For many first-year students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), last Sunday evening was like nothing they had seen before. More than a thousand people gathered on the campus to form a massive human chain to protest the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of JNU students union, on charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition.
“Free our president” was one slogan that went up. Shouted another group: “Save JNU from fascism.” Volunteers moved down the length of the chain to inform students of the university strike on Monday (Feb. 15) in Kumar’s support.
Kumar was arrested on Friday after reports that some students had allegedly chanted anti-national slogans at an event on Tuesday (Feb. 09) organised to discuss the execution of 2001 parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, and the right to self-determination for the people of Kashmir.
The police also raided a number of hostels on the JNU campus as they searched for students who were seen chanting allegedly seditious slogans in the footage of Tuesday’s event.
The agitation at the police action was evident in their slogans as the human chain began to take shape. But as OB vans arrived at the gates of the university and photojournalists pulled out their cameras, the slogans changed. “We won’t tolerate media trial,” was the cry started at one end of the chain, that soon rippled down the line.
It was clear that the protestors were angry with sections of the media—mainly some opinionated television anchors such as Arnab Goswami of Times Now—who have questioned the students union’s claims of innocence regarding the controversial Kashmir event.
“We don’t want the media on campus if they can’t report factually,” said Mansi Kumar, a JNU student who was part of the human chain. “I have joined a protest for the first time today because terrible things have been happening to students of this campus, and television media has ostracised us and turned this issue into a political game where all actors show up on debates and score points.”
“Arnab Goswami go back!” shouted another student. ”The media is supposed to be the watchdog but some channels have just distorted the narrative and turned us into anti-nationals already even though there’s no credible evidence for their claims,” she said.
A senior member of the faculty, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the slanted coverage had resulted in several problems for the students.
“Some popular news anchors have made it their bread and butter to paint all of this university as anti-national when most of our students are not even part of any political outfit,” she said. “The government wants to shut down the university and media trial is only making things worse for these students who are facing disapproval from their families who are following the news and soon they might even face discrimination in professional lives.”
A leader of the All India Students Association, which holds two of the four union seats, added that the television media is hostile to the students because the media has adopted a hyper-nationalistic approach.
“The narrative of some of the TV channels has been the same belligerent nationalism for some time now,” he said. “They just find new targets. Now, students are the government’s enemies just because there’s an anti-national angle attached to it. Two days before this, they were calling someone else anti-national.”
Only the previous day, reporters had been booed on campus. On Saturday (Feb. 13), a huge public meeting saw thousands of people in attendance, including Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. But TV reporters were heckled as the journalists began to jostle for space.
“The TV crew kept disrupting the public meeting because they wanted 100 kinds of shots like it is some political rally,” said a student. Soon enough, the audience began to chant, “Media go back.”
Swati, a senior research scholar at the university, has been writing about the perils of the alleged media trial on social media sites.
“An entire university has been labelled ‘anti-national’ by the conscience-keeper of the nation, and the media does not seem to care how damaging this rhetoric is to higher education in India—all it cares about is drama,” she said. “What we are is frustrated, and can you blame us? Report the truth, is all we ask. Report why a young man is now in jail, charged with a colonial era law. Report why our hostels were searched without warrants.”