On February 9 last year at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, an event centred around the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru led to six students being booked in a case involving sedition. As some media outlets created a storm claiming that anti-national slogans had been chanted at the event, some of the accused students went into hiding. Three of them were arrested. The university announced punishments for them ranging from fines to rustication. Protests against the actions of the authorities on the JNU campus soon spread across the country.
A year on, five of those six students at the heart of the controversy are still studying at the university – one left after submitting his PhD thesis. But they said that they have continued to pay for their involvement in the February 9 event. They also remain defiant as they look for ways to commemorate the first anniversary of what they call the “attack on JNU”. A public meeting on sedition and freedom of debate has been agreed upon. The date, however, is a matter of contention. One set of students is leaning toward February 9 but others argue that February 12 – the day the Delhi Police arrested Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar – was when the “real attack” began.
The Delhi High Court in May stayed the punishments handed down to the six students, but they said they continue to face “systematic targeting” by the university administration. Notices and summons have been “distributed like prasad”, said Kumar. Some of these notices were for protests held months and even years before the contentious event, he said.
Anant Prakash Narayan, former vice-president of the JNU Students’ Union and one of the six accused students, said, “They want to be able to say we are history-sheeters, that we come here only for politics and not education.”
The students have also accused the administration of failing to follow due process in the enquiry against them, which will make “tossing [them] out” easier.
Outside campus, the sedition case being pursued by the Delhi Police’s anti-terrorism unit, the Special Cell, is in limbo. Most of the investigating officials, including the unit’s chief, have been transferred to other departments. The force itself has seen two police commissioners in the past year. BS Bassi, who was commissioner at the time, had drawn a lot of flak for his disproportionate action in the case. But his successors have mostly ducked questions pertaining to the university. The police completed the process of recording the statements of all the people related to the case only in November. That month, a statement of evidence and a report were filed. But there has been no chargesheet yet, said a senior police official on condition of anonymity.
After a year of turmoil, Scroll.in spoke to the six students and found all of them still active in student politics.
Kanhaiya Kumar, 30, PhD fourth year
Kanhaiya Kumar has four months left at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently writing his thesis on Social Transformation in South Africa, while fielding a steady stream of notices from the administration. He is also expecting a court summons from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. In addition to the sedition case in Delhi, he explained, “about 15 cases have been filed in other places – Hyderabad, Gwalior, several districts of Bihar”. The charges say he spoke “against the country, against the Army, wants India to break into pieces”.
His arrest for sedition on February 12 propelled the self-effacing Kumar to instant stardom, and he has since had a steady gig as a speaker at rallies across India. After Bihar, he has made the maximum number of visits to Kerala. The month he spent in jail has produced a book: From Bihar to Tihar was published in October and Kumar is now a familiar sight at literary festivals.
He received a Rs 10,000 fine for his alleged involvement in the February 9 event but challenged it in court. Regarding the police case, he said there should be a proper investigation. “Otherwise it would mean the government merely used the law as a tool against the students, that it was all a joke,” he added.
Once he completes his PhD, he hopes to teach. He is undecided on whether he will join a political party and become a politician.
Umar Khalid, 29, PhD fourth year
In September, Umar Khalid was jostled by a crowd in a cinema hall in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar. He has been called a terrorist by strangers on the streets. But Khalid has learnt to take the unwanted attention in his stride. “When you fight a fascist government, you become an eyesore,” he reasoned. “You have to stand your ground.”
He did that about the punishment handed down to him, refusing to comply with either the semester-long rustication or the fine. As one of the organisers of the February 9 event, he also did time in Tihar jail.
Little has changed for Khalid on campus. He is still tracing the history of Singhbhum district in Jharkhand for his PhD, and joining protests – though now, he is “recognised everywhere”. He participated in the protests that broke out at the university in October following the disappearance of student Najeeb Ahmed, allegedly after an altercation with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Khalid said there had been one positive outcome of the “vilification” faced by JNU students: “a solidarity was forged between students across campuses”. He also said some of the pressure on his family has eased. After the controversy broke last year, when Khalid was still in hiding, his two sisters had faced threats and adverse comments that had forced the younger girl, just 12 years old, to stay away from school and miss her term-end examinations. Khalid said these threats have now stopped.
However, he said the public had not been fair to his father, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, over his past association with the now-banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India, even though he left it in 1985. Ilyas, who now heads the Welfare Party, had said last year that his son was being “branded a terrorist” because of this. Even now, Khalid said, his father, whose politics is fundamentally different from his own, “is judged on what I do”.
Once done with his PhD, Khalid hopes to be a writer.
Anirban Bhattacharya, 31, has submitted PhD
Anirban Bhattacharya was to leave for West Bengal for the final field visit for his thesis on the history of tea plantation labourers in the state’s Dooars area on February 19 last year, 10 days after the event at the university of which he was one of the organisers. But that never happened.
“The last few months are the most crucial,” said Bhattacharya, who now works as a researcher with a Delhi-based think tank. “By the time I was released from jail, re-planning the visit was not an option. The last chapter in my thesis paper had to be modified.”
