Umar Khalid, the very familiar name that haunts political discourse of the country right now is no longer just the name of an individual, it is the name given to a certain kind of politics that dares to question the very nature of political power. It is the label for a refreshingly different political discourse (largely youth- driven) that seems to be taking root on Indian soil owing to an unprecedented rise of the right that this decade has been a witness to. The political despair that the country was catapulted into, post-2014 is what this new phenomenon called Umar Khalid seeks to address in myriad ways.
Iqra Raza spoke to Umar Khalid for Muslim Mirror. In this tete-e-tete, Khalid told about present political scenario and his future plan of action.
Any opposition to the government’s metanarrative is Umar Khalid, so is any attempt at redressing the many issues plaguing the society today, attempting a new discourse is being Umar Khalid, giving politics a new vocabulary is also Umar Khalid. This name, along with a yet another name (that of Kanhaiya Kumar) has managed to not just equip the youth with a discursive tool but also created a fertile ground for the emergence of an alternative politics that the country is in a dire need of. And this is the very reason why, despite holding a doctorate in history from one of the most prestigious institutions of the country, Dr Khalid does not see academia as a potential career option just now, “Because of the circumstances, we have been catapulted into a situation from where there shouldn’t be any going back. The situation today demands an active intervention. And if you’re silent about it then it just means that you’re fine with the status quo, and I am not fine with it at all.”
Probed further on the kind of intervention he is talking about, Dr Khalid responds that electoral intervention is definitely required, but it cannot happen and indeed, must not happen in an ideological vacuum. Any electoral intervention should be a part of a larger social movement since, he says “Change happens through social movements and history of the country is witness to that. Ours is a larger ideological fight about the way we define the future of India. The Constitution of India and the constitution of morality that Ambedkar aspired to bring to India, will that be there or will a majoritarian morality and majoritarian system take over?”
And he sees positive signs in the unprecedented youth- led mass movements that rattled the country to a new political consciousness a number of times in the last five years, in spite of the Hindutva forces seeking to curb all such movements. And as he points out, India is reaching a tipping point. There are issues that have been brought to the forefront now- unemployment, farmer suicides, fund cuts in universities, attacks on intellectuals, and of course violence against the minorities. The challenge now, he believes is to ensure a better co- ordination among movements. “That’s what I am trying to do right now. We need to build a network of various social movements. . . Muslims cannot fight this battle alone. We need to talk of all forms of injustice- economic issues, cultural issues and the issue of Hindutva. We are one of the worst victims of structural inequality and that’s what the Sachar committee report also highlighted. When we bring this to foreground, we link ourselves to other dispossessed groups. Dalits and the issue of manual scavenging, for one. When we talk of Us and Them, Us is the unity of the oppressed and Them is the oppressor” he explains.
On the question of these large scale movements not translating into electoral numbers, he says that we need to call out the opposition as well. It is the self- serving nature of mainstream opposition that could not understand the gravity of the assault that our country is facing.
He vehemently denies the existence of any real opposition from within the mainstream parties and says that, it was and it still is the common people who hold the reigns to alternative politics. Recognising that there is a vacuum of opposition, he says “If BJP made Muslims electorally irrelevant by busting the myth of there being a Muslim vote bank and showing us our place numerically, the opposition has done so discursively. All political parties, barring a few have abandoned Muslims. We have become political orphans. The void can only be filled with the emergence of a new political leadership from within the Muslim community.”
Dr Khalid however, also believes that oppositional vacuum isn’t the only challenge. It is the vacuum of ideas that poses a greater challenge. He adds that the Muslims aren’t merely a religious group, but a socio- religious group as the Sachar Committee rightly pointed out, a group of certain people facing systematic marginalisation and persecution. Hence, he believes it is important for us today to anchor our politics within the socio- economical milieu as well. While identity may be one aspect of it, it is not the only aspect- something the proliferation of media narratives post the JNU incident have reduced him to, and keep reminding him of.
To this end, his participation in the recent movement #ProphetofCompassion garnered a lot of negative attention. Seen by many as an articulation of his religious identity rather than extension of solidarity with an oppressed group, his comment drew hatred, as usual earning him the ire of Hindutva forces who have never shied away from labelling him a “jihadi” and a “Pakistani”.
However, for Dr Khalid, his participation was necessary not only because he happens to belong to a community that is under threat but because it is under threat. Quoting Changez from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he says “’You had the freedom to choose a side. For me, the side was already chosen’. My political consciousness is not a result of the privilege of knowledge, but circumstances. Against this backdrop of violence, you cannot not be political. It is not a choice but everyday existence… I believed that my political beliefs were Universalist. I thought this is unjust that’s why I’m taking this position but they continue to remind me every day that I’m a Muslim that’s why I’m taking this position.”
Much to the displeasure of the forces that constantly feel the need to bring his religious identity to the forefront, he says “I won’t disown my Muslim identity. This is the ideological fight we are fighting. We didn’t go to Pakistan even when we had the option to. All of us Muslims will have stories where we had the option to go but we stayed back and today people tell us that no this is not your country. This is exactly the battle that we are fighting. I consider myself a minority within a minority, i.e. a Muslim who is educated and that’s why I feel an additional responsibility.”
the way ahead is through alternative politics. He stresses on a need for a thriving civil society within the Muslim community. Artists, writers, researchers, film- makers, students- people who will be the opinion makers of tomorrow need to brainstorm and strategize. The rage that we are full of can be sublimated into something constructive and productive. “Being enraged is not enough. It just means you have some humanity left in you” he added.