The Delhi Police on Monday filed a chargesheet in the Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case that rocked Delhi and became a national flashpoint in 2016, accusing student activists Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya and others of being involved in a protest where some attendants allegedly shouted anti-national slogans. The timing of the chargesheet, coming after what the Times of India calls a “mysterious delay of over 900 days”, suggests that the Delhi Police’s team in charge of this investigation, the Special Cell, is either incompetent – its woeful conviction rate might bear this out – or was chosen with politics in mind.
Considering the history of Special Cell’s operations, which have often included cooking up terror cases at the bidding of the government in power only to see them fall apart eventually in court, it is likely that both incompetency and political motivations are involved. The JNU sedition case became a major controversy in 2016, after the government decided that the most important thing happening in India was a few student activists shouting slogans.
A rally convened on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, the convict in the Parliament attack case, eventually descended into skirmishes with Right-wing student activists, who tried to disrupt the protests. Videos then emerged on television of students at the rally belting out slogans about wanting India to break apart, but it became quickly that many of these videos had been doctored.
Regardless, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party jumped into the matter, sending police onto the campus and arresting a number of students, despite a lack of evidence against them. The rhetoric from the government encouraged violence against these students, and indeed on several occasions, there were mobs beating up activists and even journalists soon after.
Meanwhile, a magisterial investigation found no proof of seditious slogans by Khalid, Kumar and others, and that three of the witnesses in the university’s internal probe had given false statements. Despite this, the BJP kept the pot simmering with the aim of using its rhetoric to whip up nationalist sentiments and make the question of who counts as Indian central to the conversation, rather than a focus on the development it promised.
Similar efforts appear to be at play in the Bhima Koregaon case from 2018, where what began as violence provoked by Maratha groups against Dalit groups was turned into an “international Maoist plot” that featured even more spurious claims of a plot to attack the prime minister.
Additionally, sedition – a colonial-era law that was retained on the books despite former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru calling it an “obnoxious piece of legislation” – continues to be used essentially to target critics of the government in power. Most recently, Assamese literary critic Hiren Gohain was accused of sedition for criticising the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Governments of all stripes frequently invoke the sedition provision to take on their critics, and the ruling BJP’s embrace of this tactic in the JNU case came with the specific intent of turning it into a national debate.
With elections around the corner, and the BJP having just faced electoral defeat in three North Indian states, the timing of the chargesheet suggests the government would like to make this the focus yet again – instead of having the conversation focus on its economic and political track record. In 2016, the government did indeed succeed in turning JNU into a flashpoint. But three years later, its wider failures are much more apparent. Will the BJP once again be able to use the sedition bogey to distract from more pressing questions about the development it promised?