Last month, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) became the latest educational institution after Hyderabad Central University, and the Film and Television Institute of India to take a stand against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s right-wing politics. Against the backdrop of student dissent that has been brewing across the country for over a year now, JNU has emerged as a centre for the debate on nationalism. On 12 February 2016, the president of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested under the sections 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which refer to sedition and criminal conspiracy respectively. Kumar was arrested for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans at an event that was held in JNU on 9 February. As a number of JNU students confirmed, this event, condemning the hanging of Mohammad Afzal—convicted for his alleged role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament—was an annual affair at the university, and was fairly routine. However, this time, the JNU authorities—at the behest of the Akhil Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—withdrew the permission for the event a little before the scheduled time.
Kumar was not the only student to be arrested. Two of the event’s organisers, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, were also charged with sedition. They surrendered themselves to police custody on 23 February. Meanwhile, Kumar was finally released on bail by the Delhi High Court last evening, after having to furnish an undertaking which stated that he would not participate “actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national,” and that “as President of JNU Student’s Union, he will make all efforts within his power to control anti-national activities in the campus.”
According to the former JNUSU president, Lenin Kumar, such events and the ABVP’s response are not a recent phenomenon. Yet—spurred by the unprecedented media attention and the active interest taken by the government—this was the first time since the Emergency that the police had entered the campus and arrested students. For students at JNU, these arrests signified that the ABVP—in league with the JNU administration, which allowed the police to enter the campus—had broken the traditional intra-campus deadlock and gotten its way at the cost of the institution by resorting to external force.
Many of the students and faculty agreed that JNU had faced a lot of negative press over the past year, and that most of it could be attributed to news leaks or propaganda disseminated through social media. Saurabh Sharma, an ABVP member and the joint secretary of JNUSU—who helped ABVP enter the JNUSU panel after 14 years with his victory last year—told me that he had invited the press on 9 February. The visitors’ register, a log book that is maintained by the security guards at JNU, indicated that two television journalists from Asian News International (ANI) and Zee News had entered the campus through Sharma’s reference that day. Both these channels were among the several that ran clips of a mob shouting “anti-national” slogans at the event on 9 February. The authenticity of these clips has since been called into question. Ten days later, on 19 February, Vishwa Deepak, a producer at Zee News, resigned from the channel citing its coverage of the protests at JNU. Deepak asked, in a scathing letter, “Are we the mouthpieces of the BJP or the RSS that we will do whatever they say?”
“I’m just spreading information. Whatever issues come up in campus, I want that everyone should know about them,” Sharma told me when I asked him about why he had invited the media on 9 February. Sharma usually sends such information and regular updates to the press through a common group on WhatsApp, an instant messaging service. On 9 February, at 3:45 pm, he had sent out a message inviting people to protest against the “cultural evening to commemorate terrorist Afjal guru [sic]” that was to be held on the campus at 5 pm. Later, at 4.08 pm, Sharma sent another message stating that he had submitted a letter to the university administration, asking it to stop the programme from taking place.