India divided as battle over sedition arrest turns ugly

NEW DELHI, India – A bitter row over a student's arrest for sedition at a prestigious Indian university has exposed deep divisions between liberal intellectuals and the nationalist government in the world's biggest democracy.

Student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar is accused of shouting "anti-India slogans" during a rally at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri separatist leader.

Thousands of students and teachers have since protested around the country against his arrest, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government of misusing the British-era sedition law to stifle dissent. 

Modi's ministers have stood firm, warning of similar tough action against anyone engaging in "anti-national" behavior, while in striking scenes, pro-government lawyers attacked Kumar at court and pelted journalists with stones.   

Academics and others fear Kumar's arrest is politically motivated, part of a deliberate attempt to crack down on liberal activism at JNU, seen as the heart of a proudly independent-minded, left-leaning intelligentsia.

"In their minds, this was an anti-establishment campus and ideologically opposed to the BJP," said JNU's Gulshan Sachdeva, referring to Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"They were looking for an excuse, it was intended to send a message," Sachdeva, a professor at JNU's school of international studies, told AFP. 

Others warn Kumar's arrest is the latest in a string of incidents on campuses around the country aimed at muzzling dissent by branding them anti-Indian or anti-national.

"We condemn the overreach of the state in the recent incidents in a number of institutions and the attempts of the Hindu right to stifle dissent and suppress differences," said a statement signed last week by 42 researchers and faculty members from the leading Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

"The state cannot dictate on the many meanings of what it is to be 'Indian' or mandate the meaning of 'nationalism.'"

Since sweeping to power in 2014 general elections with a landslide victory, Modi has worked relentlessly to restore India's place in the world and boost national pride. 

The prime minister has carried out extensive foreign outreach and promoted traditional Indian practices including yoga and Ayurvedic medicine.

But critics say his efforts have emboldened hardline Hindu nationalists and fostered an atmosphere of intolerance. 

A spate of violent attacks on secular intellectuals and Muslims suspected of killing cows, which Hindus consider sacred, have heightened the concerns. 

A flurry of writers have returned literary awards in protest, accusing Modi's government of failing to speak out against instances of intolerance and rein in the hardliners.

Deadly attack

Kumar and his fellow students staged the February 9 rally to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru over a deadly attack on India's parliament in 2001. Guru denied plotting the attack carried out by Kashmiri separatists and some say he was not given a fair trial.

Kumar has denied chanting anti-India slogans at the rally at JNU, but he had publicly criticized right-wing nationalism.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has warned that anyone found shouting slogans that try "to put a question mark on the nation's unity and integrity will not be spared."

But India's mainstream media, which has devoted numerous front pages to the story, says in this instance the government overreacted.

"Attempts to criminalize the freedom of expression on campus, or to subdue it by labelling it 'anti-national,' cast much more unflattering light on the working of the Indian state than on a motley group of students who got carried away," the Indian Express said in an editorial.

Police have defended Kumar's arrest and sedition charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison although convictions are rare, saying they have enough evidence.

"If the judiciary acts swiftly, releases this young person and all the charges are withdrawn it might settle down, but all of these things are cumulative," said Neelam Deo, an ex-ambassador and director at Gateway House think-tank in Mumbai.

"Any arrest of this nature is going to have a chilling effect," she said. – Emily Ford, AFP / Rappler.com