The seditious campus

A gathering of students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University listening to teachers and student leaders during the protests against the arrested students. Photograph by Tanushree Bhasin

A young man, courageous enough to challenge the norms of the society, raised questions when no one did. He rejected religion and for whom issues faced by the marginalized and oppressed were supreme. Last month, Umar Khalid, a student of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, suddenly became the known face on news channels and newspapers. For news anchors, he became a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist, he travelled to Pakistan (even though he doesn’t have a passport), he was a mastermind, and finally anti-national, enemy of the “mother India.”

Khalid was one of the students who organized a cultural event – a gathering of poetry and songs in solidarity with Kashmir’s struggle of right to self-determination, to protest and remember Afzal Guru, the 2001 parliament attack convict who was hanged on 9 February 2013. Titled ‘The country without a Post Office’, the event was organized by students with ultra-left leaning at the campus to commemorate and protest against the “judicial killings of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” – another Kashmiri leader hanged on 11 February 1984.

The event snowballed into a country-wide debate on nationalism and brought Khalid, his fellows and the university at crossroads. What had happened was that minutes before the event, the JNU administration revoked the permission, but a large crowd had already gathered near Sabarmati hostel. The event began in presence of a group of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) students, affiliated with the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) at the venue. The anti-Kashmir ABVP students were joined by journalists from Zee News and a few others. Cameramen had arrived an hour before the event timing and the gate entry log showed their entry facilitated by ABVP members. So without a doubt, the camera spectacle was planned in advance.

While the pro-Kashmir students raised slogans for Kashmir, the ABVP members countered them with slogans against Left group, calling them “anti-nationals” and “enemy of the state”. In response, the supporters of the event shouted slogans against communalism.

According to a report in Frontline, the slogans were also raised against the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda, feudalism and casteism and patriarchy found support from Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student Union (JNUSU) president, Ashutosh Kumar Yadav, Rama Naga, JNUSU general secretary, Anant Prakash Narayan, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, former members of Democratic Students Union. On the other side, the ABVP gave voice to the usual slogans of ‘Vande Matram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

Zee News filmed the entire episode and aired the sensational package accusing the University of harbouring “anti-nationals”. The university administration ordered a disciplinary enquiry and said the event organisers went ahead without permission.

The next day, on 11 February, BJP MP Maheish Giri from East Delhi lodged an FIR at the Vasant Kunj police station following which a case of sedition was filed against unknown persons. The university followed suit and barred eight students from academic activity pending an enquiry, albeit they allowed them to stay in hostels as guests.

Various news anchors pounced upon the varsity and Left-leaders on their prime time shows including Times Now’s Arnab Goswami and the row garnered unprecedented attention from social media. Khalid was seen on some news debates asserting his strong views on the scenario, nationalism and Kashmir.

The Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, after speaking with then Delhi Police Commissioner B.S. Bassi, released a statement indicating a strict action against those who were “anti-nationals” and raised questions on country’s unity and integrity. In between the uproar, he alleged that the JNU students had the backing of Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed on the basis of a tweet that turned out to be from a parody account. A video clarifying the same was released by Saeed later that made the minister dumbfounded.

The report submitted by the Delhi Police stated that the area officer of the Special Branch noticed the event’s poster on the morning of 9 February and informed all concerned authorities, presuming it could create unrest on the campus. It also feared planning and plotting by the Left-leaning groups against the State.

Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech in the campus was circulated over news channels for days. “We don’t need a patriotism certificate from the RSS,” he had said. “We don’t need a nationalist certificate from the RSS. We belong to this country and we love the soil. We fight for the 80 percent of the poor population in the country. This is patriotism for us. We have full faith in Babasaheb, we have full faith in our country’s constitution.”

The alleged video showed him raising slogans for “Azaadi” of Kashmir from India but later, India Today showed how the video could have been doctored. The video showed that slogans that rose on February 9 were in favour of Kashmir’s independence, whereas, the original video shows him raising a voice against the social ills of the society.

