Kashmiri students have been beaten, arrested across cities, charged with being ‘anti-national’. Finding lawyers to represent them has been difficult.
NEW DELHI: In October 2021, three Kashmiri students in an Agra college were thrashed by right-wing groups for allegedly setting a WhatsApp status in favour of Pakistan after the India-Pakistan match at the T20 Cricket World Cup. Soon after, they were arrested and charged with sedition.
For a few weeks, no lawyer turned up to represent them as the bar association of Agra openly stated that none of their lawyers would represent the students. Not only did no lawyer come forward to represent them, the students were allegedly thrashed and manhandled by a section of lawyers aligned with right-wing groups when they were taken for judicial remand.
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With the concerted efforts of the Jammu and Kashmir Students Association (JKSA), a pan-India student association that represents students studying outside Jammu and Kashmir, the students finally had a lawyer to represent them.
However, all three students are still in prison for their WhatsApp statuses and their bail applications are pending. JKSA said that attacks on Kashmir students have been on the increase ever since the Pulwama terror attacks in Kashmir in February 2019.
What is equally important is that fewer and fewer lawyers are coming forward to represent Kashmiri students. It took the JKSA two weeks to locate a lawyer for the students.
“The bar association in Agra resolved not to give any legal aid to these guys. Right-wing activists and some of the lawyers manhandled these guys who were taken for their judicial remand. No one was there to represent them. The families of these students somehow came to know about me and contacted me,” said advocate Madhuvan Dutt Chaturvedi, who is representing the students.
Chaturvedi is a Mathura-based lawyer who had completed his law graduation from Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University, then known as Agra University, with two gold medals.
Chaturvedi, who has been practicing law since 1993, has represented several cases of individuals against the state. A few years ago, he represented an individual from Kosi Kalan, Mathura, who was charged with sedition for criticizing the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
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“I would not say that I have been doing this (fighting sedition cases) for long. But I have my own political commitments, my own political ideology,” said Chaturvedi.
“The way these sedition laws are invoked these days…they are very misused recently. The relationship between the state and the individual should be balanced but now that balance is shaky,” said Chaturvedi.
The link between Chaturvedi and the students’ families was developed with the help of the JKSA after weeks
“At first we could not find any lawyer as the bar association in Agra had refused legal aid. Then, with the help of some lawyers in Delhi, I managed to connect to Madhuvan Chaturvedi through the Association for Protection of Civil Rights,” said Nasir Khuehami of JKSA.
Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) is an advocacy group composed of advocates, journalists, researchers, paralegal volunteers fighting for civil and human rights
Members of JKSA said that the APCR also assured them that the lawyer will be provided free of cost for the students and if the family has paid for the lawyer then APCR would give the same amount back themselves.
Chaturvedi said that they have appealed at the Allahabad High Court to change jurisdiction of the case from Agra to any nearby district due to the enmity displayed by the bar association in Agra.
The court is yet to hear the appeal. The application for their bail is also pending as the judge did not attend the hearing for bail on four separate occasions.
According to the JKSA, finding lawyers for Kashmiri students caught in similar cases is becoming increasingly difficult.
“We had also faced similar issues when we tried to get lawyers for Kashmiri students who were attacked in Hubbali, Karnataka,” said Khuehami.
In February 2020, three Kashmiri students were arrested and accused of sedition after a video of them allegedly chanting pro-Pakistan slogans went viral. Like their counterparts in Agra, the bar association in Hubbali had refused to represent the students.
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Basavaraj Bommai, then home minister and current chief minister of Karnataka, had addressed the media and said that “anti-nationals will not be spared”.
It was so hard to find lawyers that JKSA had post appeals on social media.
“I did not know anyone in Hubbali. Then, Kavita Krishnan, who is like a political mentor to me, reached out and offered help. We were only able to find a lawyer because of Kavita Krishnan,” said Khuehami, referring to a left-wing political and women’s rights activist.
The situation at Hubbali was so tense that the Karnataka High Court had directed police protection for the lawyers who came forward to represent the students after the JKSA had reached out to them.
Patriotism and sedition
Chaturvedi’s decision to represent the Kashmiri trio in Agra did not sit well with some sections of the
“Certainly, those lawyers and people who are associated with the right-wing ideology, they are not pleased. They have their own views. I don’t care what their view is with regard to my personal decision,” said Chaturvedi.
“For me, being a member of secular democratic India, patriotism requires us to maintain the image of the country in the world, where every individual, whether national or foreigner is not denied the right to defense. My patriotism demands that I do everything to protect the Constitution, as well as Constitutional rights of the
Chaturvedi, incidentally, is also counsel for Siddique Kappan who was arrested and imprisoned by Uttar Pradesh Government which accused him of attempting to “create unrest” while reporting on the rape and killing of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras in September 2020. Kappan has been in jail since October 2020 after the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 was invoked against him.
‘Sports, not war’
“Recently, sedition cases, and UAPA cases have been really increasing. For these kids, initially in their FIR [first information report], there was no sedition case. They had charged them under sections 153A and 295 A. Then there was a tweet from the chief minister’s office saying that anti nationals will not escape. After that sedition was also added to their case,” said Chaturvedi.
Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertains to the “offence of promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.”. Section 295 A of IPC pertains to “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings” of particular communities.
The lawyer argued that the WhatsApp chats and statuses show no disaffection towards the government and hence sedition does not apply.
“No ingredient of the sections imposed upon these guys is fulfilled with the facts of the case. The case is different, sections are different. Case is that they celebrated the victory of the Pakistan team. These are sports teams not governments. Their game is not war,” said Chaturvedi.
“In one WhatsApp status, it was written that the whole team together could not take 10 wickets, what happened? Another was a chat from months ago where one friend asked him “Is India not your country?” and he replies “Kashmir is my country”,” said Chaturvedi.
“This cannot be considered disaffection toward the Government of India because he didn’t say “no”, he said Kashmir is my country. Kashmir is within India. The third WhatsApp status is just a picture of the Pakistan team celebrating victory,” said Chaturvedi.
“Many high courts have said that people should not be punished for their dissent against the government. Until there is coherent evidence that there is a disaffection toward the government, that is, the constitutional infrastructure of the government and not an elected government because in that case no one can criticise anyone,” said Chaturvedi.
Attacks on Kashmiri students
JKSA said that Kashmiri students were increasingly becoming targets of attacks ever since the Pulwama terror attacks.
“When we initially started this organization in 2014, it was a small association dealing with small issues such as admissions. But after the Pulwama attacks, the atmosphere in this country changed and we have had to intervene and plead for various students’ cases,” said Khuehami.
Multiple instances of attacks against Kashmir students were reported over the past few years. JKSA said that in some instances they have had to resolve the issue with the help of police and in others they have had to help students transfer to other colleges to avoid further conflict.
“There have been a lot of such incidents in which Kashmir students were beaten, harassed, thrashed, charged with sedition across India, from Punjab to Karnataka to Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand,” said Khuehami.
“The issues of Kashmir students are different from those of other students. They are soft targets for any sort of turmoil. Now that elections are coming up in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand we are fearing that our students will be used to create chaos,” said Khuehami.
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