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Nationalism and Dissent: A Battle Over Free Speech Is Raging in India

For about a month now, student politics — and the state’s reaction — have put a prestigious Indian university in the crosshairs of a debate that has raged across the entire country around nationalism and freedom of speech.
Kanhaiya Kumar (Photo by Rajat Gupta/EPA)

India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) prides itself as a place where student activism and politics flourish. As a bastion of the nation's left, it's known, especially among the intellectual class, as fertile ground for liberal thinking.

But for about a month now, student politics on campus — and the state's reaction — have put JNU in the crosshairs of a debate that has raged across the entire country about nationalism and freedom of speech. The controversy has exposed fault lines in the pluralistic society around what it means to be a nationalist, and renewed concerns regarding how the Hindu-leaning government of Narendra Modi responds to what it considers dissent.


It all started on February 12, when Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU student union, was arrested by Delhi police under colonial-era sedition charges. Kumar was at a rally commemorating the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of attacking India's Parliament in 2001 that left 10 people dead. The details around Guru's hanging remain secretive and controversial.

Kumar was accused of chanting "anti-India" slogans and the rally was dubbed anti-national by Prime Minister Modi's government.

The police were reportedly called to the campus by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the government appointed vice-chancellor of the university. Two other JNU students, who were also charged with sedition, later surrendered to police.

Prior to Kumar's arrest, Rajnath Singh, the minister responsible for law and order in the country, said he'd asked Delhi police to take "the strongest possible action" against those at the JNU rally. He told reporters that "if anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on country's unity and integrity, they will not be spared."

Critics have responded with indignation.

'The Indian state has used a battle-tank to run over a fly.'

"The Indian state has used a battle-tank to run over a fly," Tunku Varadarajan, former editor of Newsweek and a fellow in journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told VICE News. "It is a total over-reaction, wrong in law and toxic in morality."


Thousands of students and academics held protests in India in the days following the crackdown, and the world slammed the government's reaction. Prominent professors including Noam Chomsky said Kumar's arrest "is further evidence of the present government's deeply authoritarian nature, intolerant of any dissent, setting aside India's longstanding commitment to toleration and plurality of opinion."

Within India, the knee-jerk reaction to the rally at JNU has been deeply divisive, dominating parliament and prime time television debates. The government and its supporters faced off against opposition parties and those championing freedom of speech at JNU. The university became a pit-stop for opposition parties in the aftermath of Kumar's arrest. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Indian National Congress, addressed students at JNU, offering solidarity, while comparing the Modi government to Hitler. Gandhi was ridiculed by the BJP for supporting "anti-India slogans" and those who reportedly want to break India up.

"The Modi government is a nationalist government, so nationalist assertion is in its nature. But, free speech has been a threatened thing under every Indian government since independence," Varadarajan told VICE News. In 1975, Gandhi's grandmother and then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, imposed a state of emergency after she was found guilty of "campaign irregularities." The 21-month period, which saw citizen arrests and media censorship, has often come back to haunt the Congress.


"India is a democracy where the right to free expression has had to be fought for repeatedly, under every government, be it of the left or the right. Indian governments are, by nature, inclined to censor or curb citizens' speech," he said.

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At Kumar's court appearance, lawyers allegedly chanting pro-India slogans attacked him, his supporters, JNU students and even journalists for their coverage of the issue. Indian media reports say some journalists were thrashed and threatened by lawyers who told them "we'll break your phones and bones," and locked inside a courtroom while police watched the brawl and did not intervene. Hundreds of journalists later marched to India's Supreme Court to protest the assault and Delhi police's failure to protect them.

Modi and the BJP have also been accused of polarizing voters and creating a narrative around nationalism. While the government pitches its stance as patriotic, several prominent Indians including writers, artists, and Bollywood celebrities have come forward to talk about the growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country amid communal violence, the beef ban, and the re-emergence of right-wing Hindutva politics.

"There is certainly an effort to create an aggressive brand of nationalism and that's why the JNU issue is being allowed to fester. Basically, everyone has to carry the tricolour on their sleeves and buy into this narrative of mother India as a deity," Shekhar Gupta, a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi, told VICE News.


There were videos circulating on social media and TV channels of Kumar shouting slogans in support of Pakistan from the rally which were also used to polarize the issue. They were later found to be doctored.

"It seems like the Modi government blundered into this [JNU], but now having done so, it maybe thinks that it's a good, useful thing to build a new story around hyper-nationalism in spite of all its contradictions," Gupta said. "I think the BJP and Modi realize it's not going to be easy to create many jobs so soon as he promised because this is the reason he got the vote of so many young people," he said.

Others, like Tavleen Singh, think the narrative of an "aggressive nationalism" is "simply nonsense."

"What you are seeing is a fight for the public secular that has so far been monopolised by the left," Singh, a columnist based in New Delhi, told VICE News. "[The] JNU [issue] will die … because it is based mostly on hot air," she maintains.

'Indian governments are, by nature, inclined to censor or curb citizens' speech.'

"There is a big conspiracy going on in the country," added BJP President Amit Shah at a national convention of the BJP's youth wing earlier this month. "Some people are trying to justify anti-national sloganeering as freedom of expression and such anti-national elements are being portrayed as patriots," he said. "The Congress should be ashamed of backing such elements."


Reports say Modi told his party that "the government is working fine and has a lot to show. The opposition is raking up non-issues like JNU and the party needs to debate and contest aggressively."

Amidst the uproar, the government also ordered that all central universities must fly the Indian flag on campus "prominently and proudly" at 207 feet.

"Singing the national anthem or flying the national flag is not going to make your people more patriotic than they already are," Gupta told VICE News. "State-mandated patriotic and nationalistic symbolism … leads to hyper-nationalism and anybody's who's seen the consequences of hyper-nationalism around the world knows that it's not a very good thing," Gupta said.

Kumar was released on interim bail last week with "the guarantee he won't participate in any anti-national activities." He returned to JNU to address supporters and in a fiery speech that's now gone viral, said "I do not want freedom from India, but freedom in India."

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