On 12 February, Delhi Police with the support of recently appointed Vice-Chancellor, V. Jagadeesh Kumar, arrested Kumar from the campus premises. The arrest brewed anger and unrest among JNU’s student community. They called for a shutdown and boycott of classes till Kumar is released. JNU teachers too, joined them and started lectures on “nationalism” in the varsity lawns for all. Among the professors who addressed were Gopal Guru, Ayesha Kidwai, Nivedita Menon, Tanika Sarkar with many others exploring various facets of the contested issue.

Then Delhi Police Commissioner, B.S. Bassi, justified the arrest and said, “There is clear evidence that Kanhaiya was raising anti-national slogans and was also giving anti-national speech which comes under 124 (A). He was part of this unlawful activity. Interrogation and investigation is still on. We will analyze his interrogation and the result will be put on public domain soon.”

In spite of smear campaigns against the institution on social media, JNU students garnered a support from various corners – teachers, international scholars, political parties, students from across the world and alumni which fortified their demand for the right to dissent and Kumar’s release. Over 400 academicians from international varsities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge extended their support to the agitating students at the campus.

Renowned thinker and academician Noam Chomsky also questioned the way administration at (JNU) handled the issue on campus. In an e-mail to the Vice-Chancellor, he wrote, “Many of us remain very concerned about the crisis in JNU, which was apparently created and precipitated by the government and university administration with no credible evidence of any seditious activities on campus. Why did you allow the police on campus when it is clear that this was not legally required?”

Singh, the home minister, later suggested that Khalid has links with Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba. He later denied the allagation. Based on some untitled Intelligence Bureau reports, as reported by NewsX, Khalid was also declared a terrorist connected with Jaish-e-Mohammad by some news channels. Online news portal Firstpost reported about posters outside JNU calling him a “Kashmiri traitor”. Umar Khalid is not Kashmiri but from Amravati district of Maharashtra. His family relocated to Delhi 35 years ago.

Umar Khalid
Umar Khalid in the JNU campus a day before he surrendered to police. Photograph by Ashish Sharma

On 14 February, the Patiala House court witnessed a physical assault by people wearing lawyer’s robe on JNU students, faculty and journalists who had come to attend the court proceedings of Kumar. Whoever ran into the mob looking young and carrying a mobile was slapped, kicked and chased away from the premises. Advocates Vikram Singh Chauhan and Yogesh Tyagi were held responsible for the assault, after which a community of lawyers felicitated Chauhan. Three days later, the same mob attacked Kanhaiya Kumar in the court premises during his bail hearing. Alok Singh, a journalist who was a victim shared, “Apparently, they were targeting anyone “dressed like a JNU student”. I took out my mobile phone to inform my colleagues at The Indian Express about the situation. But then, another man dressed like a lawyer appeared seemingly out of nowhere and snatched the phone.”

One of the three BJP MLAs in Delhi, O. P Sharma got embroiled in the row when he was caught on television beating up a Communist Party of India (CPI) activist outside the court premises. To which, he responded, “Mein goli bhi maar deta agar bandook hoti. Koi hamari Ma ko gaali dega to kya usey maaroge nahin (I would have opened fire if I had a gun. If someone abuses our mother, won’t I beat him up).” During all the attacks, the Delhi Police stood there as a silent spectator.

Since then, ABVP activists had been on a rampage all across the country and attacked all those who campaigned against JNUSU President’s arrest. A national daily Hindustan Times carried a report that revealed the threat Kashmiri students face amidst the row. The students changed rooms in the hostel, moved out of JNU and faced discrimination from the general students.

Khalid’s father, Syed Qasim Ilyas, informed media that his son is being called a terrorist and someone who travelled to Pakistan, even though he doesn’t have a passport. He may be anything but he’s not a terrorist. He also pleaded that his past background as a leader of the now-banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) should not be made ground for any action against his son. 

