An Indian student leader who was arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly raising anti-national slogans at an on-campus event is set to walk out of a Delhi jail on Thursday, after a court granted him bail late Wednesday.
Citing a lack of evidence, a Delhi High Court judge granted six months’ interim bail to Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU). Kumar was given bail on a surety bond of 10,000 rupees (U.S. $148).
He and five other JNU students were charged with sedition for allegedly raising slogans during a Feb. 9 event that condemned the executions of two Kashmiris. Kumar denies participating in anti-India chanting at the event to mark the death anniversaries of Afzal Guru, who was executed in 2013 for his role in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, and Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri separatist hanged in 1984.
“The thoughts reflected in the slogans raised by some of the students of JNU who organized and participated in that program cannot be claimed to be protected as a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression,” Delhi High Court Justice Pratibha Rani noted in her order, which followed a five-hour hearing.
In opposing bail for Kumar, Delhi Police argued that although they had no video evidence against him, three witnesses claimed to have seen him participate in anti-India sloganeering. The police said that, if granted bail, Kumar could obstruct investigations by influencing witnesses or leading rallies that could be deemed a threat to law and order in India.
The judge turned down the police plea and agreed to release Kumar on bail on certain conditions, including that he cooperate with the police probe and refrain from participating in any political activities that may be interpreted as anti-national.
Kumar is set to walk out of Delhi’s Tihar Jail, where he has been held since Feb.12, on Thursday.
“Thousands of students will participate in a march tomorrow on the campus to celebrate Kanhaiya’s release and protest the government action against JNU students. Kanhaiya will be leading the rally,” V. Lenin, a member of the Democratic Students Federation, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
“The truth is vindicated,” Lenin said, reacting to the decision. “Those who called him anti-national should apologize,” he added, while calling on the authorities to drop sedition charges brought on the five other students.
On Tuesday, a court sent Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, two of the five students facing the same charges, to 14 days in judicial custody.
Ashutosh Kumar, Anant Prakash and Rama Naga, the three other students charged with sedition, are not in police custody although they have declared they are inside the JNU campus in south Delhi.
‘Government stifling dissent’
The sedition charges against these students drew complaints against India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from critics who accused the government of using the archaic law to curb dissent and free speech.
“This government believes anyone who is against the BJP is an anti-national,” Manish Tewari, spokesman for the opposing Congress party, told CNN-IBN.
“He should not have been arrested in the first place,” Tewari said. “You pick up a student on sedition charges and throw him behind bars without any evidence ... if this isn’t a misuse of state machinery, then what is?”
The BJP refuted those claims, saying the government was “not on a witch hunt” to arrest those who don’t agree with the ruling party.
“This has nothing to do with political ideology,” BJP spokeswoman Shaina N.C. said.
“You can criticize the BJP or the government, but we cannot stand for those who propose to dismember India or voice support for those who have been convicted by law. If we were to allow that, it would result in a complete breakdown of law and order,” she said.
Senior advocate Amit Khemka challenged police for mishandling the situation.
“Before making arrests, the police should have verified the evidence,” Khemka said.
Citing a previous Supreme Court ruling, he said, “An act is only to be treated as sedition if it is accompanied with violence or the threat of violence.
“Just raising slogans is not enough (to sustain sedition). The students should have been given the benefit of doubt. They need to be given that extra latitude and their voice should not be silenced with these criminal laws.”
Even as the court was hearing Kumar’s bail plea, hundreds of university students staged a 5-km (3-mile) march in the national capital to show support.
As news broke of bail being approved, deafening applause and cheers rang out.
“We are really happy. We were struggling for this for so many days. Finally, he will be released,” Riya Raj told BenarNews as she hugged fellow students.
Another student, Shweta Raj, said although Kumar’s bail approval is a small victory, the fight against the “fascist government” remains.
“We are happy that comrade Kanhaiya is coming back. But there still lies a long battle in front of us. We have to fight a political attack on us,” she told BenarNews.
Kumar’s brother, Manikant, echoed Raj’s sentiments.
“We are happy, very happy. But this is just a small victory. We will only have achieved a full victory when Kanhaiya is absolved of the sedition charge.
“He is mentally very strong. I am certain he will come out of this clean as a whistle. Because I know my brother is not a traitor, but a true patriot,” Manikant told reporters.