracy and radicalism.

    April 13, 2016
  2. A #

    Some questions for Umar Khalid: Can democracy not be understood as the mechanism to make radicalism redundant? Ideologically, the move towards democratization is in itself a radical one, for it calls for structural transformation. But where democratic institutions (if perhaps not the democratic spirit) are entrenched, isn’t a politics of radicalism inimical to democracy? Isn’t the task ahead of us more to make democratic institutions work? Radical politics has a place where democratic institutions and policy have failed. If you believe so, then why not openly denounce democracy? It is time to end this doublespeak on democracy and radicalism.

    April 13, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: