By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz:
A lot has happened in the last few days. The five students who went ‘underground’ resurfaced in the evening in JNU after almost a week on Feb 21. Two of them have already handed themselves over to the High Court, seeking protection, and the other three are cooperating with the police in their investigations. A complex legal battle appears to be underway.
This is an attempt to make sense of the events that have sparked off debates all over the country about what makes a ‘nation’ and who is a ‘nationalist’.
The police continued to interrogate journalist Sadiq Naqvi, formerly with Hard News magazine. He had been brought back the day before from his home town Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, and was interrogated from 11 am to 6 pm. His lawyer Natalia Shibli told me that the Special Branch of Delhi Police, the agency which questioned him, termed the interrogation “a healthy discussion”. However, it left Naqvi, a young journalist, well-known in the progressive and liberal circles for his reporting, “shaken and anxious”, Shibli told me later that night.
On Sunday, the police summoned him again. The official ground was that Naqvi had been friends with Umar Khalid since their DU days. Hence, the police was trying to find out from Naqvi any leads on Khalid. Unofficially, almost everyone who assembled outside the Vasant Vihar police station – activists like Manisha Sethi from Jamila Milia Islamia’s Teachers Association, former JNUSU president Mona Das who now teaches at DU, and Naqvi’s friend the journalist Valay Singh – seemed to agree that this was an attempt to intimidate the English language media and a pressure tactic to get Khalid to surrender.
The police’s attitude was quite unmistakable and so was the behaviour of the TV reporters. I remember spotting a police officer debriefing some TV reporters, who hung on to his every word. “We are looking for his (Naqvi’s) friends in the media who are backing Khalid, especially those working with magazines. You should let us know if you come across someone like that,” said the pock-marked, bearded ACP.
Nevertheless, I asked him why the police had detained Naqvi. “Don’t speak to me in English,” he snapped and refused to answer any of my questions, claiming that he was speaking “off-the-record” to his “friends”.
By Sunday, Naqvi’s parents and other family members had also gathered at the police station. The mood was sombre. No one could comprehend what took the police so long and the consensus was firmed up that this was nothing but intimidation and a warning to the ‘underground’ Khalid about what was in store if he did not appear in public soon and gave himself up.
Finally, Sadiq Naqvi was let off after spending the day at the police station. The police served summons and questioned other students from JNU too about the matter.
The same evening, the “underground” students began to resurface. A key AISA source said that all three AISA leaders who had gone “underground” came to JNU in the same auto-rickshaw. “In fact, the auto-rickshaw driver started to speak about the JNU controversy to the absconding students and we told him that they were travelling in his auto-rickshaw,” the AISA source said.
JNUSU office bearer Rama Naga addressed the assembled students at the admin-bloc and confirmed that they were no more “underground”.
In a few hours, news spread that Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya had also resurfaced, along with Naga, Ashutosh and Anant Prakash, the last two office-bearers in the last JNUSU.
By 12 am, I had reached the campus, along with a couple of other journalists. The main gate was barred for TV crews. Some of the TV anchors and reporters who had been gunning for the students and branding them ‘anti-nationals’ hung outside the gate, their faces long and grim. The revolution was, after all, not going to be televised, it seemed.
Inside the campus, the administration block was filled with students anxiously waiting for the denouement of the latest act in the drama that started after the police picked up Kanhaiya Kumar.
To clarify, Kanhaiya is not the first president of the JNUSU since Emergency to have been picked up by the cops. Vijoo Krishnan, the JNUSU president and now a member of CPM’s Central Committee was picked up too, on October 2 in 1999 from the campus. Krishnan, along with others like CPM dissident Prasenjit Bose was taken to Tihar and kept there over the weekend. They had been protesting outside the UGC building on September 23 for implementation of 6th pay commission’s recommendations. The case was finally settled in 2014 when they were all let off.
Krishnan told me that the right-wing had been upset with JNU since L.K. Advani wasn’t allowed to enter the campus to launch a book by a JNU professor. “Following the denial of entry to Advani, Swapan Das Gupta wrote a piece demanding action against JNU,” said Krishnan.
Later on, during Vajpayee’s time, two serving army majors had brandished pistols during a performance by two Pakistani artists at the campus, following which a committee was set up to inquire into the incident.)
The most pressing concern expressed by students was that the police should not enter the campus. Considering the earlier events in which the police was allowed to enter the campus and raid hostels, most of the students were not sure of the VC’s intentions. Everyone was certain that the police would swoop down any moment and arrest the five students.
The speeches began again, while students discussed if the VC has had a change of heart after the rebuke by Noam Chomksy, among others. Speaking first, Anant Prakash, a bespectacled young man with a stubble, emphasised upon what he saw as the progressive character of JNU – “People want to know what JNU is all about? Tell them that JNU is the space where all the oppressed voices come together to speak and shake the nation out of its stupor. Despite political differences, when the university is rubbished, questions are raised about it, students and teachers come together to set an example of unity… We will continue to be the voice of the poor no matter how many sedition charges are slapped against us.”
