The arrest of a student leader on charges of sedition has sparked protests against a clampdown on critical thought and intellectual freedom by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, and has drawn criticism from academics worldwide.
The government has reacted by ordering the 46 centrally funded universities to fly the national flag on a 200ft mast.
Some 455 academics from universities in India and across the world, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge, have signed a joint statement in support of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, Delhi, who was arrested on 12 February.
“As teachers, students, and scholars across the world, we are watching with extreme concern the situation unfolding at JNU and refuse to remain silent as our colleagues (students, staff and faculty) resist the illegal detention and autocratic suspension of students," said the academicians, some of which are JNU alumni.
Thousands of students in Delhi and other cities protested on Thursday, according to The Indian Express. Organisers said 10,000 protesters gathered in Delhi.
Kumar was arrested on two sedition charges – which carry a prison sentence of – following an event held to protest against the 2013 hanging of a Afzal Guru, a former Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front member, who had been convicted of taking part in an attack on parliament in 2001. The attack was carried out by militants from another group supporting Kashmiri separatism, Jaish e-Mohammed, and Guru, who had returned to live and study in Delhi seven years before the attack, denied being involved.
At the 9 February protest event, it is alleged anti-India slogans were chanted. The protest was intended to be a cultural event with feelings expressed through poetry, art and music, according to The Hindu, but it was also billed as a march against the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” and in solidarity with the “struggle” of Kashmiri migrants on the campus.
According to the account in the The Hindu, members of BJP’s youth wing alleged that participants in the protest shouted anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. But the organising committee for the event denied that any of its members were shouting slogans.
After videos of the event went viral on social media, the police, despite not being allowed on campus in India, arrested Kumar. Several sedition charges were brought against other students, and JNU suspended eight students from academic activity pending an enquiry.
Rajnath Singh, the hardline home minister, after talking to the Delhi police commissioner, tweeted a statement on 11 February: “If anyone shouts anti-India slogan [sic] and challenges [the] nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.”
But according to the Guardian, at the 9 February event Kumar gave a speech that was notable not for “anti-nationalism” as charged, but for his impassioned defence of the Indian constitution and strong criticism of those who were undermining it, the Hinduisers in the BJP government.
“We don’t need a patriotism certificate,” he said. “We love this country.”
At JNU, which has a reputation for vociferous debate, students and teachers began a boycott of classes, shutting down the university, demanding Kumar be released.
On 14 February, as Kumar was due to appear before a metropolitan magistrate at the District Court at Patiala House in New Delhi, violence broke out with a mob of lawyers reportedly kicking and slapping Kumar’s supporters. On the following day, before the hearing on sedition charges was due to be heard, Kumar was beaten up on his way into the court complex.
Struggling to contain the spreading protests, the government has ordered universities to install flag masts 207 feet tall – about the same height as the Statue of Liberty – to hoist the nation's tricolour flag, Reuters reported.
"At a central place at every university, the national flag will be flown prominently and proudly," the statement from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which controls education, said.
The action was backed by a meeting of vice-chancellors of the central universities to signify a "strong and united" India.
'Watershed struggle’ fears
Kumar’s arrest has united opposition parties and academics in what may increasingly be seen as a watershed struggle between growing state repression and intellectual freedom.
The protests over freedom of speech generated by this case have been sparked only weeks after widespread student protests over the suicide of Dalit student leader Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad, as reported by University World News.
The Kumar case has united left-leaning parties, who held joint discussions with Home Minister Singh over the row. Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress party, accused the government of “bullying” the university, which has a long history of providing dissenting voices.
“While anti-India sentiment is unquestionably unacceptable, the right to dissent and debate is an essential ingredient of democracy,” he tweeted.
One commentator has suggested that the Kumar and Vemula cases reflect a dangerous division opening up across India under the BJP government’s Hinduisation strategy.
Writing in the Guardian, Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University lecturer who took her masters at JNU, said: “To criticise the Hindu nationalism that governs India today is also to note its roots in the continued domination of Indian institutions by Brahmins and other upper castes. This faultline is now more visible than ever, and addressing it has become a matter of urgency.”
She said for those committed to the idea of India as an essentially Hindu country, the list of anti-nationals seems to include everyone from Muslims, Dalits and Christians to left-wing and liberal activists.
“India,” she warned, “is poised on the brink of a choice between the dangers of authoritarianism and its historic commitment to dissent”.
In their joint statement the international academics recognised that students and academics are now on the frontline in this battle over freedom of expression, a battle that is not confined, however, to India.
“JNU stands for a vital imagination of the space of the university – an imagination that embraces critical thinking, democratic dissent, student activism, and the plurality of political beliefs,” they said. “It is this critical imagination that the current establishment seeks to destroy. And we know that this is not a problem for India alone.
"Similar attacks on critical dissent and university spaces are being attempted and resisted across the world. An open, tolerant, and democratic society is inextricably linked to critical thought and expression cultivated by universities in India and abroad.”
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