What exactly happened on February 9 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)? The event has convulsed India with claims by competing student parties, the police, the university, the regime in power and the parties in opposition. Three students are in custody facing sedition charges and opinion is riven down the middle. But what really happened? What did the people attending the event see and hear first-hand?
In a phone interview with Express, JNU Students Union (JNUSU) vice-president Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya Kumar's deputy, says outsiders gatecrashed the event to shout slogans such as 'Hindustan ke tukde honge.' She is vehement that JNU students who organised the event or attended the event had no part in the slogans, even in the face of aggravation by students of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
Shehla Rashid is a politically conscious M. Phil student of law and governance at JNU. In her blog shehlarashid.com, she describes herself as "I’m a Kashmiri, a woman and a writer in that order."
The event of Feb. 9, titled 'A Country Without a Post Office,' was originally planned as a cultural evening of “protests with poets, singers, artists, writers, students, intellectuals and cultural activitsts.” That's what the posters of the event, organized by JNU students, said. The poster did not name any organization, but simply named 10 students, including Umar Khalid, who is among the JNU Five who are now facing sedition charges. JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was not mentioned in the poster though.
The agenda of the meeting was a discussion on the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat.”
Recalling the events of the day, Rashid told Express, “I received a call at around 5 pm on February 9 from the organizers of the event. They called me to inform me that ABVP activists had gathered in large numbers at the venue and might cause trouble.”
Rashid was not originally an invitee to the event but she went after that call came. "As student union leaders, we are expected to be present at any situation that might threaten peace on the campus," she explains. She also mentions that even though the university administration had initially given approval for the event, the permission was revoked minutes before it was about to take place.
Similar calls had been made to all the student unions by that time.
Rashid says that it took the student leaders about 30 minutes to ensure that the situation did not get ugly and then she left the premises.
She says anti-national slogans were indeed raised at the venue but not by any of the JNU students. “Slogans like Hindustan ke tukde honge were raised at the event, but it was not by any JNU students. I'm sure they were outsiders,” Rashid says.
She remembers that there was palpable tension once the slogans were raised, but the situation was eventually brought under control.
That same evening, a peaceful march was organized by the students and organizers of the event, from the Sabarmati Hostel to Ganga Hostel inside the JNU campus to protest the ABVP activists’ attempt to disrupt the event.
Activists of the ABVP, which Rashid says is the only JNU student organization that indulges in violence, “courted physical altercation” with the event organizers again at this point.
"It was here that JNU student Rama Naga asked the security guards to form a human chain to prevent any violence,” she says.
Rashid says there was clearly a nexus between ABVP activists, the university authorities and the police and this is evident in the way in which the probe into the event was carried out.
“Eight students were suspended even before the three-member team of the university initiated the probe. There has to be a holistic inquiry. It cannot be just about the slogans,” Rashid said.
She also questions the police for asking the detained students if they have any connections to Kashmir: Kanhaiya was questioned if he had ever gone to Kashmir. Umar Khalid was questioned about the calls he made to Kashmir.
"Narendra Modi went to Pakistan. Why are these students being asked such questions if Kashmir is an integral part of the country," Shehla asked.
When asked about human resources development minister Smriti Irani's statement in Parliament that anti-national slogans were raised on the JNU campus, Rashid wonders if tendentious reports of the event are enough to bring sedition charges against the students.
As a Kashmiri caught in the midst of a raging storm over what constitutes nationalism, does Rashid feel threatened? "Freedom of speech cannot be discussed at gunpoint."
She concludes by saying that she, along with other JNU students, hope that the courts will uphold justice for the students.
Shehla has studied at National Institute of Technology (Srinagar) and Indian Institute of Management (Bengaluru).