By Jennifer Li
“Hindustan Zindabad!” Long live India! I first heard this Hindi phrase as I sat among thousands of Indians under the long shadow of Delhi’s historic Red Fort last August, listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliver his annual Independence Day speech. I have also heard these words chanted at kabbadi tournaments by Indians who seemingly cheered on no particular team and yet every team, impassioned but neutral spectators to the ancient Indian contact sport which, to the untrained eye, demands equal skill in holding one’s breath and playing a more aggressive version of Red Rover. Most recently, I have heard this slogan shouted by students and professors who marched down the streets of central Delhi, condemning the government of a nation in which they have conveyed, in just two words, not merely great pride, but also tremendous expectation.
On Feb. 12, 2016, the president of the student union at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested and charged with sedition under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 124A, a colonial-era law originally used by the British government to quell Indian nationalism – and try Gandhi – and IPC Section 120B, a criminal conspiracy statute. The charges were based on anti-national speeches that Kumar had allegedly made during a student event on campus marking the controversial 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of plotting a deadly 2001 attack on India’s parliament.
The government’s reaction to the arrest has done little to quell accusations that the arrests of Kumar and a former Delhi University professor, S.A.R. Geelani, were politically motivated. The day before Kumar’s arrest, India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Rajnath Singh, warned via Twitter, “If anyone shouts anti India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.” Days later, as Kumar was escorted to his first court appearance, a member of the Delhi state legislature and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), OP Sharma, along with some forty lawyers attired in the telltale black and white, were filmed kicking and punching not just Kumar, but also journalists, students and professors. BJP party spokesman Sudhanshu Trivedi has condoned Sharma’s statement that “there is nothing wrong in beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan.”
To many, the most recent arrests represent just one more example of an alarming trend of government-sanctioned crackdowns on academic freedom and freedom of expression and dissent. Universities, in particular, have been in the crosshairs of the BJP, Modi’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist party. Kumar’s arrest came just weeks after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad (HCU) who hanged himself from a ceiling fan after being discriminated against for his status as a Dalit, one of the lowest castes in Hindu society. As with Kumar’s arrest, Vemula’s death was well-publicized and sparked public outrage at the government and the educational institutions that have become puppets of the political machinations of the current administration.
In the months leading up to Vemula’s suicide, the university had revoked his stipend and housing after he condemned members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student organization, which, like most student unions in India, is affiliated with a powerful political party – in this case, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is the Hindu nationalist, paramilitary arm of the BJP; together, the two groups have helped align the definition of Hindu nationalism with that of Hindu fundamentalism. In what seemed to be a further demonstration of the BJP’s growing influence on universities, the Vice-Chancellor of HCU, P. Appa Rao, reportedly suspended Vemula and four other students after BJP government officials forwarded him a letter by members of the ABVP, accusing Vemula and others of engaging in “castiest, extremist and anti-national” activities. India’s National Human Rights Commission is now investigating “emergency-like” events at the university during the week of March 21, when student protestors allegedly vandalized Rao’s office upon his return from personal leave. The university administration reportedly responded by shutting down access to food, water and the Internet, and closing campus to journalists and politicians. Meanwhile, university officials allowed the police to raid campus and arrest dozens of students and professors. Video has since emerged online of instances of police brutality against student protestors.
Given the government’s growing intolerance of dissent, it is no surprise that the community at JNU, a prestigious public university that is perhaps as well known for its leftist student activism as it is for its superlative academic scholarship, responded quickly and forcefully in asserting not only its support for Kumar, but also academic freedom and freedom of expression. Students organized demonstrations and protest marches. Professors and guest lecturers held teach-ins to packed audiences, lecturing on the meaning of nationalism, the importance of freedom of expression and the power of dissent. The arrests have also triggered condemnation from international scholars, including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, who have expressed their solidarity with JNU students. And at a recent academic conference, I sat frustrated with dozens of other American researchers and scholars as we struggled to find a way to express our support for the students’ fundamental rights to freedom of expression without jeopardizing our own presence in our host country. These fears are perhaps not unfounded. Last week, as she applied to extend her visa, a friend who teaches English to middle school students in Delhi was asked by the Foreigner Regional Registration Office if she had any affiliations with JNU.
Reactions from those outside India’s academic circles have been more restrained. “They shouldn’t support terrorism and be against India. It’s their own fault,” one young woman told me when I asked how she felt about Mr. Kumar’s arrest. A friend’s landlord also expressed frustration at the protests, albeit for different reasons. “We [the taxpayers] pay for them to go to school. And this is how they thank us?” he complained, apparently objecting not to the substance of the protests, but to the very fact of the students’ right to protest.
What is clear is that Kumar’s arrest has renewed debate about the preservation of the sedition law, which some argue, in its current form, leaves room for excessive checks on freedom of expression. Even so, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that seditious speech may be punished only if there is an “incitement” to – as distinct from mere advocacy of – violence or public disorder. Incitement to violence or “imminent lawless action” is a necessary element to seditious speech, and, as Lawrence Liang, co-founder of India’s Alternative Law Forum, explained, “[m]ere words and phrases by themselves, no matter how distasteful, do not amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met.” Given Kumar’s political, rather than incendiary, speech, the charges are construed by many to be without merit. On March 2, 20 days after his arrest, Kanhaiya Kumar was granted bail by the Delhi High Court, but not before his alleged offense was analogized as an “infected limb.” Of the student activism that give rise to the alleged offenses, Justice Pratibha Rani observed, “I consider this as a kind of infection … which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic. Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally … [s]ometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.”
Weeks earlier, shortly after he was kicked and punched outside the courthouse by lawyers and lawmakers, Kumar had said in a statement, “I am an Indian. I have full faith in the Constitution as well as the judiciary of the country.”
Above is a short compilation of raw video taken at a protest march in New Delhi on February 18, 2016. The march was attended by thousands of students, professors and other supporters across India protesting the arrest of JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar.
Jennifer Li is a 2015 alumnae of Fordham Law School. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar in India.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photos and videos courtesy of Jennifer Li.