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Sedition Charge Divides India As Protests Continue

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."

Indian students protest against the Feb. 12 arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Student's Union of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Sajjad Hussain / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Indian students protest against the Feb. 12 arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Student's Union of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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.

A protester carries a banner calling for a repeal of India's sedition law.
Julie McCarthy / NPR
A protester carries a banner calling for a repeal of India's sedition law.

"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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.