Sedition Charge Divides India As Protests Continue

Feb 20, 2016
Originally published on February 21, 2016 12:17 pm

In India, a university student is accused of uttering anti-India slogans that valorized a Kashmiri separatist. Is such sloganeering in support of Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his role in an attack on the Indian Parliament, a case of free speech or sedition?

Indians are sharply divided.

This past week, debate over the charge of sedition leveled against Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar drew mobs to the courthouse and demonstrators to the streets.

The offense of sedition carries a life sentence in India.

Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government pushed the allegations of sedition, endorse the crackdown.

Some of Modi's most ardent followers fall on the far right of the political spectrum. A crowd of them descended on the university's campus this week, swarming the barricaded gate, and vowing to root out what they called "a nest of anti-national activity."

Hours later, a group of lawyers pummeled students at a court complex as police looked on. According to local media reports, more unruly lawyers rounded on the only defendant in this case to date, thrashing Kanhaiya Kumar.

When bundled into court, Kumar appeared terrified and denied the sedition charge. India has been dissecting the doctoral student's experience and drawing very different conclusions.

"We Indians will not tolerate this. They cannot raise slogans against our country. It is not free speech — it is speech against our country," says Radshree Kumar, a supporter of the Modi government. "It's a plot to destabilize our country."

On the other side of the political coin is writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi.

"Whenever those in power want to suppress dissent they charge you for sedition. And who's going to define nationalism?" he says. "It is absolutely essential for anyone who stands for democracy to stand with these students."

These different understandings of free speech reflect different perceptions of Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU.

Singing "We Shall Overcome" and brandishing banners that read "Defend the Right to Dissent," thousands of students from JNU led a march through Central Delhi in solidarity with the jailed student they call "Comrade Kumar." Students say the crackdown is politically motivated by a Modi government that's out to discredit the school's liberal tradition.

The spokesman for the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party, Nalin Kohli, says they have long considered the school a "bastion of leftist" ideology. But he denies any witch-hunt. Kohli says Indians generally share a revulsion of sloganeering that turns the Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru into a Kashmiri martyr.

"Secessionist thought which calls for violence, the break-up of a state, which calls for the rejection of due process of law, which convicted a terrorist — there would be concerns and obviously an investigation is bound to happen," Kohli says.

Meanwhile, 42 faculty members and researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, one of the country's premier academic institutions, came out in support of the JNU students. "We criticize the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation that is being created to target the entire university," the group said in a statement.

Afzal Guru's execution was publicly questioned when it was carried out in 2013. But going after students for criticizing the hanging three years later makes no sense, says parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor. "It's absurd," Tharoor says. "It denies the very possibility [that] in a university we allow all sorts of ideas to contend and flourish, and in the end people come out with more expanded minds. That's what university is all about. That's what democracy is all about."

Tharoor has introduced a bill in Parliament to more narrowly define what constitutes the crime of sedition.

The student charged under the colonial era statute sits in high security lock up. He is due to be back in court Monday to ask for bail.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In New Delhi, Indians took to the streets this week in an uproar over charges of sedition brought against a student.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: Rival demonstrations suggest Indians are sharply divided over what constitutes seditious speech. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in New Delhi and has this story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Sedition carries a life sentence in India, and the high stakes matched the week's high drama. Followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi descended on the campus they call a nest of anti-national activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I don't know. I don't know.

MCCARTHY: Hours later lawyers pummeled students at a court complex in full view of police. Local media say more unruly lawyers assaulted the one defendant charged with sedition, student leader Kanhaiya Kumar. Police alleged that earlier this month on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, he shouted anti-India slogans that glorified Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist hanged for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Bundled into court, Kumar appeared terrified and denied the charge. India has been dissecting the Ph.D. student's experience and drawing very different conclusions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KANHAIYA KUMAR: We Indians will not tolerate this. They cannot raise slogans against our country because not a free speech. It is speech against our country. This is just a plot to destabilize our country. It is a plot to destabilize our country.

MCCARTHY: That's Radshree Kumar, a supporter of a Modi government. Here's writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOHAIL HASHMI: Whenever those in power want to suppress dissent they charge you for sedition. And who's going to define nationalism? And it is absolutely essential for anybody who will stand for democracy to stand with these students.

MCCARTHY: If there are different understandings of free speech, there are also different perceptions of Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.

MCCARTHY: Singing and brandishing banners that read, defend the right to dissent, thousands of students from JNU lead a march through Central Delhi in solidarity with a jailed student they call Comrade Kumar. Students say the crackdown is politically motivated by a Modi government out to discredit the school's liberal tradition. Spokesman for Modi's BJP party Nalin Kohli says while they have long considered the school a bastion of leftist ideology, he denies any witch-hunt. Kohli says Indians generally share a revulsion of sloganeering that turns Guru into a Kashmiri martyr.

NAHLI KOHLI: Secessionist thought which calls for violence and which calls for the breakup of a state, which calls for the rejection of the due process of law, which convicted a terrorist, there would be concerns, and obviously, an investigation is bound to happen.

MCCARTHY: Guru's execution was publicly questioned when it was carried out three years ago. Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor says going after students for criticizing the hanging now makes no sense.

SHASHI THAROOR: It's absurd. It denies the possibility of evolution of their own drawing up and changing. It denies the very possibility that any university we allow all sorts of ideas to contend and flourish, and at the end of it, people come out with more expanded minds. That's what university should be all about. That's what democracy is all about.

MCCARTHY: Tharoor wants Parliament to narrowly define what constitutes the crime of sedition. The student charged under the colonial era statute and who sits in high security lockup is back in court Monday asking for bail. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.