Students threaten campus walkout over sedition charges

Sedition charges against two Kashmiri students at India’s Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and their suspension from the university, led to a threat by more than 1,200 other Kashmiri students to quit the university and leave for their homes in the restive Kashmir Valley if the sedition charges are not dropped.

The two Kashmiri students, Waseem Ayyub Malik and Abdul Haseeb Mir, and another person who has not been named were charged with sedition for allegedly raising "anti-India" slogans and trying to hold a prayer meeting for Hizbul Mujahideen commander Manan Bashir Wani, a former research scholar at AMU, on 12 October. Hizbul Mujahideen is a separatist militant organisation in Kashmir.

AMU is a centrally funded university in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh province, with a large contingent of students from Kashmir.

The incident echoes events at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi where three students, including student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, were charged with sedition in 2016. The authorities were accused of suppressing intellectual freedom and the incident drew criticism from academics worldwide.

Hizbul Mujahideen’s Wani was killed along with an associate a day earlier, on 11 October, in a gun battle with Indian security forces at Shatgund village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Wani, 27, was pursuing a PhD in allied geology at AMU but left to join the militants in January this year.

Kashmir saw a complete shutdown on Friday, including the closure of schools, colleges and the University of Kashmir over the separate killing of militants by Indian security forces.

The AMU incident threatened to add to tensions in Kashmir. Mehbooba Mufti, a former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, said the matter should be resolved immediately to avoid tensions in the valley. Mufti tweeted: “It will be a travesty to punish them [the students] for remembering their former colleague who was a victim of relentless violence in Kashmir.”

Suspension revoked

In the face of the threat of a mass student walkout, the university management on Wednesday revoked the suspension of the two students charged with sedition. The AMU administration had formed a three-member panel to look into the matter, which concluded that suspension of the Kashmiri students was a 'harsh' punishment for their act. However, the sedition charges still stand.

After the university lifted its suspension the students deferred their decision to return to their homes in Kashmir. But they want the sedition charges to be dropped as well and warned of Kashmir-wide protests if sedition and other charges were not dropped.

AMU students’ union former vice-president Sajjad Rathar, who hails from Kashmir, said “the sedition charges were ill-conceived and amounted to harassment and denial of justice”.

Malik and Mir maintain that they are law-abiding citizens and the sedition cases against them will ruin their careers.

Former president of AMU students’ union Mashkoor Ahmad Usmani, while hailing the decision to revoke the suspension, said sedition charges were uncalled for and based on insubstantial evidence. Usmani, who also hails from Kashmir, said the reversal of the suspensions would definitely have a positive effect not only in the university but also in the Kashmir Valley.

The AMU student body and the university management have not expressed solidarity with Hizbul Mujahideen’s Wani and clarified that they don’t support any ‘anti-national’ acts on campus.

The AMU students’ union President Faizul Hasan said: “Any act of treason or terror is undesirable and [we] will not let the dignity of the institution be spoiled by any person who indulges in such improper activity.”

AMU Registrar Abdul Hamid said: “Wani was once a student at the university but was later rusticated. The AMU has nothing to do with Wani now.”

AMU spokesperson Professor Shafay Kidwai has said that “no innocent would be framed and any anti-national activity on AMU campus would not be tolerated”.

Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case

In 2016 three Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students were charged with sedition after some JNU students organised a campus event in February 2016 to mark the anniversary of the death of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of participating in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament building in New Delhi.

JNU students protested the executions of Afzal and another Kashmiri separatist, Maqbool Bhat, in a separate case and allegedly raised anti-India slogans, leading to the arrest of Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya on sedition charges.

The arrests drew flak from many sections of society, including opposition parties and academics. Critics said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government was trying to increase its control over educational institutions and suffocate political opposition.

Students, faculty and staff of JNU said the arrests amounted to a crackdown on freedom of speech and political dissent. Many questioned if anti-India slogans amounted to sedition, an offence that carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

All the accused students in the JNU case are out on bail and the Delhi police have still not filed a charge sheet in the case two and a half years later, although they are required to do so within 90 days of arrest.