A month ago, if one went by the announcements made on some news channels, it would seem that Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid was a very dangerous man indeed.
NewsX had called him a Jaish-e-Mohammed sympathiser and Zee News said that he had apparently made 800 calls in the week leading up to Februrary 9. Home Minister Rajnath Singh had declared a direct link between Jawaharlal Nehru University and Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed ‒ based farcically on a parody Twitter account ‒ and Delhi Police’s dreaded special cell had been handed the case.
February 9 was the day on which anti-national slogans had allegedly been chanted at an event at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In response, the Delhi Police booked three JNU students ‒ Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya ‒ for sedition. It soon became evident that the videos on which the case had been based were doctored. Kumar, who is the head of the JNU students union, got bail on March 2. A little more than a fortnight later, on Friday, Khalid and Bhattacharya got bail too, as the court questioned the Delhi Police’s basic understanding of what sedition entailed.
In JNU, like Kumar earlier, Khalid and Bhattacharya received a raucous welcome when they reached the campus at around 9 pm on Friday. Both addressed the crowds, as the red communist flag, the blue Ambedkarite flag and the Indian tricolour were waved behind them.
Later on in the evening, Scroll.in spoke to Khalid and Bhattacharya about their experiences of being declared “anti-national”.
What was your time in jail like? What did the police ask you?
Khalid: Our prison experience is basically divided into halves. One was the police custody for seven days and then was the judicial custody in Tihar. In police custody, we can’t reveal exact details of the interrogation since the case in sub-judice. To put it on record, they did not physically touch us.
However, generally the environment there was very hostile. Because, in their eyes we weren’t ordinary criminals. A murderer, a rapist, a thief, in their eyes commits a crime against a person or two. We, on the other hand, were viewed as having committed a crime against the nation. So there was a lot of moral outrage while in police custody. Everyone thought it fit to give us a dose on nationalism. To lecture us on how we were parasites, biting the very hand of the country that fed us. From senior to junior officers, everyone got their two bits in.
The Special Cell was very hostile and very intimidating. In fact, we were very concerned the day we read the news that the case has been transferred to the Special Cell. The Special Cell deals with narcotics, organised crime and terrorism. In its terror prosecution, the Special Cell has attained a lot of notoriety, implicating people – 70% of people charged by them have been acquitted.
Bhattacharya: In fact, our first question to the Special Cell was, “Why are you handling this case?” What bracket do we fill? Narcotics, organised crime, terror? This isn’t a case the Special Cell should be handling at all. We were very wary as to why the case had been transferred to the Special Cell.Khalid: Everyday there was a new twist in the case – Jaish-e-Mohammed, gone to Pakistan etc. After Kanhaiya’s arrest backfired, we were wondering whether the government, by bringing in the Special Cell, was planning a new story to net us.
Bhattacharya: Even the informal conversations with the police were enlightening. We were told that JNU contributes nothing to society, we have no work. We were supposed to concentrate on our careers – that was the only recognised contribution to the nation. Even in informal conversation, it was as if they were saying, “Oh, these guys are vermin, germs, we need to exterminate them." And then of course, there was the Muslim angle, Khalid’s Muslim identity.
How did the Muslim angle play out? How did the police interrogate Anirban and Umar differently?
Bhattacharya: They asked me, “It's understandable if Khalid is doing this, but what were you doing there?” Somehow it seemed that an unadulterated Khalid would have suited them better. My presence irked them. They couldn’t build up the story they wanted.
Khalid: I was targeted with a special hatred because of being a “Khalid”. But there was hatred for Anirban too. For simply being there and ruining a ready-made story. Now this didn’t fit their narrative, the narrative of terror they began in the media. If I was a traitor to the nation because of my Muslim identity, Anirban was a traitor to his nation, religion and caste.
At one point of time, in an informal conversation, Anirban was told to simply say, “Umar has influenced you." They tried to sway him by saying, “He’s from Jamia Nagar; he bought Kashmiris from there. Why are you getting in this?”
Bhattacharya: We asked the police about the terrible slander about Umar – he went to Pakistan, he made calls to Bangladesh and so on. We pointed out that these things were said in the media before even a single arrest had been made. We even told the police that eventually it will come out that nothing happened – pure fiction was spun by sections of the media.
Why don’t you clear it up then? What happened on February 9?
Bhattacharya: The February 9 matter is sub-judice so we wouldn’t like to comment. But the key to understand here is that this entire thing wasn’t about February 9 at all. This was an attack on everything JNU stood for: from celebrating Mahishashur to Occupy UGC to Kiss of Love. JNU was attacked for all the anti-national activities that go on there just not February 9. Every student and faculty in JNU understand this and that is why they are standing with us in this fight. They know that the attack is on the institution and its values. We told the police that this was all fiction but for the mass psyche, it doesn’t matter. Even if we prove this was all plain and blatant lies, in the mass psyche some people have already been branded as terrorists and that is going to remain.
