IN THE dead of a cold February night, they grew apprehensive, if not scared, and whispered in hushed tones that the police may enter the moonlit campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
The university is now the battleground of a right-to-speak-versus-nationalism debate in India.
The student protesters largely stood their ground on Feb 22 and continued listening to their leaders making speeches, denying what they were fighting for is "anti-national" as alleged by the police and right-wing Hindu activists.
"My name is Umar Khalid and I'm not a terrorist," said the most wanted student leader who was among the five who surfaced at the campus after days of hiding.
Four others who had disappeared were Anant Prakash Narayan, Ashutosh Kumar, Rama Naga and Anirban Bhattacharya.
One of their leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar, also accused of sedition, is already behind bars in Delhi.
"They fear us, they fear our struggles, they fear us because we think," the 28-year-old PhD student said, reffering to the government.
As the crowd erupted in loud cheers, Khalid alleged that they were not being hunted down because of a controversial meeting on Kashmir they had organised on Feb 9.
A video clip, allegedly doctored, showed him and other students shouting anti-national slogans in the event.
They had not done that.
By this time, the police in at least four vans had assembled outside the campus to arrest the "fugitives".
But guards at the main gate stopped them and said they wanted to talk to the university authorities before allowing them in.
Meanwhile, speeches continued as more students, who were sleeping, woke up to join the protesters.
The numbers quickly turned into hundreds. "Roughly, 500 to 600," one of the students estimated.
Energy levels were high and so was the sloganeering even as apprehension about a possible police raid continued.
The speeches largely revolved around serious topics like liberty, equality and right to speak. The media also came in for some flak.
Khalid also condemned the media trial that branded him as a terrorist.
"I have come to know so many things about myself that I myself did not know," he said. "I don't have a passport, but I learnt (from the media) that I've been to Pakistan twice."
As the night grew deeper, the crowd started thinning out. The protests ended around 2.30am.
But the protesters stayed around. Soon, the protests gave way to poetry and singing sessions.
A few of them found shelter under staircases, corridors or even in the campus lawns to sleep.
The policemen were still outside, perhaps waiting for an order to enter.
A little past 6am, as the morning glow filtered across the sky, many of them awoke to plan more protests for the day.
And later that day, Khalid and Bhattacharya surrendered to the police.
Indo-Asian News Service
Get a copy of tabla! for more stories.