In the aftermath of protests at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University against the arrest of student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition on Friday, the police swung into action again on Saturday. A day after Kumar’s arrest, seven people were reportedly detained while trying to enter New Delhi's Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts where an Urdu festival called Jashn-e-Rekhta was underway.
Among seven picked up by the police were three members of the Sangwari Theater Group who claim that they were targetted because they “looked like” JNU students because of their long beards and jholas.
The detainees also included a Delhi University student who was carrying a flag of the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. It later turned out that he and the others detained along with him just past noon had nothing to do with the protests against police action in JNU.
The detainees were taken to the Parliament Police Station, where they were questioned and let off in batches. The members of the theater group were allowed to leave only by 5 pm. The police claimed that it made the detentions because they believed that the men were entering the venue with the intention of staging protests.
But the Sangwari members claimed that they had nothing to do with protests and that their detention was completely “uncalled for”.
How it unfolded
The theater group was supposed to perform a musical play in New Delhi’s Connaught Place on Saturday evening. Atul Bawra, a 21-year-old member of the group who was among those who detained, narrated the sequence of events.
“We were there to watch a performance at Rekhta programme in the morning and stepped out of the venue for tea around 12 pm which is when some police personnel came and picked us up,” he said. He added that they were not given any reasons for the detention. They were put in a van and taken to the police station.
“They suspected that we were going with our tambourines inside the venue to protest with the SFI [Students Federation of India] person but we don’t even know him or any others who were detained along with us,” said Bawra. “Once in the station, our phones were taken away and we had no way to contact anyone outside and the inspectors their asked us to give them our details including home addresses and contacts of our native places.”
At the station, the people were seated in a room for several hours, after which an unidentified police officer came in and warned them not to “do this anti-national politics”.
Added Bawra: “We were given lectures on not participating in street politics, some came in and asked us questions about our beards and kept repeating that we looked like JNU sympathisers.”
It was only after the theater group encountered a lawyer in the police station that they were allowed to eat something.
“The lawyer told us he would inform people about us outside and we will be let go off soon,” he said. “He also brought us tea and something to eat.”
The police, however, claimed that it suspected that the student found with the SFI flag in his bag had come to the venue with his collagues with the intention of staging a protest. The police said that the tambourines that Sangwari members were carrying for their show later in the day proved their point.
“He was a Delhi University student and was found carrying a flag of the Student Federation of India, and some posters and banners,” Jatin Narwal, Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police was quoted as saying by The Hindu. "When questioned, he said six other students were with him. Three of them were carrying tambourines."
Meanwhile, other members of the group who had been detained added that the police personnel had been interrogating students from Delhi University who had no idea why they were detained.
“None of us really had anything to do with a protest but the police is all powerful so they can put anyone in jail," said one member of the group. "Nobody knew we were in detention and they could have slapped any charge."
This person added: “It’s unfortunate that we don’t even have our basic rights just because the policemen assumed that we are some anti-national elements who were out to create trouble.”