He reiterated that the country’s media is turning on his son as he is a perfect fit: a Muslim face with views that don’t gel with the State’s opinion. His family decided to shift base amidst the uproar as his sisters received rape threats. The youngest one, 12 years old, could not appear for her end-term examination due to threats.

Political parties in opposition grabbed the opportunity and once again united against the government. They blamed the latter of overreaction and politicization of the issue to hide policy and electoral failures. A day after the arrest, Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress also made a visit to the campus to show solidarity with the JNU students. He was shown black flags by the ABVP members.

After ten days in hiding, Umar Khalid and others returned to the campus at midnight of 21 February. Till then, Khalid, a PhD student, was already announced as the mastermind behind the seditious event. As the word about their return spread, the varsity authorities ordered its gates to be locked to ensure their safety.

Crowds celebrated their return and gathered around Khalid to hear him speak. “For the six-seven years that I have done politics on this campus, I have never thought of myself as a Muslim,” he told a large gathering of students. “I have never also projected myself as a Muslim. In the last 10 days, for the first time I felt like a Muslim. To quote Rohith Vemula, I was reduced to my immediate identity.”

In the 14-minute long speech, he took onto the media for conducting a media trial against him on ridiculous charges. He also stood with the view that the JNU was being targeted because it stood for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed.

Two days later, he along with Anirban Bhattacharya surrendered to the police. The other three students – Anant Prakash Narayan, Ashutosh Kumar and Rama Naga said they would not surrender. Reports of repeated interrogations of the three students in police custody made rounds. Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar were in Tihar jail.

Almost after a month since the sloganeering took place, on March 3, a Delhi government report on the students and their alleged role said “nothing adverse” could be found against Kanhaiya Kumar but Umar Khalid’s role needed to be looked into. It also stated that three out of the seven videos of the event sent for forensic examination were found to be doctored. However, it blamed Anirban, Ashutosh and ‘outsiders of Kashmiri descent’ for raising pro-Afzal and anti-India slogans.

Sanjay Kumar, a district magistrate, who inquired into the case on the behalf of the state government, stated that no witness or video was available to him that could support the allegation against Kanhaiya Kumar.

Kumar was granted an interim bail for six months but with an undertaking that he would not participate in any “anti-national activity”, either actively or passively. He was also warned against the misinterpretation of freedom of speech, which Justice Pratibha Rani compared to an “infection” that could cause gangrene. He was released from the jail the next day.

The atmosphere was electrified as each student waited for Kumar, now a hero, their president for whom they fought to return. Celebration was in the air and Kumar gave a fiery “home-coming” speech at the same spot where he had spoken a day before his arrest. “It is not azadi from India, it is azadi in India [we want]… from the corrupt practices that are going on inside the country.” Each sentence was followed by a loud applause from the students who gathered in huge numbers. He constantly took jibes at the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But he didn’t mention Kashmir, showing him taking a convenient side and drawing a dividing line between marginalized in India and by India.

However, a noted feminist writer and JNU professor, Nivedita Menon, was one of the few who spoke in support of the Kashmiri struggle. “After Independence, the accession of Kashmir was done following the India-Pakistan war on the pretext that a plebiscite will be conducted when the situation gets back to normal and since then it has not happened,” she told a gathering of students. “When the international community is debating over legal occupation of Kashmir, then we should think that ‘azadi’ slogan is justified.”

A case with twists, turns and the multi-layered discourse on nationalism and sedition, free speech and dissent, it conveniently dropped Kashmir from the agenda. Afzal Guru, for whom the event was organized, suddenly had no storytellers. And Kumar went on to demean Guru and silence over the rights of Kashmiris puts him in the same basket of “nationalist” Indians who are not willing to see beyond that discourse of “mother India.” The JNU row also exposed the political thresholds of the Left parties – that has already compromised basics for electoral politics.

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