I have come home a little while ago from Jawaharlal Nehru University after listening to Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya take back the night. As I drove home through the quiet streets of Delhi after midnight it occurred to me that somebody should whisper into Narendra Modi’s ear that he should now start stocking up on sleeping pills. (Maybe Baba Ramdev’s enterprise makes some that he could prescribe to the Prime Minister, unadulterated). With young people like Umar and Anirban as his adversaries, the Prime Minister can only have sleepless nights ahead of him. It is perhaps fortunate for him that the team from Madame Tussaud’s came by and did their job yesterday. Because from now on, his real skin tone will only envy the lustre of his wax work. Umar and Anirban, and their friends, took away the little remaining shine that Modi had left at midnight.
The matter of the continuing detention of Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharjee, two students of Jawahar Lal Nehru University, was heard in a Delhi sessions court this afternoon. The arguments in Umar and Anirban’s defence, made, systematically, methodically, with adroit attention to legal detail, by their advocates, Jawahar Raja and Trideeb Pius, convinced the honorable judge that not only do Umar and Anirban deserve bail, but also that no decision about whether or not an offense under Section124A (the law of sedition) can be made out against the two accused needs to be taken at this stage. The bail order read, without rhetorical flourishes, without references to film songs or medical theories, like a bail order should, attentive to points of law, sensitive to questions of justice and judicial propriety. The combined might of large sections of the media, the state apparatus, and a vicious public witch-hunt – all of which were bent on painting Umar and Anirban as nothing short of ‘terrorists’ buckled against the weight of their steadfast refusal to implicate themselves or anyone else in complicity with cooked up charges, the solidarity of all those, students, faculty and others who stood by them, and the clear, reasonable arguments of their advocates. The very heartiest of congratulations are in order, to Umar, Anirban and their families, comrades and friends, to the legal team that represented them, and to the thousands of students, teachers and others who have stood by them, in JNU, in Delhi, across India, and indeed all over the world.
And regardless of whether or not News X, Zee News and Times Now once again predictably fail in their journalistic responsibilities by not giving an accurate report to their viewers about what actually went down at the Admin Block (rechristened ‘Freedom Square’) last night, by the time the sun rises, video uploads of Umar’s and Anirban’s speeches will have already gone viral down the alleys, eddies and wind-swept sands of social media. Millions of people will know, by listening to two exceptionally intelligent, brave and humorous young men as they sip their morning tea, that this regime’s days are numbered. We can start counting days till the Modi regime falls like the badly sculpted statue of a mediocre dictator of a banana republic after a peoples’ uprising.
The challenge that Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNUSU, had thrown to this evil regime in his post-bail speech a few days ago came bouncing back when Umar and Anirban spoke a few hours ago, like a storm returning to the shore bearing the memory of a wave. When they spoke, Umar and Anirban put their shoulder to the wheel. They made history take a crazy, beautiful new turn. Everyone who was there at JNU listening to them, watched and felt things turn. We were all transformed.
Will the spooks in plain clothes who must have been lurking behind trees and pillars, conspicuous with their shoes, bush shirts and safari suits be writing worried notes through the night to their superiors, even as those like me sit through the night taking stock of what we just witnessed? I imagine them whispering into the crackle of their walkie talkies – “Boss mamla bigad gaya hai. Yeh Umar, Anirban, Kanhaiya, Shehla, Naga aur Asutosh, aur yeh Rohith Vemula ki rooh, aur na jane, aur kaun, yeh sab sarkar ko mazaak bana diye hain. Modi ji ki to khilli ud gayi hai. Aur sangh to bilkul expoje ho gaya, unki to half pant hi utar gayi. Isliye ab full pant par aye hain. Aur boss, kai jagah to ham bhi hans padhey, in baaghi cchatron ko sunte-sunte, kai jagah to ham bhi ro padhey. Bahut dam hai is Umar aur Anirban ki baton mein. Man mein ajeeb si deshdrohi gud-gudi ho rahi thi boss, apne aap. Yun hi. Karein to cya karin”
[ “Boss things have gone all wrong. This Umar, Anirban, Kanhaiya, Shehla, Naga and Asutosh, this haunting spirit of Rohith Vemula, and who knows how many more – they have all made a joke out of the government. Modiji has been made into a laughing stock. And the Sangh (RSS) is totally exposed, they have dropped their half pants (thats why they are thinking of trousers). And boss, in some places these rebel students made me laugh, they even made me cry. There’s substance in what Umar and Anirban are saying. It makes for a a crazy seditious tickling feeling under my skin, just like that.So what the hell should I do?” ]
The air crackled more than the walkie-talkies of plain clothes policemen do. It crackled with an infectious electricity. I saw faces bright with the infection of ‘azaadi’. I saw a nocturnal bouquet of gleaming blue Ambedkarite and red Communist flags fluttering together in the cool breeze like the festoons of some primeval rite of spring. I heard laughter, slogans and songs. I saw dancing. I saw tears of joy. I saw a sea of luminous eyes and smiles. I saw a young woman cradle a sleeping feral puppy and raise the loudest of slogans next to me. The puppy slept blissfully, knowing it was safe. The students were as awake as they could possibly be, and they too knew that tonight, they were safe, that Umar and Anirban were safe, and safe home. No one looked tired or exhausted, not even Umar or Anirban, who had just come back from a month in jail.
