It’s been a busy week for Divya Garg, a first-year student pursuing her masters at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Over the last few days, Garg used WhatsApp and Facebook to invite more than a hundred people in her extended network for Thursday’s protest march organised by the JNU students' union in support of their arrested president Kanhaiya Kumar, who is in police custody on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy.

Garg isn’t affiliated to any political party and hasn’t been part of a protest before, but this time she’s dipped her feet in activism because she feels that her university is under attack. On Thursday, when people started gathering for the protest march at Mandi House in Central Delhi, even she was surprised at the large crowds that turned up.

More than 10,000 people – a conservative estimate – showed up to protest against Kumar’s arrest including students, activists, teachers, lawyers, journalists and common people who decided that they could longer sit on the sidelines and watch question marks being raised over JNU for alleged anti-national activities by some of its students.

“Our universities are being systematically attacked because of their ability to raise students who can question the government and call out on their lies,” Garg said while holding a poster which read: "No more witch-hunt".

“I never knew there’s so much power in the political activism of this university," Garg added. "I don’t subscribe to any party or ideology here on the campus but I feel my voice is important and will be heard as long as I am inside the JNU campus.”

Beyond JNU

What Garg experienced could be seen in the eyes of hundreds of students in the protest march, who were probably witnessing something of this scale for the first time.

One such group had also arrived from Ashoka University, situated on the outskirts of Delhi. The students, largely isolated from campus politics, were startled to see the colour and fervour of JNU protests, but they too slowly blended into the crowd and started sloganeering at the top of their voice for freedom of expression and against the colonial era sedition law that Kanhaiya has been charged with.

The highly successful protest march was called by the students of JNU to gather support for their agitation, even as Vice Chancellor M Jagadeesh Kumar had sent a letter asking students to stay inside the campus for their own safety. This letter had come in the wake of rumours doing the rounds on social media that right wing student outfits such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad had planned to take out a march of their own against the "anti-nationals" on JNU campus, and there were apprehensions that violence could erupt between these two groups.

But the students weren't dissuaded. They turned up in more than 20 buses from the JNU campus in South West Delhi while large numbers showed up from other campuses in the capital as well – including Delhi University, Ambedkar University, Shiv Nadar University and Amity University.

By 2.30 pm, thousands of people had gathered to witness a student movement in the making, surrounded by hundreds of personnel from the Delhi Police, which has come under fire for being a mute spectator when JNU students and journalists were beaten up inside the Patiala House court during Kanhaiya Kumar’s hearings on Monday and Wednesday.

As the crowds gathered momentum, sloganeering began. “Delhi Police down down,” was a common refrain among almost all groups, while the loudest support was heard for “Stop witch-hunt at JNU”. More and more students shouted slogans against TV channels including Times Now which they claimed were conducting a “media trial” of Kanhaiya Kumar, and raised their voice urging people to “boycott Arnab [Goswami], boycott Times [Now].”

Dissent is democracy

In the middle of the action, an activist from Greenpeace was sitting on a pavement making her own poster with the help of her kohl stick, when she couldn’t find a bold enough pen to write “Dissent is democracy”.

“I believe there should be freedom to express and dissent in all spheres including our universities, but the Bharatiya Janata Party government doesn’t seem to like it,” she said, as she readied the poster. “The government has stooped so low that they are targeting public universities and demonising students just because it feels the need to express its dominance over the discourse. I am here to tell them that it can’t go on in a democracy,” she added.

As the students marched on, hundreds of roses were hurled in the air by participants. It was a part of a carefully crafted strategy by the organisers who had asked people to carry flowers which they could handover to ABVP supporters, just in case they encountered them on the way. People walked with flowers in their hands – singing, dancing, shouting and sloganeering for their right to express without any fear of being termed “anti-national”.

Lawyer Shahab Ahmed was one of the rose-bearers, and also sported a tee-shirt bearing Kanhaiya Kumar’s face. Ahmed said he had come with his colleagues to support the agitation because he believed that the government had "come down to goonery”.

“Lawyers are beating up people in courts, students are being put in jail for raising slogans, and the media is busy spinning the anti-national narrative," he said. "Is this what we wanted when the government sold us ‘achhe din’? Be it Afzal Guru or [Ajmal] Kasab, everyone is free to have their own views and the country should be strong enough to not feel threatened by differences of opinion.”

His comments were echoed by another lawyer, Ashok Aggarwal, who said that the violence and attack on JNU students and journalists were “well-organised to silence the students.”

“They are trying to scare away the students but they have our backing,” he said. “Not all lawyers are supporting the Modi government’s insidious efforts and we will fight to ensure that they don’t succeed in their attempts to muzzle dissent.”

Widespread participation

Sloganeering for an end to “police brutality” was former JNUSU president Amit Sengupta, who currently teaches at the capital’s Indian Institute of Mass Communication. He took a break every now and then to distribute flowers to passers-by and spoke about the “blunders the government and the JNU administration have committed" in handling the case.

“The newly-appointed JNU vice chancellor has made a blunder by allowing the police to step inside JNU campus, which is unprecedented,” he said. “Is he so incompetent that he couldn’t call a general body meeting and handle the matter internally without putting the lives of students in danger? The government is getting full support in their efforts to stop JNU’s culture of openness and debate because it questions their actions.”

As the march reached Jantar Mantar, multiple politicians from the Left parties, apart from Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan, addressed the students. Soon enough, JNUSU Vice President Shehla Rashid got her turn to speak and crowds greeted her with loud applause when she announced that the agitation will continue till the sedition charges are dropped.

By evening, more students had arrived. Many sat on the road outside Jantar Mantar and continued to hear the speakers at the impromptu public meeting. JNU teachers updated the students on the status of the case and activists did their best to fire up the crowds with slogans aimed at various actors including the government, Delhi Police, and the media.

Professor Anand Kumar, another former president of JNUSU, said that it’s the university's culture that is being perceived as the most dangerous by the government. But at the same time, he added, it is the hardest to kill.

“Foreign invaders used to come and attack universities to muzzle criticism and scholarship in olden times, but our government is doing the same in the 21st century,” he said. “JNU has given political leaders and intellectuals to a broad spectrum of parties and it is in our culture to allow all opinions to flourish and be discussed. What I am today is because of the university and it is our utmost duty to not allow this anti-national lobby to suppress us or our students who are the softest targets.”