March 6, 2016 12:00:48 am
The first few calls go unanswered. Eventually, when he takes the call, the very mention of the film has him agitated. “Main suicide kar loonga, aap dekh lijiyega,” he screams into the phone and hangs up. We are in Aligarh, in an attempt to trace Omar (name changed to protect identity), the supposed partner of Ramchandra Siras, the late professor who was suspended from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 2010, after a local channel conducted a “sting operation”.
It would take us more than 24 hours to track the rickshaw-puller and persuade him to meet us.
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He takes a hesitant step into the room. A piece of cloth covers his face. Omar glances at everyone present but his sole greeting is reserved for “doctor sahab”— Madihur Rehman Suhaib, a former professor of English at AMU and head of the rickshaw-pullers’ association in Aligarh, one of his several benefactors in the past six years since the mysterious death of Siras.
Following AMU’s suspension of Siras for “being gay”, the late professor filed a case against the university, claiming that the “sting” was a breach of privacy — the archaic Section 377 had been read down by the Delhi High Court — which he won. His victory was viewed as a moment of triumph by the queer community but in all of this, however, the rickshaw-puller was somewhat forgotten.
Today, seated on a couch in Suhaib’s office, Omar is visibly nervous. “After the incident, Siras asked me to leave and said he will handle everything. I laid low for a few months as I was scared of getting caught up in Siras’s controversy. I am married and have a family,” he says.
Omar claims he lost touch with Siras after that and learnt of his death from the newspapers. “My wife was in the medical facility inside AMU as she had just delivered the fourth of my five daughters. They were to be discharged in four days but I brought them back in two, fearing that I might be recognised. The facility was very close to where Siras used to reside before he was asked to vacate the quarters.”
In a week’s time, however, he says, the police began harassing him. Siras had died under mysterious circumstances and his mobile phone and ATM card were missing when the police discovered his body. The suspicion fell on Omar, “Siras’s lover”.
His neighbourhood in the conservative city of Aligarh soon heard of the scandal. Fed up of the stigma, he attempted suicide. “I poured kerosene on myself and set myself on fire. I hadn’t latched the door so my wife came running in and doused the fire.” He survived the incident but his back still bears the scars.
After intervention by Suhaib and a few others, the police harassment stopped and life began to return to normal. He has had to give up riding the rickshaw for fear of being “recognised” and makes his ends meet by seeking help from supporters such as Tariq Islam and Suhaib. His two elder daughters, aged 13 and 10, study in a government school and his wife, Omar claims, is still unaware of the details of what transpired between Siras and him. However, the release of the film Aligarh, which talks of the loneliness and ostracism of the queer by a homophobic society, has once again brought the case back into focus, and with it, 35-year-old Omar.
Born in Delhi, where his father used to work as a labourer, Omar moved to Aligarh with his family in 1992, when he was 11. The city is “closer to our village”, where they still own some land and a house. However, “home”, to Omar, is Aligarh, which he vows to never leave for another city even if “things get worse”. “Sab kuch yahan hai, main kyun kahin jaaun jab maine kuch galat nahin kiya?” he asks.
Omar’s narrative has shifted constantly in the last six years. In some of his interviews to the media, he has claimed he was Siras’s lover and partner — a version corroborated by Siras, his friend from AMU professor Tariq Islam and the film. In the “sting operation” (a copy of the video is with The Indian Express), both Siras and Omar can be seen blaming each other — while Omar claims Siras tricked him upstairs into his flat, the professor says the rickshaw-puller barged in and forced himself. Meanwhile, the “journalists” who had shot the video, claim they conducted the sting after Omar told them Siras was sexually exploiting him by threatening him.
Aadil Murtaza, 35, is out on bail in the breach of privacy case filed against him for the sting. Along with the two co-accused, he had filed a defamation case in the high court against the makers of Aligarh. “We conducted the sting to help Omar, who had told us about his sexual abuse by Siras,” says Murtaza, currently working as a freelance journalist in Lucknow. Their defamation case, however, was dismissed by the court last Monday but on February 25, the trio, along with Omar, held a press conference at the Lucknow Press Club where Omar gave a statement to the media backing the stringers’ version.
When he spoke to us, however, Omar again changed his version of what happened that night — to second what Suhaib has been claiming: that he was a victim but didn’t call the stringers. “That night, when I dropped him outside his quarters, he asked me to come upstairs for a drink of water and collect the fare. But once in his house, he threatened me into having his way with me,” he says.
Tariq Islam, one of the few friends that the otherwise-reclusive Siras had, says this is a version Omar has adopted only recently. “I have known Omar ever since Siras’s death and have often helped him out financially. Omar has confessed to being Siras’s partner and also told me two weeks ago had he known Siras would take his life, he wouldn’t have let him be alone.” When confronted with Islam’s claim, Omar goes quiet for a few seconds, before dismissing it.
The inconsistency in Omar’s statements perhaps reflects his vulnerability and how little people’s attitude towards homosexuality has changed in Aligarh in these years. On the AMU campus, several professors said that they have an objection against the film’s title, which may leave the viewers with the impression that homosexuality is common in Aligarh. “I was one of the few colleagues who supported Siras but I too, believe that the film’s title could have been different. Aligarh is known for educationists, acclaimed poets, the university and handcrafted locks. But the film equates Aligarh with Siras,” says D Murthy, the professor of Tamil in the department of modern languages, where Siras taught Marathi.
The sun has set and the bustling Shamshad Market Road is now teeming with students lining up at the dhabas on one side of the street. On the other side, in the shadows of the makeshift stalls, dimly lit by 100-watt bulbs, Omar stands with his head hung low. He is being confronted by Murtaza who is upset that Omar has refuted his version. A few minutes later, he turns to us and says, “Everyone wants to use me. But all I want is peace of mind, and to run my household, educate my daughters and die in peace.”
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