Bhattacharya was rusticated from April 25 to July 15 but given a nine-day window till July 25 to submit his PhD. He managed to do that but expects the viva voce to be delayed. “The administration has problems with me because of the February 9 issue,” he said. The campus has been declared out of bounds for him since July 25 and he was also fined Rs 20,000.
But he said that he has “remained involved in JNU movements as I always was”, adding, “In fact, the events of last February led to increased political awareness among students. They got a closer look at things they had so far learnt only in theory.”
He claimed the incidents surrounding the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed were another attack upon the university. “There have been multiple attacks post February 2016, including the installation of grilles in the protest area, issuing notices to students at an unprecedented frequency and changes in the admission criteria,” he said. “These are more challenging for the student resistance.”
Ashutosh Kumar, 28, PhD third year
The students’ union president in 2014-’15 has just had his PhD topic confirmed – Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Policy Toward Indian Communist Movement. There is just one hitch. The research involves archival work and considering that most of the documents he needs are in the United Kingdom, it would require travel. Funds are not likely to be a problem, but the inquiry and police case against him in connection with the February 9 event would almost certainly be. In addition to being fined Rs 20,000, he was suspended from his hostel for a semester. Till the High Court ordered a stay on the punishments, Kumar stayed on in a university hostel as a guest.
In the months following the court case, Kumar and fellow members of the All India Students’ Association travelled to various campuses, addressing students as part of a national campaign. Their meetings were disrupted and violence was routine, but they found in ordinary students a receptive audience.
The biggest change, however, has been in his family. Kumar’s grandfather was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “The press carried stories calling my grandfather a nationalist and me an anti-national,” he said. “My family had right-wing leanings but the JNU issue changed their mindset. They have become anti-RSS on many issues too.”
Anant Prakash Narayan, 30, PhD third year
In September, Narayan was accused of stealing a bus and fined Rs 3,000 for it. The notice accused him of “intercepting, boarding a new disabled-friendly AC mini bus and [keeping] it parked near Ganga Dhaba [an eatery on the JNU campus] for two hours”. As vice-president of the students’ union in 2014-2015, Narayan had campaigned for a campus bus. “I had just received the driver and bought him dinner,” he recalled, laughing. He paid up so he could join the next semester.
Narayan, currently writing his thesis on Politics of Rape Law Reform, has been part of every protest on campus and the recipient of a barrage of notices. One of them was for attending a screening of the documentary Caste on the Menu Card in November 2015. He said he was not even there. Narayan has also been served a notice over the alleged confinement of the university’s vice-chancellor and administration officials by students on October 19-20 over the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed.
Back home in Chandauli near Varanasi, Narayan participated in programmes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), and with fellow members of the All India Students’ Association toured universities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
The Rs 20,000 he was originally fined for the February 9 event was later reduced, but he did not pay up. The impasse over the punishments had led to some students being blocked from registering in the new academic year. Narayan said he believed the word “provisional” had been added against his name in the university records.
Rama Naga, 26, PhD first year
The former students’ union general secretary has the thickest stack of notices. They include those he received for allegedly inviting a group to perform at an event on campus on International Worker’s Day, burning the effigy of gau-rakshaks (cow protection activists), attending the screening of the documentary Caste on the Menu Card in 2015, being part of a protest demanding that the library be kept open 24 hours in the same year, and for the alleged lockdown protest over the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed last year.
Like Ashutosh Kumar, he was suspended from the hostel and fined Rs 20,000, a penalty that was later halved. At the time of the event last February, Naga had completed just one chapter of his MPhil dissertation and had two more chapters left to do. He worked on these while sitting on hunger strike in the parking lot of the administrative block to protest the punishments.
But things are looking up for him now: Naga has received confirmation for a PhD and hopes to base his work on BR Ambedkar. He has also been allowed to apply for a fellowship, after initially being blocked from doing so in the wake of the February 9 event. Another penalty, of Rs 5,000 for the Worker’s Day protest, was raised with the help of teachers and students. And he settled his mess bills amounting to Rs 15,000, including fines for non-payment, in January.
“The administration wants everyone to think we are interested only in politics and disturb the academic process,” he said, explaining the volley of notices and enquiries.
In the year since the events of February 2016, the police have been called to the university several times, including during the unrest over Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance in October and in connection with a rape case. The administration, too, sought their help on at least two occasions – during the lockdown protest, also in October, which saw the vice-chancellor and various officials allegedly confined to their office for an entire day, and for the executive council meeting in January. In both instances, the police were stationed outside the campus.
The university’s own security apparatus has also remained in place, even as questions have been raised about its policy regarding the entry of outsiders. “The February 9 event was an exceptional case,” the institution’s chief security officer, Naveen Yadav, said. “Security strategy inside the campus is a routine exercise and it cannot depend on an exceptional event like that. In general, the campus witnesses numerous protest marches, debates, public meetings and other events every month and the security unit is totally capable of dealing with those.”
He said that police teams are usually stationed outside the campus gates as the varsity has its own security arrangements. “But if anyone inside dials 100 and reports an incident, we cannot stop the police from entering,” he added.