An evening with Delhi’s most wanted "anti-nationals"

Umar Khalid walks through the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi on 22 February, 2016. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
23 February, 2016

On the night of 21 February 2016, Sunday, five students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) came out in public for the first time since the Delhi police charged them with criminal conspiracy and sedition on 12 February. Umar Khalid, Ashutosh Kumar, Rama Naga, Anirban Bhattacharya, and Anant Prakash Narayan appeared at the administrative block of the university around midnight. The five of them had gone missing since the arrest of JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on 12 February on the charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. The reason they had not come out in public before, Khalid later said, was not because they feared arrest, but because they were worried about a “mob lynching.”

The charges against these students were levied following their alleged organisation of an event on 9 February, which was held to mark the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, who was convicted for his alleged role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Parliament. This event kicked off the spate of protests that continues to this day. Although the organisers had originally received permission to conduct the programme, they were told at the last minute that the administration had withdrawn the permission. This was supposedly after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right wing student organisation allied with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had complained that the event was “anti-national”

While Kumar’s “anti-national” credibility was firmly cemented in the public eye due to his alleged sloganeering, Khalid has been declared, by sections of the media, as a terrorist. Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now and ET Now, repeatedly asked during a debate on the “anti-nationals of JNU” on his show, The Newshour, “Who are these people? What do we know about them?” Even before a panellist could respond, we heard a hint of the answer from Goswami: “When we seek to identify who are the terror groups—we don’t know. And in this case we don’t know who these people are.” This did not stop him from speculating about the JNU organisers’ pro-Pakistan connection.

A step ahead of Times Now’s paranoid coverage, was Zee News. Sudhir Chaudhary, the editor of the channel, called Khalid a “traitor.” A special report on the same channel also declared that the country now “recognises the face” of the agitation—Khalid—as being against the Indian constitution and law. The report went on to dismiss the fairly low position at which Khalid’s name was listed on the poster for the 9 February event, “It does not matter on what number is Umar Khalid’s name in the poster for the event that was organised in the JNU. But is it not the truth that he is the torchbearer of this entire movement?”

NewsX, another news channel, tweeted that Khalid was a Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser, quoting an unidentified Intelligence Bureau report that was later debunked by intelligence officials, who called it “a figment of someone’s imagination.” The channel has yet to issue a correction. It was not just the press that had a markedly specific view of Khalid, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had stated that the JNU protest had the backing of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, following a tweet by an unidentified individual. Intelligence and police sources, however, told The Indian Express there was no evidence to support this and that the account, (now suspended by Twitter), also misspelt the spelling Saeed has used for his name in the past.

Meanwhile, ABP News claimed that Khalid had been pasting pictures of naked Hindu gods and goddesses around the campus.

As the most notorious face in the media addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered in anticipation of police action, Khalid gave a rousing speech. He thanked and congratulated the students and members from the faculty who have stood up with him. He joked about his “media-trial.” “I have, in the past few days, learned things about myself that I myself wasn’t aware of,” he said. Khalid continued,“I do not have a passport, but it turns out that I have visited Pakistan twice. I learned that I am a mastermind who is organising these protests in universities around the country. Then I learned that I have made 800 phone calls to the Gulf and Kashmir and Pakistan. They don’t even say allegedly anymore! All of it, based on nothing. If Jaish-e-Mohammed gets to know that I was linked to their organisation, they’ll start protesting in Jhandewalan.”

“I knew that I had all your support, but I panicked when I saw the kind of vicious things being said about my sisters and my father—these included threats of rape. I got reminded of the time when people from the Bajrang Dal were shouting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ while raping women in Kandhmal. And here I want to reiterate what Kanhaiya [Kumar] had said in his speech—ki ye tumhari Bharat Mata hamari Bharat Mata nahi hai, aur ye kehte hue hume koi sharm nahi hai.—Your India is not our India, and we are not ashamed to say so.” He said that in the seven years that he had practiced politics in the university, he had never felt or projected himself as a Muslim. This changed in the last ten days.

The five students had said that they would peacefully court arrest if the police arrived to arrest them. This seemed inevitable with the Commissioner of Police, BS Bassi stating that there was enough evidence against Khalid and that the onus was on the students to produce evidence of their innocence. Yet, when two police vans showed up at the university’s main gate, they were turned back by the security guards for not having the vice chancellor’s permission to enter the grounds. They stood waiting outside.

After giving his speech, Khalid sat down, sipping juice from a tetra pack. He seemed thinner than he did in the pictures that I had seen of him. He did not speak to me, or anyone else from the media. He joked around with his friends, who in turn had formed a protective shield around him. Throughout the night, as he slept in front of the administrative block—no one came to arrest him, this figure of intense public scrutiny.

After the police were turned back from the gate at around 1 am, the crowd gathered around the administrative block thinned considerably; but many stayed. About a 100 people—a mix of students, journalists, and alumni, gathered around two bonfires. Some sang songs, some played cards, some walked about; a shop in the university kept serving tea and biscuits till sunrise. There was anticipation. The police, after all, could have come at any moment. They did not.

The morning brought with it, a fresh set of rumours. That Bassi himself would be coming to the campus at 8 am. He did not. That the students would surrender themselves at 10 am. This was not the case. The vice chancellor would arrive with the assistant commissioner of police and escort the students who had been charged outside the university, to be arrested. They did not.

At about half past eleven, Shehla Rashid Shora, the vice president of the JNUSU, read out the demands that the student’s council planned to bring before the vice chancellor. This list stated that there was no need for police intervention; and that, in light of the recent discoveries of doctored videos, charges against the accused should be dropped. But, most importantly, Shora said, “we would like to make it clear that the JNUSU does not in any way support the idea of police coming inside the campus, we will not share the blame if they are allowed inside, that is a decision that the vice chancellor’s office has to take on its own.”

As I left the campus on the afternoon of 22 February, Monday, the police vans still waited outside. “But now they are outside the other gates as well,” I heard someone say as I walked out.