Earlier in the afternoon, Anupam Kher, Modi’s court jester, had come to JNU on a ‘pest control’ mission, to show a bad film and attempt to feed his hungry narcissism. I do not think he went away satisfied. After all, he had to face a gathering of mostly empty chairs. I hope he comes again, and listens, for a change. Picture flop nikli. But no one stopped him. No one was rude to him. He tried to squeeze some milage out of what he thought was the absurdity of giving a heroes welcome to people out on bail. He forgot, that the BJP president, Amit Shah was out on bail when he was elected president of his party.
Meanwhile, by late afternoon, everyone had heard the news of the bail order, and JNU began celebrating. Holi, the festival of vibrant colours, began a few days earlier than usual. The spring whose arrival I had first noticed on the 13th and 14h of February, when the campus had just begun to find its language of solidarity for Kanhayia (who had just been detained) and the other students who had gone underground (including Umar and Anirban) had become by now a heady, strong, intoxication in the air. Aaj masti thi. Rang tha. And like the song says, aaj fir jeene ki tamanna thi, aaj fir marne ka irada tha.
Umar spoke about everything. About the things that worried Anirban and him in jail. About the barbs he was thrown about having a Muslim name. Umar spoke again with great feeling about being reduced (like Rohith Vemula had said) to his ‘immediate identity’. But he gave this declaration a very profound depth this time. He said “what if I were, in fact, a believing Muslim, a bearded, skull cap wearing young man from Azamgarh, what would have happened to me, and what would I have experienced”, he underlined the need for all of us to stand with solidarity with any person unjustly confined against their will, regardless of their identity, regardless of whether or not they were believers, agnostics or atheists, regardless of whether they held opinions that we might disagree with.
He spoke condemning the slogans of ‘bharat ki barbaadi tak jang rahegi, jang rahegi’ that had been raised by some people on the 9th of February at the fringes of the programme ‘Country without a Post Office’, that he, Anirban and their friends had organized. But then he said, that the real reason why the RSS must be so mad at the airing of this slogan is because it amounted to a momentary distraction away from the fact that if anyone can take this country towards ‘barbaadi’ (‘destruction’) it can only be the RSS and its ‘parivar’ (family), and so, they are really cut up about having to share the credit for ‘barbaadi’ with any competitor. This had the audience roar with approval. And then Umar said, if a battle has to continue, it will do so until the RSS is destroyed. Because RSS ki Barbaadi mein hi Bharat ki Aabadi hai. The word Aabadi means both population as well as prosperity. We could say it suggests the ‘well being’ that lets a people be themselves, realize themselves. It is in this sense that Umar held out to his listeners the clear vision of a society free of the fascist, casteist, communal and hierarchical stain of the RSS. The ‘Aabadi’ of JNU, the assembled mass of students, had no problem understanding what Umar meant.
Umar ended his speech by taking Narendra Modi head on. He referred to the prime minister’s speech yesterday in a forum of so-called Sufis calling for peace. Umar said “Modi’s peace is the peace of the graveyard, a state of being bereft of justice”. He asked us all to disrupt this false peace, this unjust stable tranquility. He reminded us, paraphrasing Bhagat Singh, that a state of war already exists – the war of those in power against those without power, a war by the state against students in JNU, against workers in the Maruti factory, against adivasis (indigenous people) being driven out of jal-jangal-jameen (water-forest-land) by big capital, against soldiers made to fight unjust wars and battles, and against women, against dalits, against minorities, even against animals (he was referring to the violence unleashed by BJP politicians against a horse in Uttarakhand) and against everyone who questions the brute force of power and money.
