A Delhi court on Monday began sedition proceedings against former JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya five years after they became synonymous with dissent against the ruling BJP and their university captured the public imagination as the fulcrum of this resistance.
By Monday the trio had aged beyond their years, with strands of white hair, and the shadow of the case had prevented them pursuing teaching careers despite their having earned PhDs.
Kanhaiya is now a national council member of the CPI, Khalid has been in Tihar prison for the past six months on terror charges in connection with a speech linked to the Delhi riots, and Bhattacharya works for a think tank.
In court, they stood near one another and Bhattacharya pinched Khalid to lighten the sombre mood, drawing smiles from the former classmates gathered there.
While the trio already have bail in the case, the seven other accused — young Kashmiris who were students in 2016 — were granted the relief during the brief proceedings on Monday.
The case stems from the events of February 9, 2016, when Khalid, Bhattacharya and others had organised a “poetry reading” session titled “The country without a post office”, after Agha Shahid Ali’s poem of the same name. It was meant to mark the third anniversary of the execution of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
The session was violently disrupted by RSS student arm ABVP, prompting the varsity students’ union, led by Kanhaiya, its then president, to intervene in support of the organisers. Kanhaiya and the rest were accused of chanting “anti-national” slogans.
Apart from sedition, the charges the 10 accused face include voluntarily causing hurt, forgery, unlawful assembly, rioting and criminal conspiracy. The police filed the case on complaints from the ABVP and then BJP parliamentarian Maheish Girri, and later transferred it to their anti-terror unit’s special cell.
Kanhaiya, Khalid and Bhattacharya spent several weeks in Tihar jail before securing bail and becoming public speakers and activists for free speech and secularism.
The same Patiala House Courts where Monday’s hearing took place had seen men wearing black coats attack teachers, journalists and activists on February 15, 2016, and beat up Kanhaiya in the presence of police two days later.
All 10 accused were in the court on Monday. They included former JNU students Mujeeb Gattoo and Khalid Bashir Bhat; former Jamia Millia Islamia students Umair Gul (now a university teacher in Pulwama) and Basharat Ali, now a journalist; Aligarh Muslim University student and Gattoo’s brother Muneeb; dentist Aqueeb Hussain; and rights activist Rayees Rasool.
Umar Khalid was brought in from Tihar Jail under heavy security, which meant the hearing could begin only at 10.55am, almost an hour behind schedule.
As Khalid was rushed in by armed policemen, a journalist from a pro-government TV channel tried to question him in the corridor leading to the courtroom, drawing shouts from the police to move away.
Khalid asked the reporter: “For how long will you do paid journalism?”
Hearing the policemen’s shouts, many of those in the courtroom rushed to the window, unsure what was happening and fearing a return of the black coats of 2016.
None of the 2016 attackers, who allegedly included then BJP MLA O.P. Sharma, has faced prosecution although the violence took place on court premises in a high-security zone near India Gate.
Despite the memories of the attack on the court premises in 2016, several teachers were present on Monday. Among them were Moushumi Basu, secretary of the JNU teachers’ association, Kanhaiya’s former PhD guide Subodh Malakar, economist Surajit Majumdar, Delhi University sociologist Satish Deshpande and political scientist Saroj Giri.
Kanhaiya arrived on the court premises with 10 bouncers from Haryana who threw a cordon around him. Friends and sympathisers of the accused, lacking faith in the police to protect the defendants, had turned up in numbers while hardly any BJP supporters were present.
“In the attendance of this case, we have a majority,” Kanhaiya joked with The Telegraph.
A magisterial probe that Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government had ordered in 2016 had found that several purported videos of the February 9 incident had been doctored. These videos had aired on TV channels and led to mob frenzy and wildcat attacks on JNU students outside the campus.
The probe also found that varsity security guards had given false testimonies implicating the students during an internal inquiry by the JNU administration.
Then human resource development minister Smriti Irani had read out in Parliament the names of nine non-ABVP students whom the internal probe had found guilty of indiscipline in connection with the February 9, 2016, event. The chargesheet was filed in 2019 and the AAP government granted sanction for prosecution last year.
On Monday, the seven Kashmiri accused deposited bail bonds of Rs 25,000 each with equivalent sureties, and chief metropolitan magistrate Pankaj Sharma ordered the chargesheet to be given to the defendants who have to respond by April 7. Following this, the matter will be considered for committal to a sessions court that tries serious offences.
Judge Sharma said that requests for exemptions from personal appearance from Kanhaiya — on the CPI’s list of star campaigners for the Bengal polls — would be considered on a day-to-day basis by the sessions court.
Sharma allowed Umar Khalid to meet his family for 10 minutes at a holding cell on the court premises.
Khalid raised his fist in a salute to his old comrades while being led out at the end of proceedings and court formalities around 11.30am.