India: Violence Spreads During Sedition Protests

Rohit Wadhwaney
2016.02.19
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160219-IN-sedition-folo-620 Indian lawyers shout slogans and carry an effigy as they march through the streets of the New Delhi while pledging to attack anyone found to be “anti-national,” Feb. 19, 2016.
AFP

India’s Supreme  Court on Friday deferred hearing the bail plea of a student leader whose arrest on sedition charges has sparked a wave of violent protests in the country.

Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), was arrested for allegedly partaking in anti-India chanting at an on-campus event Feb. 9 marking the death anniversaries of two executed Kashmiris. On Thursday he asked the Supreme Court to grant bail, citing a threat to his life in the Delhi prison where he is being held.

The event was held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in south Delhi to show solidarity for Afzal Guru, executed in 2013 for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, and Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri separatist leader who was hanged in 1984.

On Friday, the Supreme Court refused to entertain Kumar’s plea, saying it would be setting a “dangerous precedent” if it bypassed lower courts and referred the case to the High Court.

“You are leading a dangerous proposition. If this court will entertain it, it will become a precedent which will be available to all the accused in the country,” the Indian Express quoted justices J. Chelameswar and A.M. Sapre as saying.

Later in the day, Kumar’s legal team approached the High Court, which postponed the hearing until next week without stipulating a date.

Delhi Police Commissioner B.S. Bassi on Wednesday confirmed that his department would not contest bail for Kumar, who denies speaking out against India.

Meanwhile on Friday, a separate court rejected the bail application of S.A.R. Geelani, a former Delhi University professor, also charged with sedition for allegedly referring to Guru and Bhat as martyrs at an event at the Delhi Press Club on Feb. 10.

Geelani, who was accused in the 2001 parliament attack case but later acquitted, will remain in judicial custody until March 3.

Sedition charges were also brought against five other JNU students, including the Feb. 9 event organizer, Umar Khalid. They are not in custody, police said.

800 phone calls

Khalid’s phone records reveal he made 800 calls between Feb. 3 and Feb. 9, including some to Jammu and Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state in the Himalayas, according to a report on India TV that cited unnamed sources. Calls were also made to and received from Bangladesh and some Gulf countries.

Police said they were conducting raids in as many as 10 states to nab Khalid, who has been missing since Kumar’s arrest.

Khalid’s father, Syed Qasim Ilyas, disagreed with the sedition charge against his son.

“There are so many other people, including academics, politicians and writers who talk of freedom for Kashmir. Why aren’t they being charged with sedition?” Ilyas told BenarNews.

“In a democracy there could well be a dissent. There could be different opinions. Those who have a voice of dissent and have a different opinion are labeled as anti-national by the government,” Khalid had told BenarNews last week before he was charged with sedition.

A friend who refused to be named said Khalid was on the run because he feared for his life.

“What do you think will happen if he came out of hiding? He would probably be lynched just because he has been accused of being an anti-national. On top of that, he is a Muslim. Just look at what’s happening to Kanhaiya Kumar,” he said, referring to an alleged assault by lawyers on the leftist JNUSU president when he was taken to Delhi’s Patiala House court on Wednesday.

A group of lawyers, shouting pro-India and anti-Pakistan slogans, had launched an attack on JNU students, teachers and journalists attending Kumar’s hearing on Monday and Wednesday.

More violence

On Friday, hundreds of Delhi lawyers marched around the India Gate circle in the heart of the national capital, demanding severe punishment for the anti-India sloganeers.

“We don’t belong to any political party. We are patriots marching in protest of the anti-national wave that has swept the country,” Manoj Kumar told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, protests by self-proclaimed nationalists and dissent-backing liberals who accuse India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to stifle dissent, kicked off across the country following Kumar’s arrest. They kept raging Friday with clashes witnessed in the states of J&K and Rajasthan.

Carrying placards that thanked JNU for supporting the cause for Kashmir’s freedom, masked protesters pelted stones at security forces in Srinagar while waving flags of Pakistan and the Islamic State (IS). Police retaliated by firing teargas shells to disperse the mob. No casualties were reported in the violence (see video).

“Sad that recent events and their handling have created a situation where JNU now features alongside Pak and ISIS,” former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said in a tweet, using another acronym for the IS.

In Jaipur, the capital of north India’s Rajasthan state, members of the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) clashed with members of the National Students Union of India – the student wing of the opposing Congress party – during a rally organized at the Rajasthan University campus to demand Kumar’s unconditional release.

“Both the groups were holding their own demonstrations when the clash occurred at the university’s main gate. Police intervened and broke up the fight. The situation is under control,” the city’s Deputy Commissioner of Police K. Rastradeep said.

Even as the debate over nationalism and free speech continues to rage, India’s leftist parties have called for a countrywide protest from Feb. 23 to 25 to challenge what they call the government’s attempt to stifle voices of dissent.

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