A special round of applause broke out when Umar’s little sister, Sarah Fatima, made her own impromptu speech, saluting her brother, his friend, Anirban, Kanhaiya and the brave students of JNU. She reminded everyone that the struggle will not end until every person gets justice, until Prof. S.A.R Geelani, Saibaba and all other political prisoners are released. Her immense confidence, her pluck, her total faith in the love of all the young people around her made this twelve year old girl the mistress of her moment. I have seen her before, in rallies and marches, carrying flowers and signs in support of Umar and all the detained students, and what has always struck me is her beaming smile. She never looked the part of the suffering family member of a person in prison. She looked like a kid full of beans, eager to take on the world. Her optimism, her courage and her gentle, beautiful audacity will remain an inspiration. It will help us find ways to keep our spirits high whenever things look down.
When Anirban’s turn to speak came he started by leading the crowd through a whole host of slogans. His slight, frail frame, and quiet voice took sprung into a high octane, high velocity string of words that curved spiraled as they rose like the flight-path of some magnificent bird. Once the slogans were done, Anirban came back to his down-to-earth, friendly, resolute self. He spoke about how a lot of policemen had asked him, “Yeh Umar Khalid ka mamla to samajh mein aata hai, par Bhattacharjee, aap ?”, “We can see what makes Umar Khalid involved in all of this, but what dragged you into this mess” proving, as Umar had said earlier, that they were actually far more annoyed with his three fold treason – from his assumed religious identity, nationality and caste. Interspersed with anecdotes about the strange interplay between the real and the surreal aspects of their experiences in the last days, Anirban built up to a rousing set of rhetorical challenges – “If the taking away of the mid day meal from the starving, drought stricken peasants of bundelkhand is nationalism, then, yes, we are anti-national”, “if the suppression of the rights of maruti workers is nationalism, then, yes, we are anti-national”, “if the farce of ‘Make in India’ that sells a phone that doesn’t work with a tricolor screen made in China is nationalism, then we are anti-national”, “if the screaming of the cries of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ by VHP goons while raping Christian nuns in Odisha is nationalism, then we are anti-national”, and so on.
Anirban and Umar reminded their audience that the real reason why the Modi regime and the RSS-BJP-ABVP hate them is because they think. As Umar said, quoting a poem by Brecht, (and obliquely referring to the proposal to station tanks in universities to install ‘patriotic’ feelings) the real problem with JNU, and with all the universities and public education that the BJP government is trying to destroy (by slashing UGC support to the tune of 55%) is that they are all places in which young people think.
General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.
Anirban ended by asking us to keep that ‘criticality’, that power of questioning alive. The night ended as every night must, with questions and song.
And so, a day of great expectations has ended in a night of celebration. And now its almost dawn.
Perhaps the morning that comes after this night will bring with it a new set of challenges. Perhaps the regime will ratchet up its venality. Perhaps it will go after teachers. Perhaps it will find new targets, other places of learning to march into. Or, perhaps it will realize that there is some wisdom in just letting things be. Perhaps it will rein in the dogs of war and viciousness it has unleashed. Perhaps it will build more statues, plant more flagpoles, destroy more flood-plains and forests to please cults and clients. Perhaps it will continue to waste our time. Whatever it does, it will know, that we, the people, have tasted the sweetness of a small but significant victory. And we are hungry for more.
Umar and Anirban are home. I hope they are sleeping well. I hope their comrades have resisted the temptation to keep them up through the night to tell them one more story about Tihar Jail. They need rest, and all the energy they can gather. because this is just the beginning.
Abhi to bas angrai hai… (this is just a flexing of muscle)
You know the rest of the slogan, don’t you?
Wouldn’t it be appropriate to end a great day and a happy night with a song. This one goes out to Umar and Anirban. From all of us. [Thank you Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.]
Jai Bhim. Lal Salaam. Inquilab Zindabad.
[ PS : This afternoon, on the day after Umar and Anirban’s return last night, news came of the release of Prof. SAR Geelani on bail. It looks like Sarah Fatima’s wishes (and the hopes of millions of others) are being realized, one by one. ]