Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University whose arrest on sedition charges touched off a nationwide political row over free speech, was granted bail for six months on Wednesday.
The Delhi high court approved Kumar’s bail on a personal bond of Rs 10,000 and asked him to cooperate in investigations into allegations that he had delivered a seditious speech to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convict in the 2001 attack on Parliament.
The court said a university faculty member would have to become a guarantor for the PhD student who was arrested on February 12. Along with him, police had also accused two other students -- Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya -- of shouting shouted slogans such as “death to the Indian state” and calling for the “rise of Pakistan”. They surrendered to late last month.
The arrest of the students has reignited a debate over free speech in a country where supporters of the ruling BJP government have cast themselves as champions of patriotism and sought to stamp out dissent.
On Tuesday, co-accused — Khalid and Bhattacharya — were remanded to 14-day judicial custody. Kumar, however, distanced himself from the duo and said he had nothing to do with organising the contentious event.
The high court reserved its order on Monday after hearing arguments from both parties. While the Delhi police vehemently opposed the bail plea, defence lawyers and Delhi standing counsel, Rahul Mehra, supported Kumar.
The JNUSU president’s lawyer, Kapil Sibal, said the police acted hastily, based on an allegedly doctored video clip run by Zee News. Alternate videos showing Kumar chanting slogans against casteism and poverty have since emerged.
During the Monday hearing, that lasted three hours, Sibal argued that Kumar had never raised any slogans against the nation. He further said the only credible evidence available was CCTV footage that showed the student leader asking people for ID proof at the event in question.
The police, however, informed the court that they had eyewitness testimonies and other documentary evidence of Kumar’s participation in the rally. They further accused him of not cooperating with them, adding that joint interrogations held by the Intelligence Bureau and the Delhi police had produced contradictory statements from the 28-year-old.
Given the ongoing conflict over the evidence, the bench questioned the grounds on which the police charged Kumar for sedition and criminal conspiracy. If found guilty, however, Kumar could be sentenced to life in prison.
Kumar’s arrest and subsequent events, including being assaulted by lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala House Court complex, sparked outrage across the nation, pitting the ruling BJP against the Opposition. Universities across India also joined in protests against Kumar’s arrest, including a protest rally by student groups in Delhi’s Mandi House on Wednesday.
The controversy has also dredged up concerns about the sedition law, with many demanding it to be struck down. Political rivals also made a rare, united stand against the Centre, with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat sharing a stage.