Letters to Umar Khalid and modes of remembering: Only our radical memory will defeat official malignancy 

We cannot forget, because forgetting is defeat

NH photo by Vipin
NH photo by Vipin
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Annie Domini/IPA

In a deleted tweet posted a few days ago, jailed scholar Dr Umar Khalid’s father, Dr S Q R Ilyas, said his son is spending his prison time reading, writing and collecting his thoughts. Some of us who retweeted it in momentary relief, or saved it in our bookmarks to return to, to soothe somewhat our extreme shame, guilt and helplessness at seeing a scintillating mind such as Khalid ‘languishing’ in jail, soon found the tweet removed, and a dead link lurking in its place.

Perhaps, it’s wrong to invoke this former tweet; perhaps, Khalid’s father, after expressing his temporary calm, felt it immediately threatened by an outside glance, by eyeballs both thankful and resentful, by those who might vengefully take away this little tether to his son’s glorious mind. What if his moment of relief and sharing it with the well-wishers becomes the very reason his son is deprived of that tiny intellectual oasis? What if the books and the notebook and the pen are taken away from him? It’s precisely this fearful thought that this writer shares with the proud and afraid father, and the restless soul inside the prison walls.

Nevertheless, that ex-tweet is important, even in its faint echo. The relief, much like the pain, is unspeakable; precisely why, it must be remembered. Memory —vital, resistant, everyday remembering, thinking aloud, in mind and in script, talking back and forth, writing letters even if they don’t instantaneously reach the intended, open letters that are read much later like a dried flower in between pages of an old book — is key. We cannot forget, because forgetting is defeat.

Letters are being written to Umar Khalid. His friends from the university, mostly, his co-conspirators in this conspiracy of intellectual brightness, the coup d’état on collective dumbing down, are writing to him. They are also remembering themselves, in an exercise of unforgetting, un-normalising Umar’s physical absence from the university premises, gazing at photographs saved on their phones, cameras, laptops, published in innumerable websites with a heroic halo. Umar, as they knew him, debating love, compassion and revolution, breathing life into dogma while sipping university chai at one of JNU’s several landmark stalls. Unforgetting Umar is part of the revolution.

The letters reveal a throbbing collective, a camaraderie so beautifully grounded in shared readings, meals and journeys. There are inside jokes, quips and nods to the specialness of the bonds. There’s a hint of grief, but well-packaged in the promised pact to draw it out, this waiting together for light. There’s meditation on “doing time”, almost Proustian in its contemplative nature. There’s balm in those words for Umar’s restlessness: pause Umar, slow down dost, his friends tell him. They are slowing down themselves, collecting their thoughts, rejuvenating. Soon, when it’s time again, they will walk and they will fly and they will talk and they will be heard. He will be heard.

While a few older public intellectuals have hailed Umar as someone to watch out for “despite being a Muslim”, his friends and his teachers at the university have laughed at such backhanded and snide ‘compliments’ in derision. What a strange way to frame a mind like Umar, they said. From the 2016 sedition case to the 2020 UAPA chargesheet, which 11,000 pages has been dubbed one of the longest works of (terrible) fiction by his friends Anirban and Aswathi, letters to Umar have been aplenty. The eager student, the charming friend, the boy with the golden heart and the impish smile, the orator who got gooseflesh before speaking in public, the student who became the ‘doctor of philosophy’ examining the colonial anthropological gaze on certain Adivasis and their resistance to being mere subjects of history-writing by others — all that and so much more is Umar Khalid to them. They don’t need any savarna stamp from election-walahs, chained to electoral Darwinism of the Indian kind.


Umar’s speeches, whether delivered in 2016 or 2020, always talk to love. Love is such a radical instrument of getting people together. The wretched of the earth need food, shelter and love. Love is warm and healing. Listening to Umar’s speeches could make you tear up — at the amazing simplicity of his superlatively complex wisdom, holding multitudes without fear or favour, without pride and prejudice. Power of love always makes the powerful sitting atop blood-stained thrones afraid, very afraid. Jailing Umar has the tell-tale signs of that visceral fear the State feels.

Letters to Umar relive those speeches; they link back in the retellings the moments in which Umar spoke and how. They know even the hordes of haters would be compelled to pay Umar the respect he deserves once they listened to him; hence, the attempts to shut him up, lock him up, tie him up in slow time. The TV anchors and the two-penny trolls, just two sides of the same coin — the State-Industrial-Hate-Complex.

Many are finding parallels between The Trial of Chicago Seven and the present moment. It’s a parable of a parallel. Conscientious resistance, when it’s happening, is branded many things by the State: public nuisance (roads are blocked) to terrorism. But the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. considered it their biggest service to their countries and their peoples. Someday, The Trial of Umar Khalid, or The Trial of Bhima-Koregaon Eleven, will be revolutionary anthems too.

India’s first Prime Minister wrote The Discovery of India while in prison. It had been for a long time a postcolonial portal to popular Indian history-writing. Its secular bedrock anchored Indian imagination for four decades, until new books begged to be written as Babri Masjid was torn down. What will Umar Khalid write?

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