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Indian Students Are Protesting for Their Right to Speak Against the Government

Thousands of protesters at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University have gone on strike in the wake of the student union president's arrest last week on charges of sedition.

Shehla Rashid, vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru University's student union, with other protesters. All photos by Daniel Oberhaus

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was eerily deserted as I passed the police barricades at its gates earlier this week. Over the weekend, thousands of demonstrators had converged at the university in South New Delhi to protest the arrest of the school's student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, but on Monday, the school seemed quiet.

Kumar was arrested last Friday, after organizing a meeting to criticize the "judicial killing" of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man who was convicted of masterminding the terror attacks on India's Parliament in 2001 (his conviction is contested). Members of JNU's right-wing student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) tried to stop the meeting. When that failed, some students claim the group showed up to intimidate participants in the meeting, who responded by voicing what authorities have characterized as anti-national slogans.


These "anti-national" remarks were used as grounds for the university to ban eight JNU students from all academic activity, pending a disciplinary hearing. Kumar, who was arrested by Delhi police and was charged with sedition, the crime of inciting rebellion against the government, has been held without bail since Friday.

Earlier this week, the student union called for a student strike, which is meant to last until authorities have guaranteed Kumar's unconditional release. Protestors say the fight for Kumar's release has taken on larger symbolic dimensions, calling into question the tactics used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's ruling Hindu nationalist party, and its student wing, the ABVP, to stifle intellectual dissent in the country. Their fight has drawn international attention, including a letter of support from a number of leading academics, including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler.

While most of the campus was quiet on Monday from the strike, I found several hundred protestors gathered on the steps of the JNU administration building, where student union vice president Shehla Rashid addressed the crowd.

"An atmosphere of fear has been created on the campus," Rashid told supporters. "Any institutional process or enquiry has to be conducted in an atmosphere that ensures safety and dignity for the students. The students cannot present their case in an situation where they have been already debarred, where they've already been branded and demonized."


India's sedition law, which is now being used against Kumar, was originally instituted under the British Raj in 1860 and was used to imprison Mahatma Gandhi for six years after he wrote magazine articles critiquing British rule in India. More recently, the Indian authorities have used it to charge people who failed to stand during the national anthem and people who protested a nuclear power plant.

Kumar denies he made any of the remarks he was arrested for, telling a court this week that "I dissociate myself from slogans that were shouted during the event," according to The Indian Express. But several government officials support his arrest under the sedition law. India's Home Minister Rajnath Singh, for example, told reporters last week that "if anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country's unity and integrity, they will not be spared. Stringent action will be taken against them." Similarly, India's Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani said that the nation "will never tolerate an insult to Mother India." Both politicians are members of the BJP.

The party, which came to power after Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, has been criticized by the student protestors for using its student wing, the ABVP, to stomp out opposition on campuses. Protestors who visited the courthouse where Kumar was scheduled to appear on Monday told me they saw more evidence of these tactics: They were promptly ejected and physically harassed by lawyers.


"What we saw at [the courthouse] today is a clear indication of how the Modi government is running the rest of the country," said Nivedita Menon, a professor of comparative politics and political theory at JNU who was present in the courthouse. "[Lawyers] who've taken oaths to defend the constitution of this country behaved like storm troopers of a fascist government."

Similar incidents at other Indian universities have buoyed the suspicion that intellectual discourse and dissent are under attack. Last month, the ABVP at Allahabad University threatened violence against the speaker at a panel on "Democracy, the Media, and Freedom of Expression" on the basis that he was "anti-national." In July, members of the ABVP at Hyderabad University alleged that they were attacked by members of Ambedkar Students Association, a group representing the Dalit, or "untouchable," caste. Those allegations led to the suspension of five members of the ASA, one of whom later committed suicide.

For now, Kumar's fate remains uncertain. When he reappeared in court Wednesday, he was ordered to be held in judicial custody until March 2. If Kumar is ultimately found guilty of sedition, the conviction can carry a life sentence.

Still, the students at JNU are committed to ensuring his release—not just for Kumar's sake but also to maintain the intellectual integrity of Indian university life. "Let's be clear: Things are not going to get easier, they're going to get more difficult," Menon said. "It's a long drawn out struggle, but we will fight and stay the cause."

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