Published: 01st May 2019
Democracy is not about who your next PM is going to be: Umar Khalid
Indian activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid talks to us about the state of minorities in India, youth in politics, education and lot more
The sedition case filed against him is yet to be resolved but there is no stopping Umar Khalid. After finally being able to submit his PhD thesis on Contesting claims and contingencies of the rule on Adivasis of Jharkhand in July 2018, he is now focusing on studying inequalities and discrimination in India. Excerpts from an intense conversation:
You have submitted your PhD thesis. What are you up to now?
I have worked on the Adivasis of Jharkhand for my PhD and I have been focusing on issues minorities are facing and look at the aspects of deprivation as well. The last five years have been hard for the minorities and they will not vote for roti-kapda-makaan but to merely stay alive. This is what second class citizenship is about — you stop asking questions about pertinent issues that affect you and just plead for mercy to the political parties. In 2006, the Sachar Committee report spoke about systematic discrimination and deprivation among Muslims in Inda. I want to study the shift of situations since the Sachar Committee report.
Do you think the scholars in India are being paid properly?
It's not at all enough. We protested against it in 2014. We demanded that the stipends for MPhil and PhD students (both non-NET) be increased from Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 to Rs 8,000 and Rs 12,000 respectively. The UGC committee ended up scrapping the scholarship — they reinstated the initial amount after a four-month-long protest. Who can survive in a city like Delhi with just Rs 5,000? It's all connected to a bigger picture — whether you see education as a private good or a public good. The Rajiv Gandhi government has introduced the concept of privatisation of education long back and even the two UPA governments aggressively propagated it. But in the last five years, it has gone to a whole new level. We need to bring back the thought that education is for everybody and not only for those who can afford it. The state also needs to invest more in education — at least 6 per cent of the GDP.
What do you think is the immediate educational reform that India needs?
Apart from increased investment, India needs to look at what is being taught as well. Education is supposed to foster scientific rational thinking among people. Education should also teach them how to ask questions. It should not make you just a conformist. Critical thinking has to be inculcated. Be it the UPA or the NDA government, people who had nothing to do with education were given the responsibility of the department. We need educationists to formulate educational policies.
Protest, Always: Umar says it's not about which party is in power. He will stand against injustice, always (Illustration: Amit Bandre)
Students are a big part of this election. How do you think that will turn the tide?
The mood amongst the youth is that of anger and frustration — they were promised a lot in 2014. People were fed up, at that point, with the Congress regime and Narendra Modi fought that election on the issues like development, jobs, education and came up with slogans like Sab Ka Sath Sabka Vikas. He tactically kept Hindutva on the back burner at that point of time. Even though some of us understood that this was just a ruse a large section of the youth voted for him. But in the last five years, we have only seen how youth, who have asked questions, have been subject to violence, threat and intimidation and on the other hand, there is complete unaccountability from the government's side — they have not been successful to deliver even 10 per cent of their promised two crore jobs, education sector has seen budget cuts as well. And then they attempted to divert the youth towards hate by bringing in issues like Gauraksha, Love Jihad etc. The youth is angry and they will vote against Modi.
Some people are claiming to vote for Modi because there is no other option. What do you say to that?
In 2014 they (BJP) were talking about jobs, loan waivers, black money would be brought back, and a hoard of other promises. When they ask, if not us then who? In a way, they are accepting that they have not done anything but people should vote for Narendra Modi nonetheless. I think student movements have helped start a debate on substantive topics of democracy. Democracy is not about who your next PM is going to be, it's about issues like jobs, education, farmers, healthcare. And if a government fails to provide these then they should be ousted.
BJP has more people, established machinery. How will people like Kanhaiya fight it?
By going back to the basics. Jignesh's (Mewani) and Kanhaiya's campaigns were totally dependent on the people, not just for attendance but for funding as well. People will do it for you if you go to them and address the issues that plague them.
What's after May 23?
I am certain that Modi is not coming back to power after the results are out on May 23. But I am under no such illusion that everything will be solved if you remove Modi from power. I do not expect Congress will fight to bring back right to education, freedom or healthcare or to establish that India is a secular society with all honesty. Last five years we fought defensive battles — to save what was left of democracy and the institutions. But it wasn't perfect before that either. One will have to fight it out to get their rights implemented.
But how much will the secular coalition work towards bringing justice to the victims of mob violence and communal violence in the past five years? Congress has come to power in a bunch of states (Assembly Elections) but they have been very reluctant to a stand on issues related to minorities. If you do not want to stand up for the rights of minorities that means that you are not secular. These are issues that we have to fight for.