“JIS tarah ka maahaul abhi banaya jaa raha, woh tab bhi tha. Fark yehi hai ki inko Afzal Guru ka samarthak bataya ja raha hai, aur hamein Osama ka kaha jata tha (The environment created then and now are quite similar. The only difference is that they are being labelled as supporters of Afzal Guru, while we were accused of supporting Osama bin Laden).”
Over 14 years ago, Sunil Kumar (35) — along with five friends, four of whom were studying then at Delhi University (DU) — was accused of sedition by the Delhi Police. Apart from Kumar, Shahzad Alam, Sunil Kumar Mandiwal, Naveen Chandra, Jeevan Mehta and Gurmeet Singh were picked up from the Bhajanpura area on October 8, 2001, while they were protesting America’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The sedition law was invoked as they were also opposing India’s support to the United States. All six were then associated with the Democratic Students Union and the All Indian People’s Resistance Forum.
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Having been through a similar ordeal as JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, Sunil Kumar has been following the latest sedition controversy closely. But Kanhaiya and Umar, he feels, are worse off, particularly because of the government’s aggressive posturing on the controversy.
While the government continues to defend the crackdown on JNU students, the NDA-I had dropped the sedition charges in less than two weeks in 2001. This was done at the behest of BJP leader L K Advani, the then home minister and deputy prime minister, after he met former DU vice-chancellor Deepak Nayyar.
Nayyar, in a column written for The Indian Express on February 20, recounted how he, during a 15-minute meeting with Advani in October, 2001, had requested the then home minister to drop the sedition charges against the DU students. Following this, the home ministry instructed the Delhi Police to let all six youngsters go. This was after they had spent close to 10 days in Tihar jail.
“We were also more fortunate because we did not have the media running a propaganda against us like they are for Umar and Kanhaiya. TV channels have been playing their visuals on loop and labelled them gaddar (traitors) already. If and when these students are released, they are at risk of being attacked by the so-called ‘desh bhakts’,” said Shahzad Alam (32), who now teaches Hindi at Dyal Singh College affiliated to DU.
Alam was just 18 years old pursuing BA in Shyamlal College when he was accused of sedition.
“There is a stark difference in the approach of the two NDA governments. NDA-I was a coalition and hence it was difficult for the government to impose one thought or ideology on the country, which its second avatar is trying to do. I think (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi should follow Advani’s example and let the JNU students go as well,” said Naveen Chandra (35), who is a teacher at a private school in Janakpuri.
Chandra was also pursuing BA in Shyamlal College and was 22 years old when he was arrested and accused of sedition.
Their solidarity with the JNU students, however, is not just based on empathy. Four of the six people, who spoke to The Indian Express on Thursday, felt Delhi police’s case against Kanhaiya and Umar was weak on facts and proof.
“These students did not shout slogans ‘Pakistan zindabad’ or ‘Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi’. Those videos are shot in the dark and it’s difficult to tell if the arrested students are shouting the slogans,” said Sunil Kumar Mandiwal, the oldest of the six, who is a professor of Hindi at Dyal Singh College.
“Moreover, these students had organised the event to discuss the hanging of Afzal Guru. What is wrong with that? Can capital punishment not be questioned?” he added.
“When we were accused of sedition, we were protesting and distributing pamphlets outside our colleges. The JNU event was organised within the university premises. The institution’s authorities could have resolved this internally and not allowed the police to arrest its students,” said Alam.
“We weren’t anti-national then and the JNU students too are not anti-national. These students were talking about casteism, women empowerment and poverty. In fact, they are more nationalistic than those shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’,” said Sunil Kumar, who is now a freelance writer.
Apart from dropping sedition charges, the four have another suggestion for the government. “The Prime Minister wants to scrap obsolete laws. Maybe he should start with sedition,” said Mandiwal.
Jeevan Mehta, who lives in Haryana, could not be reached for comment. Gurmeet Singh committed suicide in 2003 due to personal problems, said Alam.