After Prakash, Shehla Rashid. Vice-President of JNUSU took over the mic and ripped apart the TV media, especially Zee News, calling it “Chee (rubbish) News”, drawing hearty chuckles from the students.
Then, she introduced the next speaker. “I am going to let you hear the speech of a terrorist. You have heard a lot of slander against him. Have you ever seen a terrorist who faces blows in order to fight for the fellowships of students? Have you seen a terrorist who fights for the rights of women? Have you seen a terrorist who goes on a hunger strike for more hostels? If not, let me show you one,” she said, before letting Umar Khalid take over.
But not before slogans rented the air.
“We salute, red salute, red salute to comrade,” a friend of Umar’s raised the slogan, in a high-pitched voice that broke at times, making the tense crowd giggle at the comic relief. They shouted back: “We salute, red salute, red salute to comrade.”
Umar’s speech has since been widely circulated and no surprises there. It was high on emotion and humour, and the crowd lapped it up.
After Umar, Anirban Bhattacharya spoke. “I am not going to thank you for standing up for us. You did it well and I know you will do it again. I am certain of that,” he said.
Bhattarcharya was prescient and said that he knew they were going to be arrested, no matter the vigil. But it took two more days before that was to happen.
After the speeches, the crowd started again to wait for the police crackdown. While the TV media was not allowed in, several print journalists had managed to enter. Around four in the morning, hungry students and journalists moved to a nearby canteen which had been opened at that ungodly hour to serve some food and drinks.
Umar was the star as students wanted to click pictures with him or simply hug him and show their solidarity.
By five am, even senior student leaders began to lose patience. “I feel like calling the cops myself and asking them to come and arrest the students so this situation can be avoided,” joked a senior AISA leader.
During the day, negotiations had continued between the VC and the teachers and students. While it became certain by afternoon that the police would not be allowed to enter the campus, confusion remained about the next course of action. A senior AISA leader said that while they wanted the charges to be dropped completely, it would be harder said than done. Same for having only the University investigate the matter.
Another matter of confusion was whether the five students would participate in the next day’s rally from Ambedkar Bhawan to Jantar Mantar. Initially, it appeared that they would. However, this caused a bit of panic in the Left circles. A CPM leader told me that this could lead to a disruption of the rally by right-wing forces.
By next morning it was decided that they won’t participate to avoid that situation – as confirmed to me by Banojyotsna Lahiri, formerly with the DSU – and would take recourse to the legal process. The rally was held but not with problems. It had quite a few organisations participating and they all followed their own agendas, without much coordination between them.
The High Court agreed to accept the surrender of Umar and Anirban and they were picked up by the police later at night. The other three students were asked to cooperate with the police in their investigations. They have till date not been arrested.
Umar and Anirban were questioned by the cops. They were asked about their ideological leanings and the event they had organized.
Meanwhile the JNU administration debated how to burnish the nationalist credentials of JNU. The retired army officer G.D. Bakshi, who has made a reputation as an “ultra-nationalist” also paid a visit to the university to discuss the matter.
Smriti Irani, HRD minister, spoke on Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the JNU issue in Parliament.
Continuing with the slander against JNU, a Rajasthan MLA claimed that JNU students committed 50% of the rapes that took place in Delhi. He had earlier attracted ridicule after claiming that JNU students used 3000 condoms a day.
The police questioned all the three students Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar together. The police said that it did not wish to keep Kanhaiya in custody anymore.
The police asked Ashutosh to appear at the South Campus police station for an interrogation.
He was finally let off at 8 pm, after being questioned for 11 hours. Umar and Anirban’s police custody was extended by two more days. Meanwhile, Kanhaiya told a probe panel appointed by the Supreme Court that he was beaten up by lawyers in Patiala House Court even as the police watched and did nothing to save him.
Ashutosh’s lawyer Sarim Naved told me that all three – Ashutosh, Anant and Rama – had given it in writing that they had nothing to do with the event organised on February 9 and that they were willing to join the investigations.
Incidentally, Anmol Ratan, an AISA leader told me that the police had also picked up the owner of a photocopy shop in Bersarai, near JNU, who published their pamphlets, for interrogation.
The divide between the various Left factions also started to come to fore. An AISA leader said that at the Tuesday rally, the CPM had objections to Umar being projected as a leader and this led to some heated discussions. The AISA leader also criticised the ex-DSU members for landing all the Left organisations in a soup.
A campus based group the New Materialists released a pamphlet on the issue which got the police alarmed. However, the members of the group were spared an interrogation. The AISA leader expressed dismay at the release of the said pamphlet as it amounted to taking back the discussion back to Afzal Guru when it had already moved away from it to larger questions of nationalism.
A student leader belonging to the DSF told me that the movement seemed to lack a “coherent leadership” and that the unity between different Left factions was “conditional, as always in JNU”.
In a saga that clearly looks to have no end anytime soon, to wait, watch and discern truth from propaganda is perhaps all we can and must do.
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