India: JNU Student Leader Stopped from Addressing Dalit Suicide Protesters

Vasudevan Sridharan
Bengalaru, India
160323-IN-Kanhaiya-1000 Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar speaks to reporters at Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad, India, March 23, 2016.

A student leader charged with sedition was barred Wednesday from entering a south Indian university campus where a lower-caste student committed suicide in January.

Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), was scheduled to address Hyderabad Central University students, who have been protesting since the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a suspended Dalit scholar, on Jan. 17.

Kumar has been charged with sedition for allegedly raising anti-national slogans at an on-campus event in New Delhi last month.

Vemula hanged himself almost five months after he and four other Dalit students were suspended following an altercation with members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a Hindu nationalist group backed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

His suicide sparked a wave of student protests across the country as critics accused the BJP of supporting caste-based discrimination in government-funded educational institutions.

Dalits figure at the bottom of Hinduism’s strict caste-based hierarchy.

Kumar was not allowed to enter the campus in Hyderabad or address the rally, protesting students told BenarNews, even as police scrambled to verify whether the JNUSU president was violating conditions for his bail from a New Delhi jail on March 3.

Kumar was one of six JNU students charged with sedition for allegedly chanting anti-India slogans during a Feb. 9 event held to mark the death anniversaries of two executed Kashmiris. He was granted bail on condition that he not participate in political activities that might be deemed anti-national.

In a speech following his release, Kumar declared Vemula his icon.

Tense campus

On Tuesday, a day before Kumar was to address a rally at the Hyderabad college, clashes broke out between protesting students and ABVP supporters. The altercations occurred as university Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao, who was accused of abetting Vemula’s suicide, returned to campus after a two-month leave.

Police arrested 25 students, all Vemula supporters, for vandalizing Rao’s campus residence and office as they demanded his immediate firing.

Protesting students are also demanding that the government introduce legislation titled “The Rohith Act” to curb caste discrimination at educational institutions.

“About 75 students surrounded the vice-chancellor’s lodge and began hurling stones. Several windows and computers were damaged,” University Registrar M. Sudhakar told BenarNews.

Dozens of people were injured, prompting police to resort to force to break up the fight, Sudhakar said.

He said students’ demands were illegitimate because a judicial commission had been appointed to investigate Vemula’s suicide.

India’s left-wing Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) said police used extreme force on the students.

Even as he condemned the violence, Kanhaiya Kumar threatened to stage a sit-in at the university’s entrance if he was not allowed to enter the campus and speak to the students.

“I was invited (here) for a public meeting ... to speak on the death anniversaries of Indian freedom fighters Bhagat Singh and Raj Guru, who were hanged by the British on March 23, 1931. Despite the violence, I decided not to cancel the program,” Kumar told BenarNews.

He added that he planned to meet Vemula’s family during his two-day trip.


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