Why some people are not willing to give Umar Khalid the benefit of doubt

The benefit of the doubt is a value judgement that translates to an act of placing trust in someone’s words, even when there are competing reasons to not do so. The benefit is given after weighing the options and duly considering what is at stake. In a court of law, the benefit of the doubt is an extremely important principle because to convict someone without adequate evidence is against the very foundations of justice. But in everyday life, hard evidence is not so easy to come by and healthy scepticism helps us survive and live in peace.

Likewise, in political matters, before giving someone the benefit of the doubt, it is imperative to place the individual in the right frame of reference, failing which our judgement is likely to be swayed by rhetoric and propaganda. In this article, I will try to put together the relevant historical context against which the recent events in Delhi University may be studied and interpreted and in doing so, I will spend lesser time on the current trivialities and more on the preceding historical trajectory.

Father, son and the holy cause

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Umar Khalid was in the news last week, just as he was precisely a year ago, when he went absconding after allegedly raising seditious anti-India slogans inside the JNU campus. Umar later surrendered to the police and was soon let out on bail but in the interim, his intriguing familial background came to light. His father was once a member of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), the Jihadi outfit banned in 2001.

To be fair, Umar’s father had quit SIMI in 1985, well before his son was born. Whatever may be the reasons for his departure from SIMI, their involvement in terrorist activities doesn’t seem to be one, which is clear from his claims that the organisation has been unfairly demonized by the intelligence agencies. However, it has been established that the outfit had longstanding connections with global Islamist organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and is also believed to be the progenitor of Indian Mujahideen, a Jihadi group responsible for numerous terror attacks on the Indian soil.

Interestingly, SIMI took birth in Aligarh. Its founder and almost all of its leadership in the years that followed came from the student community of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). In late 2014, the female students of AMU demanded access to the use of the university’s male-only library. The demand was turned down by the vice-chancellor on the pretext of low capacity. However, the statement of the VC was more telling of the underlying ethos that led to such unheard of gender bias on any campus in India. He said that if girls were allowed in the library there would be “four times more boys”. As a result, the library continued to be open to men and inaccessible to women, a practice as old as the library itself.

The fountainhead of Muslim separatism

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (born October 1817) is an extremely important figure in the pre-independence politics of India. Khan was a progressive, westernized and secularized Muslim but these personality traits are not why he is remembered even today. For, he had two separate enormous contributions to make in the field of education and in the realm of ideas. He was the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University and the architect of the two-nation theory, which later led to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Khan launched a reformist movement among the Indian Muslims. This came to known as the Aligarh Movement, the purpose of which was to get the Muslims acquainted with western ideas so as to enable them to participate in the politics of the empire. The main thrust of Khan’s reform was deeply pragmatic, in that he wanted the Muslim society to get up to speed with the sea change that had come about in India with the arrival of the British and to get ahead of the Hindus, who were somehow perceived as getting increasingly influential in the British administrative machinery, courtesy modern education.

Khan also lobbied hard for the use of Urdu as the official language of the government of UP, even though Hindi was the language of the masses. It must be noted that after the reign of Aurangzeb, the Muslim dynasts had given up control of the major portion of the Indian Territory, first to indigenous rulers  like Marathas, Jats and Sikhs and then to the British empire. So, these were all measures for Muslims to regain the administrative control of India, which they believed they were losing to the Hindus, who they had once proudly ruled.

The Middle Ground

As we have seen, the AMU was established to function as the wellspring of intellectual resurgence of Muslims in India. On the political front, the most prominent group was the Muslim League, whose ideology was based on the two nation theory propounded by the founder of AMU. However, the Muslim League was secular in its philosophical vision and had no ambitions of subjecting the populace to Sharia law.

This was a half-hearted move according to Abul Ala Maududi, who went on to found the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose stated aim was the creation of an Islamic State and which advocated the abolition of interest-charged on loans, sexual separation and veiling of women, had penalties such as flogging and amputation for alcohol consumption, theft, fornication, and other crimes. After the partition of India in 1947, the Jamaat split into independent factions representing the newly formed nations. In India, it came to be known as Jamaat-e-Islami-i-Hind (JIH). In this new avatar, it is said to have undergone an ideological transformation from Islamization of India to fighting for the cause of secularism. Interestingly, the Bangladeshi faction of the Jamaat, also the largest political party of the country, was declared unfit to contest elections and in 2013, their registration was cancelled by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh because the party’s charter “puts God above democratic process”.

Coming Full Circle

But why are we discussing all the above? SIMI was formed in 1977 as a student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami-i-Hind. While SIMI was banned due to its terror activities, JIH has remained untouched, maybe because of its alignment with secular values and its consistent condemnation of terrorist attacks in its official statements. On 18 April 2011, JIH launched a new political party in India with the stated mission of striving for value-based politics. The current president of the Welfare Party of India is a soft-spoken man called Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas. He has a son by the name of Umar Khalid, who was in the news last week, just as he was precisely a year ago.

Although we are told that Umar is an avowed communist and a self-proclaimed atheist, he has apparently not drifted too far from the ideals of his father’s hazy past. Umar Khalid was in the news because he was one of the main organisers of an event in the JNU campus commemorating Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist who was convicted for his role in the jihadi attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. After getting arrested, Umar and his supporters made rhetorical appeals to Freedom of Expression, the most fundamental of values in a democratic society, missing the irony that they were using their democratic right to free speech for glorifying the violent attack on the central icon of Indian democracy, the parliament house.

Given the above historical and biographical context and what is at stake for the common citizens of India, it would be no surprise if some of us refuse to give Umar the benefit of the doubt. Exposing the impressionable young minds of Delhi University to Jihadi brainwashing may be far too risky a proposition for the internal security of the country. Sure, Umar’s mere antecedents may not suffice to prove his complicity in abetting terror in a court of law but  public opinion cannot wait endlessly for hard evidence to arrive, which may come in the form of a death knell. As Umar’s favourite professors are wont to say, the truth is eluding all of us and in a way, we are all wrong. The choice before us is to err on the side of danger or caution. Which side would you choose?

Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is the co-founder of Pragyata, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.

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