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Prisoners of conscience

After spending over 1,000 days in prison, Umar Khalid has become the face of moral resistance. Every day that he and others like him spend in prison tarnishes the image of India as a just nation

Tushar Gandhi Published 15.10.23, 08:35 AM
Umar Khalid

Umar Khalid Sourced by the Telegraph

If our rulers are doing, what, in your opinion, is wrong, and if we feel it our duty to let them hear our voice though it may be considered seditious, I urge upon you to speak sedition — but at your peril. You must be prepared to suffer the consequences.” — M. K. Gandhi, Writings and Speeches of Mahatma Gandhi

In recent times, there have been many occasions when what Bapu said has become very necessary and relevant and has attracted the kind of consequences Bapu warned of for those who courageously told the rulers that they are wrong and their authoritarianism will not be tolerated. The government’s attempts to impose the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and implement the National Register of Citizens were blatantly discriminatory and, quite rightly, caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the Muslim minority. Spontaneous protests took place nationwide. The historic Shaheen Bagh sit-in took place in Delhi. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia also launched protests. To their credit, the protests were non-violent and peaceful. The police and the administration used violent means to break up the protests. Finally, communal riots were engineered to break up the protests and persecute the protestors. Several arrests were made; students conducting and participating in non-violent protests were charged and arrested with the help of severe laws enacted for use against terrorists and gangsters. The arrests and detention under these laws have a strategic purpose: to circumvent the legal safeguards provided in the statutes. Under these special laws, the police can delay filing charge sheets and yet keep the accused in custody. Their trials can be delayed almost indefinitely so that those charged and incarcerated are denied an opportunity to prove their innocence. Bail, which is their right, is denied to them, ensuring that they suffer the punishment of incarceration for an alleged crime. The police acting not according to established procedures but on the orders of their political bosses often file multiple frivolous charges to delay the process of justice. When they file a charge sheet, they ensure that it runs into thousands of pages, knowing that the court is obligated to read the entire charge sheet and that this takes a huge amount of time, thereby prolonging injustice. They do all this knowing that when the trial eventually begins, they are not going to be able to sustain their trumped-up charges and the cases filed by them will be easily dismissed. So their tactic is to play for time and, in doing so, waste young lives. It is time we have a mechanism by which the police are punished and the administration is fined for filing trumped-up or false charges. Compensation must also be given to those who are found not guilty as charged.


There have been instances of people accused by the police of serious charges being acquitted by courts because the prosecution’s case against the accused was found to be unsustainable. Many of those who have eventually been proven innocent languished in prisons for decades. Abdul Wahid Sheikh is one such victim. He was accused of being a terrorist, charged, arrested and imprisoned for the 2006 serial blasts in local trains in Mumbai. Abdul, a schoolteacher, was mercilessly tortured and spent nine long years in prison till the court found that Abdul was innocent. Even though Abdul was freed, his life was ruined and his family reduced to penury. Today, Abdul fights for justice for others similarly languishing in prison.

Unfortunately, our legal system is so overburdened and so inadequate that cases get indefinitely prolonged in courts and those accused and imprisoned end up spending much of their productive life languishing in jail, many a times spending as much or even more time in prison than the quantum of punishment they would have to undergo for the crime they are charged with. Many Muslims as well as social and political activists have suffered due to this lacuna in our justice delivery system. Many remain incarcerated because of such denial of justice, unlamented and unknown.

Father Stan Swamy, an old, frail Christian priest working amongst poor tribals, was charged with waging war against the nation and incarcerated. His trial was delayed and he was denied bail despite his advanced age and frail and failing health. He was even denied basic amenities. He died languishing in prison.

Many activists who were at the forefront of the anti-CAA/anti-NRC protests have been arrested and falsely charged. Similar tactics have been utilised to delay their trials indefinitely. Most prominent amongst them is Umar Khalid, a research scholar. In the aftermath of the Delhi riots of February 2020, Khalid was arrested and multiple charges and cases were filed against him. The police accused him of being the mastermind of the riots. The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was used to prosecute this civil resistor. Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and several others continue to languish in jail. They have been denied a speedy trial. Both Khalid and Imam as well as the others have been absolved by courts in other cases when trials have been allowed to commence. It is ironic that ‘leaders’, ‘saints’, and elected representatives who have incited violence and fomented hate through their venomous speeches delivered in public, and now even in Parliament, are protected.

After having spent over a thousand days in prison, Umar Khalid has become the face of moral and ethical resistance. Every day that he and others like him spend in prison tarnishes the image of India as a just nation. The government, administration, and the police are complicit in denying justice to New India’s conscientious resisters and present-day satyagrahis. The judiciary needs to be reminded that justice delayed is justice denied.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end they always fall. Think of it — always.” — M.K. Gandhi

Tushar Gandhi’s latest book is The Lost Diary of Kastur, My Ba

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