Column | Banojyotsna Lahiri: a modern love story

The researcher is uncomfortable talking about herself but wants to ensure people do not forget her partner Umar Khalid, jailed under UAPA since 2020

Updated - July 13, 2024 01:57 pm IST

Published - July 11, 2024 01:01 pm IST

Banojyotsna Lahiri’s fight for justice is emblematic of the love stories of modern-day dissenters.

Banojyotsna Lahiri’s fight for justice is emblematic of the love stories of modern-day dissenters. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

When Jawaharlal Nehru University Ph.D student Umar Khalid was arrested in September 2020 under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, his friends and partner Banojyotsna Lahiri were shocked. The shock turned to anger when they watched the police implicate him and other activists in the 2020 Delhi riots that killed 53 people, three-quarters of them Muslim. “We thought that this is such an unjust case,” says Lahiri. “We thought we just had to raise our voices and justice would be delivered.”

But that was four years ago. The case has disappeared from mainstream media. Khalid, who gave speeches asking people to respond to hate by offering love, is in jail with no bail and no trial despite the lack of concrete evidence against him. Lahiri, 40, a researcher who grew up in a family of school teachers and college professors in Kolkata, has abandoned her lifelong dream to be a teacher. “The thing I once wanted to do most has gone out of consideration,” she says of life after the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement.

She no longer has the focus required to teach. Instead she works tirelessly, using humour and compassion to keep Khalid’s story alive, sometimes telling funny stories that pit Khalid against her other true love, footballer Lionel Messi, and sometimes, sharing intimate conversations from their weekly meetings at Tihar Jail. Khalid is now a household name despite the aversion of mainstream media, and it is largely thanks to Lahiri and Khalid’s friends. “When you see this kind of injustice happening to your close ones, you cannot go about your life,” she says. “It becomes a part of your life.”

Desire for a just society

Lahiri’s fight for justice is emblematic of the love stories of modern-day dissenters, increasingly under threat across the world. Think of Yulia Navalnaya, who accused Putin of killing her husband Alexei Navalny, the Russian President’s biggest critic. “I urge you to stand next to me. I ask you to share the rage with me,” she said in a video after Navalny mysteriously died in an Arctic prison. Or Sahba Husain, who voluntarily opted to spend two years in house arrest with her partner Gautam Navlakha, journalist and human rights activist, arrested on terror charges in the Bhima Koregaon case in 2018. He was recently released on bail. All these love stories are built on a common desire for a just, equitable society.

Lahiri feels uncomfortable talking about herself. She thinks I’ve called to talk about Khalid. “We don’t want people to forget,” she says. “It’s important that we keep talking.” And that’s exactly what the group of friends does. They organise meetings and discussions; run social media campaigns through accounts dedicated to Khalid and trend hashtags such as #FreeUmar; give interviews or write; and reach out to journalists, artists and legislators to spotlight the delays in the case. Many have expressed solidarity and some — such as MPs Mahua Moitra and Manoj Kumar Jha — have brought up Khalid’s case in Parliament. For the record, she didn’t ask me to write this piece.

Lahiri says the group’s mood is like a Ferris wheel. “Sometimes we get really high when someone speaks out or when Ravish Kumar makes a video. Other times we come down,” she says. “But we keep the wheel moving, we haven’t stopped.” Her survival strategy? Focus on the present and hope about the future, without trying to read it. Also, no discussing sad things. She misses everything about Khalid, even his “annoying carelessness”. “He keeps forgetting things, someone is constantly picking up after him,” she says. “It used to be irritating when he was around, but now that I don’t have to do it, I miss it and feel the void.”

JNU Ph.D student Umar Khalid was arrested in September 2020 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA.

JNU Ph.D student Umar Khalid was arrested in September 2020 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini 

Learning law and legalities

In Lahiri’s life, the weekly jail meeting, when she talks to Khalid across a glass partition on an intercom, takes precedence over everything else. Then there is the whirl of bail applications, and ensuring that someone always shows up when Khalid is produced in court. She switched jobs to ensure she would have more time to devote to the case. “I plan my life according to the case. All of us do,” she says. “I have learned more about law and legalities than an ordinary citizen is required to.” Lahiri tracks UAPA cases in the courts, and the day we speak she is feeling hopeful because the Supreme Court has just reprimanded the National Investigation Agency in another case. The court has emphasised everyone’s right to a speedy trial, adding that if there are delays, the accused should be entitled to bail.

This single-minded focus on Khalid’s case and his long imprisonment have taken a toll on Lahiri’s body and mind. “The stress is constant. I have panic attacks, and anxiety at night. I’ve gained weight, lost sleep and all this has had concurrent effects on my body,” she says, joking that Khalid’s health, on the other hand, has improved because of the daily prison routine and exercise.

These past four years, Lahiri has found hope in student protests, the farmers’ movement and strangers who offer love and support. “Those children of Palestine who still play between the bombardments give me hope,” she says.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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