New Delhi: For the last three years, Umar Khalid has not written much in his PhD thesis about the land alienation of the tribals in Jharkhand.
But the series of events unfolding in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over the last 12 days have certainly highlighted his image as a student leader — an ambition that he has harboured ever since he landed on the campus seven years ago after graduating from Delhi University.
Before immersing himself in university politics, Umar was known as a cricketer in Kiroli Mal College where he did his BA. “He had to choose between cricket and politics and he chose the latter because of his sensitivity towards the marginalised,” a friend said.
Umar shot into the limelight as one of the organisers of the event held in JNU on Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s death anniversary on February 9 where the alleged anti-national sloganeering resulted in the suspension of eight students from JNU and the arrest of JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition.
His friends say, in their conversations over puffs of cigarettes, Umar seemed more than ready to land in police custody for a long grilling session after resurfacing on campus. But his friends hope the case against him doesn’t make for a jail term and he gets away.
He has been evading media queries perhaps, in accordance, with his lawyer’s advice. Many other students too in the university are not speaking to reporters.
A leader of ultra-Leftist Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) till November 2015, Umar has never contested union elections but his friends consider him one of the most vocal voices on the campus who often raised issues about social justice.
On the day of the “anti-national” event that he allegedly organised, Umar was part of the hunger strike on JNU campus demanding justice for Rohith Vemula — the Dalit student of the University of Hyderabad who allegedly committed suicide last month.
“He has always been one of those students who think that academics should be used to help oppressed sections of the society,” one of Umar’s friends, who is now pursuing a PhD in the US, said.
Those close to him say he never played his Muslim identity even though he comes from a perceived conservative family. In his blog, Umar comes across as an atheist and wants to work for all marginalised communities including Muslims.
“He is just being targeted because of his religion which he never practises. His image and extreme left political leaning make for a perfect image of a Muslim radical. Thankfully, he trimmed his beard,” another friend said.
Joyeeta Dey, a family friend, wrote on her Facebook page on February 16 that she heard Umar’s sister saying on many occasions that her brother was a “communist pagal” and how he caused grief to his family by renouncing religion.
“He is a Muslim only by name. He did not choose to take the path of his father Qasim Rasool Ilyas. He resigned from DSU over its insensitivity on gender and Dalit issues,” a teacher at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, who knows Umar since college, said.