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originally received permission to conduct the programme, they were told at the last minute that the administration had withdrawn the permission.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.