To say that Umar Khalid made a dramatic entry on Sunday night would be an understatement.
The Delhi Police had been looking for Khalid, a doctoral candidate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, since February 12. Khalid and five others have been accused of sedition for allegedly shouting anti-national slogans on the JNU campus on February 9. But focus has been squarely on Khalid ever since television channels such as NewsX have categorised him as a terrorist, specifically a “Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser” (based on intelligence reports that have now mostly been rubbished).
Khalid resurfaced on Sunday at around 10 pm, announcing his return with a small speech on the red sandstone steps of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Administrative Block. He ended his talk by decrying nationalism. “I dream of a world without borders,” said Khalid, going on to possibly invoke John Lennon. ”Let us imagine that world. That world is possible.”
That was similar to what he'd said during his last public appearance, debating nationalism with Arnab Goswami on Times Now. Branded an “anti-national” on the show, Khalid’s arguments so enraged Goswami that the anchor had the student's microphone muted, even as Khalid grinned.
Ten days later, Khalid stuck to his position – and his impudence. As news of his return spread and students and journalists gathered around, Khalid gave a second speech, joking about what he called his “virtual media trial”: “I have come to learn things about myself that I did not know myself…I was planning this programme in 17-18 universities. I did not know, I seriously did not know that my influence was so huge.”
There was even a Shah Rukh Khan reference: “My name is Umar Khalid, for sure, but I am not a terrorist,” followed up by loud, forced laugh, which showed just how nervous Khalid actually was. No matter how charged the atmosphere in JNU was at the time, this was a grim matter. Khalid spoke of the rape threats his sister had received and of being “made to feel like a Muslim” in the past 10 days, even though he didn’t think of himself as one. Moreover, fellow sedition-accused Kanhaiya Kumar had been beaten by lawyers for three hours with the seeming connivance of the Delhi Police right in the Patiala Court complex on February 17.
Along with Khalid had resurfaced the five others wanted by the Delhi Police for sedition: Anirban Bhattacharya, Ashutosh Kumar, Anant Prakash Narayan, Riyazul Haq and Rama Naga. Shehla Rashid, the vice president of the student’s union, explained that all of them were ready to be arrested but they needed to ensure that it all happened publicly, with proper procedure being followed. To ensure that, the six sedition-accused students set up a night vigil in the company of other JNU students.
The students had come prepared: mattresses and sheets were laid out in a corridor of the university’s admin block. Two power strips bulged with phone chargers. Students lit bonfires and sang Hum Dekhenge, the famous Urdu poem decrying state oppression.
Police wary of arresting
The vigil did its trick. With students and journalists for company, the administration was much more wary about allowing the police on campus this time. On February 12, the Delhi Police has quietly picked up Kanhaiya Kumar without much fuss from the JNU campus. Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar, appointed by the Modi government just a month ago, had faced immense criticism for that decision. Even renowned academic US Noam Chomsky wrote to Kumar in protest.
As the morning broke on Monday and TV crews started to trickle in, the JNU students were still there – a core group of supporters who had mostly kept up all through the night. The Vice Chancellor had refused permission to the Delhi Police to come into campus and arrest Khalid and the others.
It was a curious sight. JNU guards formed a cordon to stop the press from rushing into the building in which Khalid was, while a few other students formed a human curtain to protect him from prying cameras. More John Lennon: a modern-day Delhi version of his Bed-in, with of course a far more contentious backdrop.
Public opinion and mass media
The outside world was less sanguine. Much of the Hindi media was in a frenzy about the return of Khalid. At JNU on Monday morning, students had loudly mocked the Zee News anchor, punning on “Zee” and calling it “chhee” (yuck). Students have accused the channel of grossly misrepresenting the proceedings at an event on February 9 to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, who was hung for his role in the 2001 Parliamentary attack. The Delhi Police’s sedition case is based on footage aired on the channel. But a channel producer resigned on Friday, claiming that Zee had doctored the footage.
On Monday evening, Zee’s debate show, Taal Thok Ke, got back at the students. Khalid’s call for self-determination for Kashmir was compared to the deaths of army men fighting in the state – along the lines of much of the uber jingoistic programming on Zee News. The channel also reported news of Home Minister Rajnath Singh briefing Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the JNU standoff.
Zee is not alone in its strident tone. On Monday, Arnab Goswami's debate show on Times Now took the same line as Zee: support for the Indian Army and support for free speech at JNU were presented as mutually exclusive options. On Saturday, thousands of ex-servicemen marched in protest against JNU and the anti-national slogans allegedly shouted on the campus. Actor Anupam Kher, who has of late emerged as a prominent right-wing supporter, tweeted about cleansing the nation of “cockroaches and bugs”. Even as some people pointed at the similarity with Nazi propaganda, the post itself got 6,000 retweets.
The camp out in JNU might have dissuaded the Delhi Police from attempting an arrest right now but it won’t work for long as public pressure around this mounts.
As a result, the students are making moves to surrender. On Monday night, Umar Khalid’s lawyers submitted a petition to the Delhi High Court, agreeing to surrender as long as Khalid’s safety from the Delhi Police was guaranteed. In the petition Khalid also mentions the February 17 assault on Kanhaiya Kumar. While a final decision on the petition will be taken on Tuesday, chances of it being accepted are low.
In the end, if Khalid and the other five do not step out of the JNU campus and surrender, the final act of the this camp out drama will in probability end with the police having to enter the campus again and arresting the students.