Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University whose arrest on sedition charges set off a nationwide political row over free speech, was granted interim bail for six months on Wednesday.
In its order starting with a cult Bollywood song ‘Mere desh ki dharti’, the Delhi high court, however, made stinging observations over the alleged anti-national slogans shouted on the campus, saying they “cannot be claimed to be protected by (the) fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression”.
Justice Pratibha Rani approved Kumar’s bail on a personal bond of Rs 10,000 and asked him to cooperate in investigations into allegations that he delivered a seditious speech to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convict in the 2001 attack on Parliament.
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Kumar will be released on Thursday as authorities at Tihar jail were yet to receive the court order, the student leader’s lawyer said.
The court said a university faculty member would have to become a guarantor for the PhD student who was arrested on February 12.
Along with him, police had also accused two other students — Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya — of shouting slogans such as “death to the Indian state” and calling for the “rise of Pakistan”. They surrendered last month.
“During the period spent by the petitioner in judicial custody, he might have introspected about the events that had taken place. To enable him to remain in the mainstream, at present I am inclined to provide conservative method of treatment,” the judge said.
The arrest of the students reignited a debate over free speech in a country where supporters of the ruling BJP government have cast themselves as champions of patriotism and sought to stamp out dissent.
‘Anti-nationalism is an infection’
The judge added she was not inclined to believe that the anti-national slogans shouted at JNU were protected under the fundamental right of freedom of speech, which comes along with fundamental duties that every citizen of the country must respect.
“Today I am at a crossroad…I consider this (the anti-national attitude) as a kind of infection from which such students are suffering which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic,” she said.
At the beginning of her order, the judge referred to the song from the film Upkar, which marked the beginning of actor Manoj Kumar’s onscreen persona as the patriotic Mr Bharat, and said it symbolised the love for motherland.
“Spring season is a time when nature becomes green and flower blooms in all colours. This spring why the colour of peace is eluding the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) situated in the heart of Delhi needs to be answered by its students, faculty members and those managing the affairs of this national university,” she said.
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As part of bail conditions, the court directed Kumar to furnish an undertaking saying that he “will not participate actively or passively in any activity that may be termed as anti-national.”
On Monday the court had reserved its order after hearing lengthy arguments from Kumar’s lawyers and the Delhi Police who vehemently opposed the bail plea. If found guilty, Kumar could be sentenced for life in jail.
The arrest of the students and subsequent events – including Kumar’s alleged assault by a group of lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala House court complex – sparked outrage across the nation, pitting the BJP against the Opposition. Universities across India also joined in protests against Kumar’s arrest.
The controversy also dredged up old concerns about the British-era sedition law, with many calling for it to be struck down.