India: Protests Spread in Wake of Sedition Charges Against Students

Rohit Wadhwaney
2016.02.18
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160218-IN-protest-620 An Indian student waves the national flag during a protest in New Delhi against sedition charges being filed against Jawaharlal Nehru University students, Feb. 18, 2016.
AFP

Updated at 11:00 a.m. ET on 2016-02-19

Thousands of people took to the streets of several Indian cities Thursday to protest what they called the “government’s attempt to stifle dissent,” after students from a prominent university were charged with sedition for allegedly voicing anti-national slogans.

The protest marches in New Delhi, Kolkata, Srinagar, Vadodara, Bengaluru and Chennai came even as police officials confirmed that they would not oppose bail for Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), who was arrested Feb. 12 on charges of sedition.

A hearing for Kumar is scheduled for Friday in the Supreme Court.

“My son is a true patriot. He is not anti-national. He is a leftist, but what is wrong with that? He is being wrongly implicated,” Kumar’s mother, Meena Devi, told BenarNews from Bihar state.

Kumar, a member of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) – the student wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) – is accused of expressing anti-India slogans during his speech at a JNU event on Feb. 9, which observed the anniversaries of the executions of Afzal Guru and Kashmiri separatist leader Maqbool Bhat.

Guru, a Kashmiri, was executed in 2013 for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, while Bhatt was hanged in 1984.

Sedition charges were also brought against five other students who allegedly took part in the event along with a former Delhi University professor, S.A.R Geelani. Police said those students fled and are still at-large.

Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist, allegedly referred to Guru as a martyr during an event in Delhi on Feb. 10. A court on Thursday remanded him to 14 days’ judicial custody.

Delhi Police Commissioner B.S. Bassi told reporters Wednesday that his department would not contest Kumar’s bail plea, because the accused had “expressed faith in the constitution and judiciary” and he had appealed to JNU students to maintain calm and not indulge in anti-national activities.

Bassi, however, insisted that Kumar had “not been given a clean chit.”

“We have adequate evidence against him to justify the sedition charge,” he said.

‘Spare me media trial’

Kumar denied that he voiced anti-India slogans.

“If there is evidence against me that I am a traitor, then please send me to jail. But if there is no proof, then spare me this media trial,” Kumar said in a written statement to metropolitan Magistrate Loveleen Singh before he was sent to 14 days’ judicial custody on Wednesday.

Kumar’s arrest sparked a series of protests in the national capital, with participants condemning the government action against JNU students as an attempt to curb free speech.

“How can the voice of dissent be termed anti-national in a democratic setup? I am against the sedition charges levied on Kanhaiya Kumar and other JNU students. It is clear, the government is trying to stifle voices that don’t agree with its ideologies,” Delhi protester Shravan Chaturvedi told BenarNews.

Protests spread

Demonstrations gradually spread to other Indian cities after Delhi and Kolkata witnessed clashes between self-proclaimed patriots and dissent-backing liberals.

At Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student group affiliated to the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), clashed with protesters who were marching to show solidarity with JNU students.

RSS is the ideological mentor of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads India’s ruling coalition.

BJP member O.P. Sharma is accused of assaulting a left-wing activist within the court premises in Delhi on Monday.

“He (the activist) was shouting anti-India slogans. So I beat him up. If I had a gun, I would have shot him,” said Sharma, who was arrested on Thursday and released on bail.

Meanwhile, a group of lawyers allegedly assaulted JNU students, teachers and journalists in Delhi’s Patiala House court where Kumar’s case was being heard, on Monday and Wednesday.

‘Grave fallout’

While hearing the case of violence in Patiala House, the Supreme Court on Wednesday observed that there was a “tendency to adopt extreme views and stick to it without fathoming the repercussions.

“Moderation in public space is the need of the hour, otherwise there will be a grave fallout.”

Tabasum Guru, the widow of Afzal Guru, who is widely believed to have been executed on the basis of an unfair trial, said it was “high time the Indian government realizes it cannot suppress people’s voices.

“The government should realize now that it cannot suppress the voice of people even if it resorts to the use of brute force,” she told BenarNews, adding, “The protests across India indicate that a lot of people, especially students, are aware that Afzal was falsely implicated and hanged.”

Meanwhile, the BJP stuck to its stance of taking firm action against anyone who indulged in anti-national acts.

“The government is very firm and BJP is very clear that we cannot allow anti-national acts by anyone. You cannot take the cover of students,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said.

Archaic law

Shameek Sen, a law professor at Kolkata’s National University of Juridical Sciences, said it would be difficult to sustain a sedition charge.

Quoting from a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Sen told BenarNews: “Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause, howsoever unpopular, is at the heart of Article 19 (1) (a) [freedom of expression]. It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) [restrictions on freedom of expression] kicks in.”

“So, if there is no concrete proof that the assembly, for which the accused have been booked, [incited] hatred, it will be difficult to sustain charges of sedition,” Sen said.

Senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal said there was no need for the archaic law on sedition, which was established in 1860 by Britain to punish those who publicly criticized its rule in India.

As per Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, the sedition charge is applicable when, “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visual representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law.”

“This law was created by British colonialists and there is no need for it in India anymore,” she told IBN Live.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju clarified that people were free to criticize the government, but could not verbally abuse the nation.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Rijiju said a group of people had taken a “despicable vow to break India into pieces,” and this would not be tolerated.

But anti-government protesters and even some BJP affiliates were not buying Rijiju’s stance.

After resigning from their ABVP posts at JNU on Wednesday, Pradeep Narwal, Rahul Yadav and Ankit Hans said in a joint statement, “We can’t be the mouthpiece of such a government,” while noting that “there is a difference between interrogation and crushing ideology and branding the entire Left as anti-national.”

Amin Masoodi and Masuma Parveen contributed to this report.

This story was updated to correct that five additional students face sedition charges and that alleged assaults of JNU students, teachers and journalists at Delhi’s Patiala House court occurred on Monday and Wednesday. BJP member O.P. Sharma is accused of assaulting an activist on Monday.

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