Five JNU students accused of sedition sat guarded by a human chain formed by teachers and security personnel outside the university’s administrative block all day on Monday after reappearing on the campus on Sunday, having spent 10 days in hiding.
Police waited outside the university gates on Monday but did not enter the campus in the absence of mandatory permission from the vice-chancellor.
“Providing shelter and food to absconding suspects is a punishable offence that attracts charges of harbouring against the university (in this case). Till we have formal permission from the JNU administration, we can’t enter and raid the campus. We will wait for the students to surrender,” a senior police official said, adding that as the five were wanted by the law, it was the responsibility of the university administration to ensure they were handed over to police.
Delhi Police commissioner BS Bassi turned the principles of law on their head and said the students should prove their innocence. “They (students) should join the investigation. If they are innocent, they should present evidence of their innocence,” Bassi said.
Legal experts expressed surprise at his statement.
“I have never seen the police ask the accused to prove their innocence. This is a shocking statement to come from the commissioner of police,” said KTS Tulsi, a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court.
The five students – Umar Khalid, Anant Prakash Narayan, Ashutosh Kumar, Rama Naga and Anirban Bhattacharya – said fear of a police witch-hunt kept them in hiding. “We were in and around the campus. We did not leave Delhi. If they can beat Kanhaiya, the teachers and journalists inside the courtroom, imagine what all they can do. There is an atmosphere of fear and mob-lynching is happening,” Rama Naga, JNU student union general secretary and one of the five, said.
He was referring to union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was arrested on sedition charges and beaten up by a mob of lawyers outside a local court last week, triggering outrage and an angry response by the Supreme Court.
JNU registrar Bupinder Zutschi said the police did not ask the administration for permission to enter the campus. Some officials believe action has not been taken to avoid confrontation between students and teachers on one side and police on the other ahead of Parliament’s budget session that starts on Tuesday.
Associations of JNU teachers and students met the vice-chancellor on Monday, demanding the sedition charges be dropped. Zutschi said dropping charges was not under the university’s purview.
Narayan, Kumar and Nagar said they were in the campus through the 10 days but were hidden from the public eye. Khalid and Bhattacharya did not comment on their recent whereabouts.
The five students are accused of allegedly planning an event on February 9 against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, where “anti-national” slogans were allegedly shouted.
The issue has snowballed into a political controversy ahead of the budget session of Parliament with Opposition parties accusing the government of trying to muzzle free speech. But the government hasn’t backed down.
Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarathi Parishad also alleged that the students were harboured by JNU teachers and were in the campus over the past 10 days. The last time police entered the university to arrest Kumar, drawing a sharp reaction from civil society and JNU teachers.
Khalid, one of the organisers of the cultural event where the slogans were allegedly shouted, said, “They are scared of us. Afraid of us because we can think. To think is anti-national in today’s time. In fact, the easiest thing to do is to be an anti-national.”
However, sources close to Umar Khalid said that he would move the Delhi high court on Tuesday, offering to surrender. The student leader at the centre of the JNU controversy may also seek police security.
Earlier, Khalid and other four students had said they won’t surrender but if police comes it can arrest them.
JNU students and teachers will organise a protest event on Tuesday to seek justice for Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. “Let us not forget Vemula’s death. It has been a month and no one has been punished so far. Let us make sure that this issue is not forgotten,” said Shehla Rashid Shora, spearheading the movement against Kanhaiya’s arrest.