Following an eerily familiar script from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the police charged 14 students from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) with sedition on Tuesday.
Students who were protesting against Asaduddin Owaisi speaking at a scheduled event, allegedly assaulted media persons and chanted ‘anti-national’, Pro-Pakistan slogans.
Students from the AMU Student Union (AMUSU) were agitating against regional political party All India Majilis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) President Owaisi attending an event on campus.
In the midst of the protest, a reporters and camera crew from Republic TV, who were covering the protest on campus, alleged that they were assaulted and manhandled by AMU students.
Editor of The Leaflet, Angshukanta Chakraborty, posted a video of the Republic TV crew at AMU, being told that it did not have permission to film on campus. In this video, the reporter from Republic TV, who was initially having an amicable discussion, starts an argument with the man speaking to her, claiming that he had touched her colleague.
AMU student Sharjeel Usmani who was also present at the scene said that the students did not want to be filmed by Republic TV, and that he had tried asking the crew to stop filming. However, the reporter went live on-air alleging that the students were trying to attack them.
Usmani said, “Arnab’s Republic TV in AMU was reporting live that ‘we’re standing in a university of terrorists’. Students tried to intervene and the reporters started abusing the students. One of the cameramen manhandled the students, calling us all terrorists. I tried intervening and he attacked me with his pen.”
As the argument escalated and a larger crowd gathered, the media crew was ushered off campus by college security.
Actions taken against the students
The university announced that eight students have been suspended because of misconduct and indiscipline. India Today reports that 12 students have also been booked under Section 124-A (sedition), section 307 (attempt to murder), and eight other IPC sections.
The Republic TV crew complained to the police that they were “heckled by the students, who also snatched and broke their equipment.” On Twitter, one of the reporters, Nalini Sharma, said, “We were physically pushed, verbally abused, and harassed.” She added that their cameras were broken and snatched, and they were chased off by a mob of around 200 students.
A third complaint was filed by BJP Youth Wing District President Mukesh Singh Lodhi who alleges that he was driving by campus and witnessed “Muslim students attacking journalists and Hindu students.” Lodhi added that he was assaulted by protestors and filed an FIR against AMUSU President Salman Imtiaz and Vice President Huzaifa Aamir.
Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members also told the police that they were beaten up near the university’s Faiz Gate.
AMU Spokesperson Shafey Kidwai clarified that Republic TV did not have permission to enter campus and film, and the university has filed a police complaint to that effect.
Recent sedition charges
The sedition law or Section 124A has roots in the colonial era when dissent from media houses and freedom fighters was criminalised to quash independence movements.
But, lately, it seems that allegations of sedition and anti-nationalism have become commonplace in India, especially against academics and university students. Even so, in reality, the bar for a conviction under Section 124A, is high.
In a report explaining how the charge to sedition functions, The Wire said that “sedition” cannot be persecuted because, whoever is making a seditious speech must also be inciting violence and public disorder. This article also draws a distinction between advocating for a certain point of view and inciting violence.
In 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, students at JNU, were charged with sedition for protesting the capital punishment of Afzal Guru and Kashmiri separatist Maqbool Bhat, and for allegedly making “anti-national” slogans.
Since the BJP came to power in Assam, it has filed close to 300 cases of sedition. Times of India reports that Right to Information activist Akihil Gogoi, academic Hiren Gohain, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were also slapped with sedition charges for their comments on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
It’s also worth noting that of the 112 cases of sedition registered between 2014 and 2016, only two resulted in a conviction.
People applying sedition charges against dissenters are not only oversimplifying the matter but also making Indian political discourse more partisan.
Former President of the National Students’ Union of India Fairoz Khan tweeted, “The sedition charges against students is [an] act of BJP to silence the independent & educated voices against them.”
Prominent personalities like Shehla Rashid, Sagarika Ghose, and Swara Bhasker also expressed support for the AMU students.
Internet services in Aligarh had also been turned off for safety and the Rapid Action Force has been deployed around the AMU campus. Usmani says that the internet has been re-activated since then, and that campus peace has mostly been restored
AMU has also advised students to stay on campus as a precaution.
Police sources say that all complaints have been lodged and will be duly investigated.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius