09 FEB 2016

The Incident and Arrest

A country without a post office

On a chilly night in Jawaharlal Nehru University, a protest was taking place against what the protesters called the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt. Poetry, music and art were to be the order of the day.

But the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (APVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), alleged that ‘anti-India’ slogans were raised at the event.

Watch the full interview here

Saurabh Sharma, then Joint Secretary of the JNUSU and a member of the ABVP, holds a press conference. (Photo: IANS)

They demanded the expulsion of the event’s organisers, and a sedition case was filed. Four days later, the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested.

Five others were named in the case – Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Ashutosh Kumar, and Anant Prakash Narayanan. They went into hiding.

A University Under Siege

We need strength to use a sword. JNU gives us that strength, the power of the pen and ideas.

From one of the best universities in the country, JNU became known as the ‘hub of terrorists’.

Union Minister Kiren Rijiju said that the ‘government will not allow anyone to spread anti-national sentiment in the country.’ A BJP MLA talked of 3,000 condoms being found in the dustbins of JNU while prime time television debates focused on the university’s 'anti-national’ DNA.

But others like Shashi Tharoor pointed out that Jawaharlal Nehru wouldn’t have pressed sedition charges against Kanhaiya or the others. JNU withstood it all, using the rhythms of their ‘Azaadi’ songs and dafli, to stand; as an idea, and as an institution.

Students of the university couldn’t understand how overnight, they went from being research scholars to ‘jihadis’, ‘violent communists’ and ‘anti-nationals’.

Read: I am a Student of JNU, I am NOT a Jihadi John.

And from amidst the furore and the angry rhetoric emerged a new political star – Kanhaiya Kumar.

Vilification of the Media

I feel in this case, the media worked with some preconceived notions. People were framed and targeted. The media became a tool of the government.

- Zee News producer who quit because of the channel’s coverage of the JNU row

In the middle of a fiery debate on sedition and nationalism, India turned to its media for answers, but found facts it couldn’t trust. The aftermath of JNU’s sedition row was a time when the Indian media’s credibility became a question rather than a statement.

The JNU row seemed like a breeding ground for chaos – most notably when journalists were roughed up by lawyers, the other pillars of democracy, in Delhi’s Patiala House Complex.

Aside from within the media, battle lines began to be drawn in the world of the judiciary as well. While Vikram Chauhan, the lawyer who led the Patiala House Court attacks, insisted lawyers never attacked Kanhaiya or the media, former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee said lawyers who reduce themselves to ‘hooligans in black robes’ and made his blood boil.

National and Anti-Nationals?

Bharat se nahin, bharat mein azaadi chahte hain.

Azaadi. One word, many meanings. For some, it came to symbolise the lack of regard that the younger generations of the extreme left seemed to hold for the symbols of nationhood and patriotism.

And those who opposed these ‘disrespectful anti-nationals’, even through violence, found support for their actions and faced minimal punishment. There were even those who thought that the entire drama was blown out proportion, including actress and former JNU student Swara Bhaskar.

But for others, the word came to mean hope for a better India.

An India free from caste, poverty, religious discrimination, and hunger. Accusations being of ‘anti-national’ were countered with ‘Nationalism Lectures’ held in the university’s Freedom Square.

At midnight on 3 March 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar was released from prison. And the two meanings of ‘azaadi’ clashed in his speech; electrifying the country and strengthening the movement to get Umar Khalid and Anirbhan Bhattacharya released as well.

Watch his full speech here

When Student Politics Became A Dirty Word

From the Occupy UGC movement that began in November 2015, to the Rohith Vemula protests that sparked off after the Dalit student committed suicide in the University of Hyderabad, student movements had played out majorly in the news cycle preceding the JNU debacle.

In fact, student politics has a long history in India.But the sedition row in JNU became the catalyst for anger against student movements. People began to ask, “Why must students indulge in politics?”

“Why not?” asked JNU students.

Also Read: JNU Must Stand as Must the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

JNU Today

I went to a cinema hall. Some people started shouting “Anti-national! Anti-national!" I went to court, some lawyers tried to hit me. Auto-rickshaw drivers call me a traitor and refuse to give me a ride.

A year later, JNU has changed. Guards are everywhere, and have been asked to shoot videos of ‘suspicious’ events. CCTV cameras keep a strict eye on students. And even professors have been sent notices to ‘follow the rules’, which includes not addressing students at the Administrative Block. Nivedita Menon, who teaches at the School of International Studies, is now facing an inquiry against her for one such address.

The university’s problems are far from over and the Vice Chancellor, M Jagadesh Kumar – who took over only a week before the February drama began to unfold – is still in the eye of storm as he faces criticism from students and teachers on his handling of the university.

Also Read: Ill-Advised or Biased? The Tragedy of Being JNU’s Vice Chancellor

JNU now finds itself polarised again. This time over one missing student: Najeeb Ahmad. Najeeb may not be related to last year’s sedition saga with Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya.

But when “Where is Najeeb?” slogans resonate in Freedom Square (now strewn with thorny potted-plants), it reflects the core of Jawaharlal Nehru University and its voice, still unafraid to speak out in dissent.

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