After addressing several student gatherings in the "freedom" square of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), its student union president Kanhaiya Kumar received a thunderous reception from thousands of people gathered for the "March for Democracy" at Parliament Street in New Delhi.
The protesters were drawn from different universities and colleges in Delhi and from universities in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. Hundreds of citizens from various walks of life boosted the numbers. The march was held to demand unconditional release of JNU students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya and of Delhi University Professor SAR Geelani, besides enactment of a pro-Dalit Rohith Vemula Act.
All the three - Umar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Geelani - have been charged under the Sedition Act of 1870 and are currently in the Tihar Jail. The protesters also want the scrapping of the Sedition Act which is widely believed to be a draconian law from the colonial era. Even as the media scampered, quite needlessly, to get shots of Kanhaiya, standing atop a mini truck, he lost no time and posed a question to the gathering: “Hum kya chahte?” (What do we want?) It was met by a deafening roar of “Azadi!”
He then went on and raised all the slogans that reflected the convergence of various groups, from Jai Bheem for the Dalit movement to affirming faith in the Indian Constitution.
In fact, one significant difference from the first rally held in JNU on February 18 to the one held on March 15 has been the cementing of student and people solidarity, and the unambiguous and uninhibited sloganeering of azadi - from hunger, casteism and communalism.
Undeterred by the extension of the judicial custody of their friends Umar and Anirban, the protesters raised slogans against the BJP government for targeting the autonomy of universities and protecting Union human resources development minister Smriti Irani.
“I am an MPhil student from Shimla, we have come to Delhi to let the government know that JNU is not alone, that we will not accept assault on the democratic values of our country,” said Deep Singh who comes from a village in Chamba.
Around 150 students from Himachal Pradesh were seen marching, looking a little out of place in their jackets and mufflers.
When Kanhaiya pointed out that the fate of universities is being decided by those who never went to a university the crowd went into raptures. Continuing with his speech, he added, “Modiji said, by giving speeches nobody becomes a leader. He was right. It applies to him the most. In this tamasha of anti-nationalism, aren’t we forgetting the promises of bullet train, black money and vikaas that he came to power with?”
Natasha, a young woman in sharp formals, said: “You tell me, shouldn’t I stand here with these students, who are now openly raising the same slogans that this government has charged them with sedition for? This has become a sick joke!” adding, “I am a lawyer and I believe that the government has crossed all limits by charging students with sedition.”
Arundhati Roy, author and activist, also addressed the gathering and said, “Those the government is labelling anti-nationals are the ones who love their country, their land, they want just distribution of natural resources. They will have to listen to these people including Umar, Anirban and Geelani.”
Two students held aloft a message which resonated with the mood of Roy’s speech and the march, and perhaps addresses the moot point which has been lost in the din of nationalism and anti-nationalism.
It said, "Let’s talk about Kashmir". After all, it all began with an event to protest Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s hanging. No video recording shows any of the students charged by the Delhi Police chanting any objectionable slogans. Those who are seen raising such slogans are still not identified.
“The government couldn’t target the group that raised slogans common in Kashmir because it will spoil their chances of forming a government in Jammu and Kashmir, all they want is to destroy JNU on this fake pretext,” said Sumit Kumwat, a student leader from Rajasthan’s Sikar district.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers' Association (JNUTA) general secretary Bikramaditya Chaudhary rejected the show cause notices issued to the students by the internal inquiry committee of the JNU administration alleging "vagueness of charges and mischief". He asked: “How is that a report of the inquiry committee of JNU is being leaked in real time to the media and why, and how can guilt be established without a proper inquiry?"
Another attack on Kanhaiya
Days after Kanhaiya was assaulted inside the JNU premises, there was another attempt to attack him while he was making his speech. Luckily for Kanhaiya, he remained unhurt and could resume his speech after a short disruption which was mainly caused by confusion and commotion.
“They are trying to scare us but we will continue our fight for social justice, and for democracy. As long as we are united nothing can happen to us,” was Kanhaiya’s comeback line after the attack.
The RSS and BJP remained the main targets of the march and RSS' decision to change their uniform from shorts to trousers inspired many a joke among the gathering. However, the students seem aware that their fight for Rohith, Umar and Anirban is going to be a long-drawn one and the attack on Kanhaiya a sign of their perilous struggle.
“We will keep this movement alive till our demands are met. This movement is not for one university, one minister’s resignation or for one law, this is a movement to save Indian democracy. Every citizen who performs his or her duty loves the country. Be it a senior government officer or a sweeper loves this country. We are students. Let us study and expand the horizon of knowledge. That is the function of a university,” Kanhaiya added.
It is time for everyone to introspect, instead of pitting soldiers versus traders and defining nationalism in a narrow way that disallows Indians from being Indian in the way they like.