India caught up in protests over student leader's arrest

Kanhaiy Kumar, the president of a student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, leaving New Delhi's Patiala House court on February 17.
Kanhaiy Kumar, the president of a student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, leaving New Delhi's Patiala House court on February 17. REUTERS/Stringer

The arrest of a student union leader over controversial sedition charges has sparked India's biggest student protests in 25 years. Kanhaiya Kumar was assaulted by nationalist lawyers on Wednesday, when he was remanded in custody at New Delhi court. The case has sparked a nationwide row over freedom of speech on Indian campuses.


Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on February 12 for alleged seditious behaviour at a rally to mark the third anniversary of a Kashmiri separatist's execution, sparking major protests at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and other universities.

Violent scuffles had already broken out when journalists and students gathered in the courtroom on Monday, when Kumar was first brought before a judge.

He is accused of shouting "anti-national" slogans at a protest against the 2013 hanging of the Kashmiri separatist Mohammed Guru, who was found guikty of planning a deadly attack on the Indian parliament fifteen years ago.

Guru always denied plotting the attack, and many believe he was not given a fair trial.

Ever since his arrest, Kanhaiya Kumar has denied the charges of seditious behaviour, and students have been staging protests at campuses around the country to support him.

They accuse India's Hindu nationalist government of using an antiquated sedition law to quash political opposition.

"This university provides space for all kind of debates, even on controversial issues," says Professor Gulshan Sachseva, one of the JNU teachers who went on strike on Tuesday, "but the government doesn't like it when people raise uncomfortable questions, and many of the students do that."

"The government has always had the tendency to brand people who raise all kinds of voices as 'anti-national'," says Sachseva.

But a large part of the Indian population believes Kumar was arrested for good reasons, and that "anti-Indian" or "anti-national" feelings represent a serious threat to the country.

Social networks are alive with heinous comments aimed at Kumar and leftist students more broadly.

Anshul Saxena, a politcal blogger in Mumbai, believes freedom of speech is being used to threaten India, and that the government should do more to supervise student activity.

"These students were protesting for a terrorist," he says. "These students are being used by terrorist groups in the name of freedom of speech. This is not an opinion, it's a threat."

Saxena also claims that Indian intelligence has established a connection between Kumar and Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist terrorist group in Kashmir, but Kumar and his supporters insist there is no proof against him.

The intensity of feelings which have erupted with Kumar's arrest speaks volumes of the growing tension between the political left and the ruling nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which has enjoyed a full majority in government since Narendra Modi's election in 2014.

Following the unrest at the Patiala House court on Monday, in which students and journalists were violently attacked, the opposition Congress party were quick to blame supporters of the BJP.

Beyond the question of Kanhaiya Kumar's innocence, the turmoil surrounding his arrest at JNU is symptomatic of political tensions within Indian universities.

"A lack of trust is developing in a number of academic institutions regarding government policy and the hardcore Hindu nationalists," says Jean-Luc Racine, an Indian politics specialist from the Asia Center.

"They [the Hindu nationalists] have their own student union at JNU, and an ideological fight between the left and the right is developing today in Indian academia."

Kanhaiya Kumar is not the only university member to be arrested on sedition charges: five other students and one former Delhi University lecturer are also awaiting trial.

Raids are also taking place across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and the Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir, where separatist tensions have simmered for decades.

Sedition carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in India, but Kanhaiya Kuma told the court on Wednesday that he has faith in the Constitution.

Meanwhile Amnesty International and several human rights activists have called for his immediate release.


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