Why it’s important to talk about the attack on Umar Khalid

New Delhi: Since Monday afternoon, every time you click on a news website or switch to a news channel, the name Umar Khalid pops up. That’s because, just two days before the country celebrates its 72nd Independence day, there was an attempt to kill Khalid at the Constitution Club in the high security area near Parliament.

Who is Umar Khalid?

Khalid is a student of PhD in JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies who became a known face after he was slapped with sedition charges along with nine other students, including then JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, for allegedly organising an event to protest against the “judicial killing” of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat at the Jawaharlal Nehru University on February 9, 2016. It is alleged that anti-India slogans were raised at the event.

The same year, Khalid and two other students were expelled by the varsity along with the imposition of fine on Kumar.

This year, on July 6, JNU’s high-level inquiry committee imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 on Kanhaiya Kumar in connection with the event and upheld Khalid’s expulsion. However, Khalid challenged the order in the court and JNU was told not to take any coercive action against Khalid till the next date of hearing — August 16.

“An administration that has been running at the orders of the ruling BJP and the RSS, was at no point of time in a position of impartiality to conduct this enquiry. The court has repeatedly found faults with the enquiry process and has vindicated our apprehensions,” Khalid wrote in a Facebook post after the JNU panel upheld his rustication.

Two weeks back, a fresh row erupted after JNU refused to accept Khalid’s PhD submission on the Adivasis of Jharkhand. He said, “This is another level of vendetta. I will definitely not pay the fine… I will contest this further.”

The attack

An unidentified man shot at the JNU student leader in broad daylight on Monday at around 2pm. Khalid was at the venue to attend “Khauff Se Azaadi” event, put together by an organisation called “United Against Hate”.

According to an eyewitness, Khalid and some others were standing at a nearby tea stall when the man approached him, pushed him and opened fire. However, Khalid slipped and remained unhurt. The assailant then fired in the air and fled.

As the incident sent the national media into a tizzy, the Delhi police, it appeared, tried to downplay it. The police said the man whipped out a pistol but didn’t open fire. And they are trying to locate him. “Somebody pounced on Umar Khalid and pushed him, thereafter he tried to fire at Khalid. But the person couldn’t do so. People chased him away. According to Khalid, the attacker fired in the air,” Madhur Verma, Deputy Commissioner of Police, said.

Why is it important to talk about it?

After the attack on Monday, Khalid said that although the attempt to kill him ahead of an event organised against hate crimes was “ironic”, it was not surprising. “I was very scared at that moment when he pointed that gun at me. That moment I was being reminded of what happened to Gauri Lankesh. I thought that moment has arrived. I am very thankful for my friends who overpowered him and my life was saved,” he added.

Lankesh, a journalist known for being a critic of right-wing Hindu extremism, was shot to death by unknown assailants outside her home in Bengaluru in 2017.

In the past, Khalid has spoken out openly against Gauri Lankesh’s murder. “Enraged and shocked by the assassination of Gauri Lankesh who was a vocal critic of Hindutva fascist forces. To me, she was more than just a journalist. She was a strong supporter of the JNU movement,” the JNU student leader had said.

He has also been a vocal critic of PM Narendra Modi and and the BJP government on various occassions. “The myth around Modi is fading. The balloon of Prime Minister Modi has burst. The credit goes to the youth, students, farmers, labourers and minorities who played the role of opposition, which was missing inside the Parliament,” he had said while addressing the Yuva Hunkaar Rally at Parliament Street in New Delhi this year.

On Tuesday, Khalid issued a statement regarding the attack and posted on Twitter, “Modiji, you had asked for suggestions for your I-Day speech. I have a suggestion to make – can you please state that you guarantee that there will be no attack on those who criticize your government and its many failures,” Mr Khalid said in a post on social media.

In his Facebook post, he said the attempted gun attack on him on Monday was to “scare us into silence”. “What does ”freedom” even mean if the citizens of this country have to be ready to die for their ”crime” of just being vocal against injustice.

“The fact that two days before Independence Day, in one of the most ”high security” zones of the national capital, an armed assailant could dare to attack me in broad daylight only goes onto show the brazen impunity that some people feel they enjoy under the present regime.”

But is it really wrong to speak out against the government or the Prime Minister of your country? Is it okay to be scared to speak and still celebrate the 72nd Independence day of our ‘democratic’ nation? Is it okay to be scared to eat a particular kind of meat? Should we actually be scared of people roaming around in saffron robes or white skull caps?

Since 1992, 47 journalists have been killed in India, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit organisation that campaigns for the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. The 47 in 16 years work out to an average of three journalists killed a year. RSF (Reporters Without Borders), another nonprofit organisation that defends the freedom of the press, has ranked India at 138 among 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index for 2018, down two places from the previous year.

Shujaat Bukhari, Dhabolkar, Pansare, Lankesh, Kalburgi, Mohd Akhlaq, Rakbar Khan…how many more names should be added to this list for us to wake up?

Before it gets too late, maybe now is the time to raise our voice, remember and exercise five most basic liberties listed in the Constitution under the Bill of Rights – Freedom of religion, Freedom of speech, Freedom of the press, Freedom of assembly, Freedom to petition the government to right wrongs.