Some of the accused told TRT World that the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scapegoating them for electoral benefits as parliamentary elections are just a few months away.
NEW DELHI — In February 2016, most television channels across India ran high pitched commentary and debates directed towards some students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a state-run institution in India's capital New Delhi. They were accused of attempting to ‘break India’ and were called 'anti-nationals' on the basis of some video clips which were circulated on social media and messenger services.
On Monday, the controversy hit the spotlight again as the Delhi police, after a gap of three years, filed a charge sheet in a sedition case against Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, former students of the university. The charge sheet has been filed for allegedly raising “anti-India” slogans during an event organised in the university campus on the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging. Guru was convicted for his alleged role in the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.
“These are completely bogus charges. The fact that before coming to us, the charge sheet was leaked to the media shows that the police are not confident of their case and just want a media trial to begin,” Umar Khalid told TRT World, mentioning that neither him or the other accused have received a copy of the charge sheet yet.
Not just university students, many eminent writers, public intellectuals and human rights activists had also questioned the secrecy and haste with which Guru was hanged. They had questioned the fairness of the trial.
Soon after the 2016 incident, Kumar, Khalid and Bhattacharya were arrested. All three have since been on bail and have completed their PhDs from the university. The leaked videos on the basis of which the arrests were made were later found to have been doctored.
Apart from the trio, the 12,000-page charge sheet also names seven Kashmiri Muslims., some of them from other universities, for sedition. As many as 36 others, including former vice-president of the students’ union Shehla Rashid, have been named in column-12 of the charge sheet, citing lack of sufficient evidence against them. According to police officials, they have oral, electronic and documentary evidence against all the accused.
As soon as the charge sheet was filed, questions started being asked about its timing. When the initial arrests were made, the ruling BJP had come under criticism for allowing its legislators to make irresponsible statements and misrepresenting the campus incident. According to many, the sudden filing of the charge sheet after a near-silent hiatus of three years is a politically motivated action, given that India is just a few months away from its general elections.
“The people of this country have figured out that whether it is in terms of policies, or schemes or this charge sheet, that anything which comes up just before the elections, it is less to do with the truth and is more of an attempt to lure people into a different direction,” another accused Anirban Bhattacharya told TRT World. “Last year, a report revealed that the richest one percent of India bagged 73 percent of the total wealth generated in the country in 2017. The more this gap (between the richest 1 percent and the rest) widens, the higher will be the height of the statues and the government's lies”, added Bhattacharya, referring to the 182-metre high Statue of Unity inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
Bhattacharya’s comments seem to hold water as the ruling BJP in the country still seems to be reeling under the impact of implementation of demonetisation and goods and services tax, which according to experts, has bitten away a sizeable chunk of their voters. Besides, in the state assembly elections of December 2018, the BJP lost in their traditional strongholds - a defeat ascribed to the angst against the widespread agrarian crisis and rising unemployment. “They don’t want to be held accountable for the promises they made in 2014 when they came to power. So the agenda is to divert attention from important issues,” said Umar Khalid.
With roughly 90 days to go for the election, the BJP seems to be trying every trick in its bag to change the narrative that various protests against agriculture crisis and unemployment have set. The recent announcement and quick implementation of 10% reservation for the general category poor is also being read as one. But it is important to also point out, for the sake of clarity, what sedition actually means according to the Indian constitution.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is a colonial-era law that includes sedition as an offence to bring or attempt to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government by written or spoken words, signs or visible representation. In a 1962 case, Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, the Supreme Court had noted that comments, however strongly worded, do not amount to sedition if they do not have the tendency of inciting violence. Despite the apex court’s stand on sedition, the past few years have seen arbitrary cases of sedition filed, not even a fraction of which have reached a conviction.
“We are not aware of the politics or the motives and the politics behind the charge sheet. But we will fight it in the court and we will hold the people who are spreading these obnoxious lies responsible,” Bhattacharya said. “Farmers are out on the streets, Dalits and Muslims are out on the streets, the youth who were promised jobs are out on the streets. They have figured out the government’s lies which cannot be hidden for long,” added Bhattacharya.
Khalid shares a similar opinion when he says, “This regime is having a difficult time convincing people that they did some development or that demonetisation was a success. Earlier, the government was able to sway the public through fabrication and lies but everything has come out in the open now.”