Khalid: This also has to do with things that have happened before February 9 for the last one-and-a-half years. There is a new kind of sinister communal polarisation at play here by the BJP under the garb of nationalism. The other factor here is that the students movement is on the upswing: Jadavpur, Hyderbad University, FTII. This is the difference between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress went after the adivasis, the workers but made sure not to activate students. But given the BJP’s structure, its ideological bent, educational institutes have become a major target of attack. And, of course, this means that this has activated the students. So this February 9 fracas was a counter offensive by the state to delegitimise the student’s movement, specially post Rohith Vemula and the Occupy UGC movement.
Like I said when I spoke earlier, it’s absurd that the BJP is objecting to “Bharat ki barbadi” [destroy India] slogans. It’s like they are offended that someone else has taken up a task that they consider their theka, their fief.
So rather than just look at February 9, we must look at the bigger picture.
You’ve been called “anti-national” almost continuously for the past month. What is your response to this label?
Khalid: To paraphrase Nazim Hikmat, the way they rule, if they are patriots, then call me a traitor. If the RSS/BJP continue their rule, lots of people in this country will end up being called “anti-national” – which is what’s happening now. We don’t take offence to being called anti-national by the BJP. We vehemently oppose even the way they look at the nation-state.
The state is now trying to crush all the oppressed. This is an ideological offensive. And we’re going to fight back against it no matter what we’re called.
Umar, you’ve defended yourself from terror allegations by pointing out that you’re not a believer. Now looking back, do you think that was the wrong defence?
Khalid: No, it was also important to get the facts straight, The fact that they were calling me an Islamist, a Jaish-e-Mohammed sympathiser, who’s been to Pakistan, thus projecting a certain image of me. And it was easier to do that to me than to Kanhaiya or Anirban.
So, at first during the interrogation I said, “Why are you saying this, I am not a believer." But then I started thinking about it. This is the same police that has picked up so many Muslims. Khalid Mujahid, a madrassa teacher, was killed in custody. Was picking him up correct? Was framing him correct? Was killing him correct?
After a while then, I even wanted to assert my Muslim identity to the police. If you’re going to profile and witch hunt me for being born in the Muslim community then I am going to very well assert my Muslim identity in that case. It became more politically correct to assert my Muslims identity in fact. I can denounce my Muslim identity because I’m privileged to have received an English education and I’m in JNU. The vast majority of the Muslim population don’t have access to these resources. So am I taking advantage of my privilege? And in my defence, am I implicating someone else? These are the questions that started swirling through my mind.
You’ve spoken of a media trial. What does that mean?
Khalid: I remember February 10. After the incident we spoke to a lot of TV channels – Zee, Times Now, Sudharshan – which was a mistake. This was a trap that we fell into since we didn’t know what was happening at the time.
So high voltage was this that, in fact, Zee News itself claimed that the police only acted because of their coverage. Not only was the media witch hunting people, they were taking pride in the fact.
And the media wasn’t even acting independently. The narrative across channels was similar – deshdrohi, subsidy. It seemed that there were instructions from above. One day before the police charged us with sedition, Arnab Goswami on Times Now asked us to define what is Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code [sedition]. So was Arnab playing to a script to ensure that we were booked a day later on sedition charges? It’s a fantastic coincidence that he asked me this question.
Bhattacharya: [TV anchor] Deepak Chaurasia even asked [BJP spokesman] Sambit Patra whether he’ll take action on his show. That was completely scripted. Chaurasia told Patra that if he didn’t take action, there would be no difference between the BJP and the February 9 participants. The BJP therefore wanted that those questions be raised, pressure created so that they could act.
Khalid: NewsX in fact went so far as to call me a Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser. A government report even trashed their news. Did they run an apology after that? So journalistic ethics have gone to the dogs. We’ve seen in the past that when totalitarian governments have emerged, how they’ve used the mass media. And we’re seeing this again.
Guahar Raza, the scientist and poet, also declared "anti-national" during a television programme, is considering suing Zee News for Rs 1 crore. Will you also do the same?
Khaid: We haven’t finalised anything but we will surely explore that possibility. They cannot simply get away with anything.
How do you see the student movement develop after this?
Bhattacharya:: No doubt that polarisation in India does translate into votes, so that is a positive for the BJP. But the flip side is the boost to the student movement which has already come a long way forward. They thought they would bury Rohith’s death with JNU. But what happened was that "Stand with JNU" and "Justice for Rohith" merged together and became an ocean. FTII, Jadavpur, IIT Madras, University of Hyderabad, these things all came together. This is a Student Spring. Today, students are providing issues for the Opposition. "Unprecedented" or "historic" is an understatement. Who stood up, who challenged it when fascism was in the ascendancy? History will ask this question.
Khalid: The problem with the RSS is that with their authoritarianism they always understate the people’s power, who in turn have always given them a befitting reply. In the Rohith Vemula case, they thought they’ll bully a few people – the HRD ministry wrote some letters – and that’ll be that. But in the end, this ended up becoming a national movement.
It’s the same case with JNU. They thought they’ll simply target a few people, brand them anti-national. But what’s happened instead is that it’s become a big movement.
That last time the student’s movement was this big was in the 1960s and 1970s with the Naxalbari movement.