In February 2020, a 20-year-old journalism student in Bengaluru stood up on a stage and began a speech with the words "Pakistan Zindabad." She was accosted by those around her even as she followed up her words with "Hindustan Zindabad." Amulya Leona, the student who uttered the words during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), was immediately arrested and spent three months in jail on charges of sedition.
Amulya was not alone. In early 2020, a series of sedition cases came up in frighteningly quick succession in Karnataka.
First, Nalini Balakumar, a student in Mysuru was charged for holding a placard that read 'Free Kashmir' at an anti-CAA protest. Then, two women, the mother and teacher of a primary school student, in Bidar district were arrested over a political play staged in the school. Around the same time, three Kashmiri engineering students in Hubballi were arrested after a video of them allegedly singing pro-Pakistan slogans were circulated. Then came the incident in Bengaluru involving Amulya.
Sedition is a law first enacted by the British to suppress political dissent but in 2020, those involved in the cases were young students - primary school students in Bidar and college students in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Hubballi. For months, they faced intense scrutiny as lawyers refused to represent them, TV anchors called for violence against them and right-wing leaders openly issued death threats against them. The state aggressively pursued the sedition charges, painting the accused students to be âviolentâ, âanti nationalâ and a âthreatâ to society.
The sequence of events, though alarming, was not completely unexpected. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data released in October showed that in 2019, Karnataka recorded the maximum sedition cases - 22 - more than Assam (17) and Jammu and Kashmir (11). This is without considering the cases of Amulya, Nalini and others that cropped up earlier this year amid fervent protests against the CAA and NRC.
One particular protest on December 19 2019 in Mangaluru against CAA and NRC ended with the deaths of two daily-wage earners after police opened fire on protesters. It led to a curfew and a mobile internet shutdown in the city, one of the rare occasions such extreme measures were deployed to maintain law and order in south India.
It was in this context that the flurry of sedition charges came up and the state argued that 'anti-national' forces were carrying out activities across Karnataka from Bengaluru to Bidar.
The stateâs reaction was met by a group of lawyers led by BT Venkatesh, a former state public prosecutor, who got together to defend the students and put forward the argument that the students were merely expressing dissent.
In the series of cases, which were extensively debated, BT Venkatesh and other lawyers fought to uphold the studentsâ freedom of expression even as the state pushed to challenge what passed for sedition.
BT Venkatesh speaking at an event in Bengaluru in February 2020
Nalini Balakumar - âFree Kashmirâ
By the time Nalini Balakumar was charged with sedition in January 2020, there had been three weeks of protests against the CAA and NRC. Nalini, an alumna of the University of Mysore, turned up at a protest on January 8 at the university campus against the assault on students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Nalini held a placard that read âFree Kashmirâ. Photographs of the placard were published by media houses and it caught the attention of the police who singled out Nalini for inquiry. A sedition case was filed against Nalini and the organiser of the protest.
Soon after the case was filed, the Mysuru Advocatesâ Association passed a resolution refusing to represent Nalini. Not only was she singled out by the police for holding a banner, she was denied legal aid and judged an âanti-nationalâ.
Protest at University of Mysore in January 2020
The resolution reflected some of the public sentiment against Nalini but it was challenged by a group of 170 lawyers from outside Mysuru, including BT Venkatesh, who stepped forward to represent Nalini pointing out that it was her constitutional right.
Three weeks after the protest, a Mysuru court granted anticipatory bail to Nalini after her lawyers argued she was referring to the imposition of restrictions and detentions of mainstream leaders in Kashmir, and not propagating a separatist ideology.
Although Nalini was granted bail in the district court, the case is still pending and she is waiting for the case to be heard in the Karnataka High Court next.
A school play in Bidar
On January 21 2020, when teachers and parents watched a play staged by students of classes 4, 5 and 6 in Shaheen Primary and High School in Bidar, they did not imagine that it would bring a sedition charge on the school management. The seemingly innocuous play, performed in Dakkani language, questioned the need for CAA and NRC. It had a line that was allegedly derogatory to the Prime Minister.
The play has a dialogue sequence between a grandmother and a granddaughter which begins with the child telling her grandmother that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is asking for documents and that she will be sent out of the country if she is not able to produce them. The grandmother responds that the documents are in the graveyard where her family is buried and responds in anger wondering how a boy selling tea can ask her to prove if she belonged to the country. She utters a phrase and picks up a slipper - urging the child to hit back with slippers when they ask for documents.
The play then goes on with the child asking a neighbour about arranging documents to which the neighbour responds that a mouse ate their documents and a cat ate the mouse and a dog ate the cat and the municipality took away the dog which meant that the documents were safe with the government. The neighbour adds that the documents of the childâs family must have been in a garbage heap and the municipality has taken that away too which meant their documents too were safe with the government.
Ayesha*, a 11-year-old student who uttered the dialogues against Prime Minister Narendra Modi was targeted after a video of the play was circulated. A right wing activist Nilesh Rakshala who watched a video of a part of the play (focused on the part about the Prime Minister) filed a police complaint against the school management and Nazbunissa, Ayeshaâs mother, and Fareeda Begum, a teacher at the school. They were arrested on January 30, nine days after the play was staged, on charges of sedition.
Police officials led by investigating officer Basaveshwara Hira turned up at the school five times, including in uniform, to question Ayesha and other students involved in the play. The police asked questions about who scripted the play and chose the dialogues for it. âIt was mental harassment day after day at the school. Ayeshaâs mother is a widow and with her mother in jail, she was staying with a neighbour in the town. We would try to speak to her and keep her spirits up because she was facing questions from the police every day,â Thouseef Madikeri, CEO of Shaheen School recalls. Ayesha broke down after facing the police and asked them when her mother would return.
