One late afternoon we enter a PhD student’s room at Tapti Hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in south Delhi. This is Umar Khalid’s residence. The same Umar Khalid whose invitation last month to the ‘The Culture of Protest’ seminar in Delhi University’s Ramjas College set off violent protests, counter-protests and prime time news coverage.
A 29-year-old Left-leaning student leader, Khalid, was briefly arrested in February 2016 on charges of sedition for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans in JNU. Since then, he has been frequently painted as an ‘anti-national’ in sections of the media.
Wanting to know the man behind the headlines, we arranged to meet Khalid at his hostel (he requested us not to reveal his room number for safety concerns).
Khalid has been living off and on in Tapti for five years. His small room looks even more congested because of his collection of books. We spot Karl Marx.
“That’s actually a collection of the notes Marx made when he was reading material to write Capital,” says Khalid. “Grundrisse is basically a fragmentary collection of his extremely rich reflections... time and again I pick it up, read some parts and keep it back...only to read some other parts some other day.”
The shelf includes authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Orhan Pamuk, including books by anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar, whose portrait hangs on the door.
We also spot Arundhati’s Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. Khalid read it the second time in Tihar Jail last year. “Tihar seemed the best place to go back to the novel. My afternoons there were reserved for Roy’s beautiful, haunting words, while the first half was spent trying to get a sense of the turmoil outside the jail… we would watch TV news and read newspapers.”
Khalid was in jail with Anirban Bhattacharya, another JNU student imprisoned along with him on the same charges. Both students are out on bail; the trial for sedition is yet to begin.
As the evening sets in, Khalid takes us to the hostel’s roof through a creaky spiral staircase. The view is breathtaking. It is impossible to imagine that this, too, is Delhi. JNU is tucked in an idyllic landscape of rocks and greens. The sun has already set but the westward sky is washed in kitschy orange.
Such a sight is impossible to imagine in Khalid’s room downstairs. The only window looks inwards into another wing of the hostel. Even so, this cramped shabby room is one of Khalid’s most special places in the world.
“My room has acquired its present character over the years from various people and books who have been here… it is with them I have spent hours joking, talking, debating,” he says.
“I wish that those, who have made their views on me from hearing the news anchors, could visit this room and chat with me here. Then they might perhaps realize I’m not the person the TV wants them to believe I am.”