On 9th February 2016, a group of students from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) gathered on campus to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru, a man who was convicted and eventually sentenced to death (hanged on 9th February 2013) for his involvement in the 2001 attacks on the India Parliament. Exactly a week later, this event has snowballed into a nationwide debate on dissent and sedition.
How and why? We explain everything that happened:
1. The Democratic Students Union (DSU) called for a meeting to commemorate the 3rd death anniversary of Afzal Guru
The idea was to host a “cultural programme” (an art and photo exhibition) on Afzal Guru and Kashmir on the JNU campus, for which JNU officials had originally given permission. Even though Afzal Guru was executed for his involvement in a terrorist attack on Parliament that killed 18 people and injured 22, many consider him a martyr.
For one, Afzal Guru was believed to have faced an unfair trial and the Supreme Court sentenced him to death “to satisfy the collective conscience of the Indian society”. For another, he is known to represent the fight against a free and independent Kashmir, because of which the media and government are believed to be prejudiced against him.
2. Right-wing organisations objected to this event, so JNU withdrew its permission
The very same day, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the right-wing student arm of the BJP wrote to the JNU Vice-Chancellor stating that such gatherings should not be held on campus so as to “avoid clashes”. The University obliged and permission was withdrawn.
3. Students went ahead with a protest, and the ABVP jumped in
The DSU students garnered support from the JNU Students Union (JNUSU), and other students unions to gather in solidarity for their “right to democratically and peacefully hold meetings”. In response, ABVP loyalists joined the rally to shout slogans like “Ye Kashmir hamara hai, saara ka saara hai”. Students responded with “Tum kitne Afzal marooge, har ghar se Afzal niklega”. Very quickly the protest turned aggressive.
4. Meanwhile, a fake Tweet aggravated the situation
An unverified Twitter handle, allegedly belonging to Hafiz Saeed, a terrorist leader from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), tweeted to invite JNU students to Pakistan to continue their “Pro-Kashmiri, Anti-India propaganda”. This made Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, declare that the JNU protests were supported by Hafiz Saeed.
5. JNU student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition
5000 people, a provocative tweet and few days of continued protests later, the Delhi Police, on the orders of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, were deployed to control the “anti-national” crowd. On Friday, 11th February 2016, JNU Student Union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on charges of sedition for his inflammatory speeches. The University also cracked down on a handful of students from entering the campus premises. Meanwhile, a decision was made to keep Kumar in custody for 5 days for interrogation.
6. Similarly, a DU lecturer was arrested for organising an indentical event
Monday, 15th February was Day 3 of Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest and he was scheduled to appear in Patiala House Court for a hearing. Students and reporters who were also present in the premises were attacked by a group of men disguised as lawyers, and the police allegedly did little to stop the violence.
Many suspect Hindu-nationalists behind this courtroom drama. In a similar incident, a former Delhi University lecturer, SAR Geelani, was also arrested for organizing a similar event commemorating Afzal Guru’s death. Coincidently, Geelani had also been pulled up in 2001 for his connection to the Parliamentary Attacks, but had been released for “need of evidence”.
7. The conversation has taken a BJP vs. Rest of India turn
Since the initial incident, the JNU story has snowballed into a larger debate on freedom of speech and Government interference on university campuses. While the BJP has defended its stance on the issue, Opposition leaders have rallied together against the Government.
Left party leaders like Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M) have implied that the crackdown on JNU students is the worst display of autocracy since the Emergency, while others like Nitish Kumar (JDU) believe that this incident will be the downfall of the NDA in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. BJP leader Amit Shah, on the other hand, has said that no dialogue that glorifies a terrorist would be tolerated.
8. JNU has now decided to punish the leaders of the student protests
Based on the findings of a specially instituted High Level Enquiry Committee, JNU announced punishments for the offending students on April 25th. JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was fined Rs 10,000 for his part in the proceedings, and 3 other students were rusticated. The JNUSU and the JNU Teachers Union (JNUTU) both declared their opposition to the ‘undemocratic’ enquiry process, and further protests on the campus are imminent.
The story looks likely to keep going for some time yet, so keep an eye out for further updates.