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20 Feb, 2016

India’s attempt to quash University student dissent brings country’s intolerance into focus

NEW DELHI, India Feb. 17 (NNN-Xinhua) — The students at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi are at war with the government.

The confrontation started all of a sudden after Indian police arrested the student unions’ president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition and declaring him “anti-national.”

Sedition as per Indian law amounts to inciting people to oppose the government. The maximum punishment for sedition in India is life imprisonment.

While Kumar denies the charge, a local court has remanded him into police custody. Policemen are trying to determine if he or his associates have links with any terrorist groups.

It all started on Feb. 9. On the university’s campus, a group of students gathered to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, following an attack on parliament in 2001.

During the event, students allegedly criticized the Indian government for hanging Guru and shouted anti-India slogans. In the charged atmosphere, Kumar is said to have made a routine address.

Guru was executed in 2013 inside New Delhi’s Tihar jail. He had always denied planning the attack. Many in India and Indian-controlled Kashmir believe Guru was denied a fair trial.

The next day, members of rightwing Hindu nationalist students’ union Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) staged a counter protest describing the previous evening’s event as “anti-national” and “traitorous.”

ABVP is the student wing of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The members along with a BJP lawmaker Mahensh Giri filed a complaint with police against the university students.

What followed was the anger of Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who stated that strict action would be taken against those who raised anti-India slogans on the campus.

Singh gave “necessary” instructions to the Delhi police commissioner to inquire into the incident, a prelude to Kumar’s arrest.

Another minister, Smriti Irani, whose ministry heads higher education, joined the row saying “the nation will never tolerate an insult to Mother India.”

Singh, justifying his instructions to the police, subsequently went on to post on his Twitter account that the students at JNU had support of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.

Saeed is the founder of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militant group, accused of carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

However, Singh had to face the embarrassment of deleting his Tweets, after it dawned upon him that his opinion had been based on a parody account.

Joining the chorus, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close aide and BJP president Amit Shah said they were taking action to protect India.

“I can assure you that every action we take is to protect our country,” Shah told reporters at his party office. “Any anti-India activity will not be tolerated.”

This set off a wave of protests on the campus apparently against the arrest of Kumar but with the much larger objective of challenging the government’s interference to end the freedom of speech on the campus.

Thousands, including students, university teachers, and civil society members rallied on the campus over the weekend demanding the release of Kumar.

The protesters formed a human chain stretching to about two kilometers, to protest what they described as the government’s “arbitrary charges” slapped on Kumar.

Opposition parties including the Congress and the Communist parties of India are throwing their weight behind the students.

The battle lines seem to be drawn and the BJP has found itself alone to defend India’s “nationalism” and the sedition charges that have been slapped on Kumar.

Of the universities in India, JNU is considered to be highly democratic. Though strongly influenced by the political left, the university has always been a fertile ground for discussions on diverse political and ideological opinions.

The protesting students have boycotted classes and virtually paralyzed the university’s academic activities.

On Tuesday the campus reverberated with the slogans “free Kanhaiya Kumar” and “long live revolution.”

Shehla Rashid, the vice-president of the students’ union strongly condemned Singh’s statement linking students to LeT and accused the BJP government of failing to contain terror attacks.

“We strongly condemn the irrational statements made by the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, drawing imaginary links between students and terrorist organizations.

The Home Minister should stop making a joke out of himself by relying on fake Twitter accounts to whip up communal frenzy,” Rashid said in a statement.

“In order to hide the Modi government’s own inefficiency in dealing with terror attacks like Pathankot, which had exposed their complacency in terror attacks, the Home Minister is now looking for non-existent links between innocent students and terrorist organizations.”

With each passing day, the students seem to galvanize public support in their favor.

On Monday, BJP activists and some lawyers assaulted and dragged university students and journalists out of court, where Kumar was in attendance.

The students accused the policemen present inside the court of inaction and watching the violence as passive spectators. The violence evoked sharp condemnation.

The confrontation between students and government seems to have brought back the “intolerance” debate that was triggered immediately after Modi took over as prime minister of India in 2014.

India’s Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen last week said India has become too tolerant towards intolerance.

“The problem is not that Indians have turned intolerant. In fact to the contrary we have been much too tolerant of intolerance,” Sen said, while delivering a lecture on “the centrality of the right to dissent.”

“When people in a minority are attacked by organized detractors they need our support. This is, I am afraid, not happening adequately right now and this did not happen adequately earlier.”

The university’s faculty members, opposition parties and sections of the media have criticized the BJP government for its exaggerated reaction to campus affairs and analysts have described the government’s move to clamp down on student dissent as an indication of intolerance to freedom of opinion.

“The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and the crackdown on political dissent at JNU suggest that we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent. It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism; legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of the New Delhi-based think tank, Center for Policy Research, said in a recent editorial on the matter.

Meanwhile, 455 academicians from international varsities have come out in support of the protesting JNU students.

The academicians said they were extremely concerned at the situation unfolding at JNU and would not remain silent.–NNN-XINHUA