Police officer Basaveshwara Hira questions students in Shaheen School, Bidar in February 2020
Nazbunissa and Fareeda spent over two weeks in jail due to a series of delays in the district court. The judge was absent and prosecutors were missing but the police were still eager to pursue sedition. They continued to question the students at the school, occupying a cramped corner at the school entrance day after day.
On February 14, the Bidar district court eventually granted bail to the duo and the judge Managoli Premavathi later said, "What the children have expressed is that they will have to leave the country if they do not produce the documents and except that, there is nothing to show that he has committed the offence of sedition. The dialogue in my considered opinion does not go to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection towards the government."
The chargesheet in the case was not filed and the people involved in the case could finally relax. âWe have moved on from the episode. Even though the student, her mother and the teacher were affected by the events, they have broadly managed to put it behind them,â Thouseef says.
During the lockdown in April, the school was turned into a quarantine centre and the management worked with district authorities. Six months later in October, the school management celebrated academic success. A student of the school - Karthik Reddy - topped Karnataka in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) examination and was the only person from the state in the top 50 in India.
But all this while, the charges against the school remain and the school management is trying to get the case quashed in the Karnataka High Court. âThe case has not come up for hearing due to the delays brought about by the pandemic,â Thouseef adds.
Police question students in Shaheen School, Bidar in February 2020
Kashmiri students in Hubballi
On February 15 2020, three Kashmiri engineering students in Hubballiâs KLE Institute of Technology were charged with sedition after a video of them allegedly singing pro-Pakistan slogans was shared widely.
In the video, the students - Talib Majeed, Basit Asif Sofi and Amir Mohiuddin Wahi - were heard chanting âazadiâ while music played in the background. Then joining the chorus of the music, one of the students says "Pakistan" followed by "Zindabad" after a few beats. The music in the background was reportedly from Pakistan military's media wing.
Initially, the trio were questioned and sent back to their hostel with station bail. But they were later arrested again and charged with sedition as the right-wing group Bajrang Dal staged a protest inside their college premises. And just like in the case of Nalini, the Hubballi Bar Association passed a resolution saying that the trio should not be represented. They wrote to the state bar association to direct lawyers across the state to follow the resolution.
In Bengaluru, a group of lawyers including BT Venkatesh stepped forward to represent the accused. They also filed a petition in the High Court calling for the Hubballi Bar Associationâs resolution to be quashed.
Kashmiri students in Hubballi heckled in court in February 2020
When lawyers from Bengaluru turned up in Dharwad to represent the trio, they were heckled by local lawyers in an incident described by the Karnataka High Court as âsheer militancyâ. Maitreyi Krishnan, one of the lawyers who approached the court in Dharwad for bail, recalled that she was abused and intimidated by local lawyers.
The Hubballi Bar Association eventually tendered an apology and withdrew their boycott. The district court denied bail to the trio in March but in April the High Court observed that âno prima facie case of sedition was made out against the three studentsâ.
Despite this, the students continued to be in jail and were released from prison only on June 6, as the police did not file the chargesheet in the case. This meant that the students were able to get default bail on the 91st day of their arrest. The police official investigating the case was later suspended.
Speaking to TNM, a lawyer involved in the case said that the chargesheet in the case was eventually filed. âThe matter is now pending in the district and sessions court in Dharwad. The students are safe and efforts are underway to help them continue their education,â the lawyer said.
Amulya Leona and Ardra Narayanan
By the time Amulya Leona was arrested and charged with sedition on February 20 2020, she had been a constant presence at anti-CAA/NRC protests in Bengaluru for two months.
Four days before her arrest, she wrote a Facebook post about her reasons for hailing not just Pakistan but all other neighbouring countries. âWhatever country you may belong to, may your country live long,â her post read in Kannada. In the same post, she also wrote, âHindustan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad, Bangladesh Zindabad, Sri Lanka Zindabad, Nepal Zindabad, Afghanistan Zindabad, China Zindabad, and Bhutan Zindabad.â
But on stage, those around her were alarmed when she began her speech with the slogan âPakistan Zindabad.' All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi and his party members immediately accosted her and prevented her from continuing her speech. She was detained by the Bengaluru police and languished in the central prison located at Parappana Agrahara in Bengaluru.
A day after Amulyaâs arrest, another student Ardra Narayanan was arrested by Bengaluru police for holding a placard that said âMuslim, Kashmiri, Bahujan, Adivasi, Trans liberation nowâ. She was arrested for holding the placard, with the words in Kannada and English, during a protest by the Sri Rama Sene against Amulyaâs actions. Ardra too was lodged in the central prison.
Amulya Leona detained by police in Bengaluru in February 2020
The students became the target of vile social media posts and Amulyaâs parents, who live in Chikkamagaluru, were also badgered at night by right-wing activists and her father was coerced into giving a statement against her.
Around the same time, Sri Rama Sene leader Sanjeev Maradi from Ballari offered Rs 10 lakh as reward to anyone who killed Amulya. He was sporting the colours of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while issuing the statement which was met with cheers by his followers. Even though police booked a case against Sanjeev, he was never arrested. âWe registered a case but we did not arrest him,â the investigating police told TNM without specifying a reason.
Amulya and Ardra could not expect such indifference from the police. The Karnataka government repeatedly opposed their bail applications, in particular claiming Amulya may threaten and influence witnesses, and âmay involve [herself] in a similar offence which affects peace at largeâ.
While Ardra was granted bail a month after her arrest, Amulya was in jail for three months after which she was granted bail on a technicality - the chargesheet in the case had not been filed by the police. âA day after the bail application was moved, the charge sheet was filed in the case but after that case has not been heard in court due to the pandemic,â Amulyaâs lawyer says. âAmulya is now continuing her educationâ, the lawyer adds.