Media Trial of Umar Khalid: What The Nation Needs To Know

This statement of solidarity seeks to:

– Stop the vicious witch hunt of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and others against whom baseless sedition charges have been slapped by the government
– Condemn the undemocratic attitude of the Centre and the Delhi Police who have ignored the violent activities of lumpen elements in Patiala House and other public spaces
– Condemn the elaborate media trial of the targeted JNU students, especially Umar Khalid.

Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living of conjoint communicated experience.

Dr BR Ambedkar

Before we begin commenting on the events, we would like to state that we do not subscribe to the logic of placing the students of the campus in opposition to the rest of the country, as reported viciously across electronic media. We also do not believe that any of the students had at any point unleashed a war on the nation or made an open threat to the State. These students are not ‘fringe elements’ carrying a sentiment that is an insult to this nation. What these students however represent is an alternate view that has been widely discussed and debated in the academia, literature, civil society and even popular culture for a long time. We believe that there is nothing wrong in conducting a cultural evening criticising capital punishment in the context of the judicial hanging of Afzal Guru. We also believe that there is nothing wrong, either constitutionally or otherwise, to engage with the violence in Kashmir, which has been under discussion since a long time.

So when former members of Democratic Students Union organised a cultural evening, ‘A Country Without a Post Office’ to mark a space for dialogue, they were acting well within their constitutional rights. In legal language, this does not qualify as an act of sedition, neither does the act of sloganeering that happened during the event. To understand this, one could also look at Supreme Court judgments which have many a time rapped successive governments for their irresponsible use of sedition, a draconian law made under the British occupation of India. This is the same draconian law that the Britishers used against Gandhi, and Tilak. To quote an instance, post the assassination of Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India, Balwant Singh raised the slogans ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ (Hail Khalistan) and ‘Hinduan nun Punjab chon kadh ke chhadange, hun mauka aya hai raj kayam karan da’ (We will drive Hindus out of Punjab; now is the chance to establish our rule). While the then police, under the behest of the ruling government, found it inflammatory and ‘anti-India’, the Supreme Court in not so many words categorically stated that the ‘police should not have attached much significance to the casual slogans raised… a couple of times and read too much into them. The prosecution has admitted that no disturbance, whatsoever, was caused by the raising of the slogans… and that in spite of the fact that the appellants raised the slogans a couple of times, the people, in general, were unaffected and carried on with their normal activities. The casual raising of the slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection towards the government.’

In other words, if the meeting or the act of sloganeering has not caused violence of any kind upon the protesting ABVP members, the JNU student community or the general public, then the activity is not sedition by law. Even the security report from the guards posted on JNU campus states that ‘at 8.30PM, all students dispersed peacefully and campus life was back to normal’. In this scenario, pertinent questions should be raised on the student activists of ABVP who felt it necessary that the issue be punished by a law that is oppressive in nature. One must also ask why the Vice Chancellor of a central university ‘cooperated’ with the Delhi Police and allowed it to raid hostels in search of students, as if they were the very mortal enemies of the State. Lastly, what prompted Zee News to film a cultural evening from 4.30 PM onwards in a campus which has been a site for public meetings, marches and mashaal julooses for as long as it’s establishment? What is the ‘exclusive story’ in JNU that the anchors on television are so offended about? Is it even a ‘story’ or are we moving away from a story that started with the institutional murder of a Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad, which still has the potential of becoming a student movement, led by Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan, students, questioning the casteist nature of every structure and apparatus in our country?

At present, it is not just the campus that is under siege. What is being systematically wiped out are the voices of a select few individuals whose thoughts, slogans and writings made their way to the mainstream public imagination despite immense hurdles. Our imagination could not take the words of Rohith Vemula, his dissent and his absolute distancing from the macabre that the university authorities played out in collusion with the BJP government. Rohith poignantly writes in his last words, ‘the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility’. Seeing this language of dissent galvanising a student movement unlike any other in the history of student politics in India, the State decided to prey on another university, this time, under the banner of ‘terrorism’, ‘Maoism’ and even ‘prostitution’. Umar Khalid a staunch atheist and one of the most well known faces of activism in JNU has been voicing his opinions in a loud clear voice on behalf of the most marginalized and dispossessed people in the country for years. Now in lieu of the volatile situation he has been linked to terrorist and dogmatic organizations from across the border, against which Khalid’s activism was fundamentally poised. This reductionist logic of linking his name to Pakistani terror outfits smacks of religious bias and makes no bones about the fact he is being targeted solely because of his Muslim identity. This reiterates the fact that this country has been branding and witch-hunting students from marginalised communities and even university spaces are not ‘safe’ enough for them to express their dissent with the State.

At the moment, posters of Umar Khalid have been put up across many parts of Delhi, thanks to the overenthusiastic debates on television. Arnab Goswami, heading a concerted media campaign, has passed a judgement on him and his ‘nationalism’. Goswami and his ilk have etched into public memory the idea that Khalid is a ‘potential terrorist’ and ‘needs to be nipped in the bud’. This has unleashed a vicious mob on Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and the JNU student community, both on social media and outside. What is more disturbing is the fact that a large number of self-proclaimed patriot vigilantes have violently started profiling and ‘trolling’ people who are coming out in support of either Umar, Kanhaiya, JNU or even freedom of expression. The messages of these trolls range from verbal abuses to death threats.

We, the undersigned, as students, alumni, professors, journalists, lawyers and as people who work in various public spheres condemn in the strongest possible words the reaction to the events that unfolded in JNU, a central university campus, which like many other university spaces has facilitated discussions, debates and dissent on political issues from various perspectives. We stand in solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and all the other student activists who are being witch hunted by the BJP government. We demand that all charges of sedition be dropped and all the TV channels issue a formal apology for maligning these students. We also demand that criminal cases be registered against the people who manhandled the professors, students and Kanhaiya Kumar in the court premises and against those who have issued death threats to them.

Signed by : Bhuvi Gupta, Ria De, Vasvi Oza, Nikhila H., Samata Biswas, Abhirup Dam, Ritam Sengupta, Koonal Duggal, Osama Faiyazuddin, Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, Anil Tharayath Varghese, Pritha Chakrabarti, Ananthakrishnan, Narayanan M S, Thahir Jamal KM, Masab Khalid, Mohammed Hammad, Lubaib Mohammed Basheer, Sudha K F, Nirmala M N, Shruthi Venukumar, Umair Siddiqui, Reju George Mathew, Yamini Krishna, Siddhi Pandey, Deepti Mulgund, Rini Dasgupta, Binayak Bhattacharya, Swathi Sadanandan, Kuldeep Prakash, Debayan Sinha, Deepti Sreeram, Lalit Shukla,

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