Tremors of dissent and debate rattle Delhi

What types of speech should a democratic society permit? Can speech be anti-national, and who defines the terms of anti-national speech? What is the role of universities in promoting dialogue around these questions?

These are some of the questions that India has been grappling over the past week, following the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar on seditions charges. The story has now gone international; the New York Times has published a few articles on it, as has the BBC.

The basic outline of events is this: on February 9 at JNU, a leading Delhi university famous for its passionate leftist political activism, an event was planned to be held to protest the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted for his role in the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. The event, to be held by former members of the Maoist-leaning Democratic Students’ Union (DSU), was denied permission by the university after members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing, informed the university. The DSU then sought the help of the JNUSU and other Left-leaning political groups, such as the All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Students Federation of India (SFI), to gather in support of their right to protest. In the midst of confrontation between ABVP and the other student groups, some slogans were shouted in support of Pakistan, Afzal, and Kashmiri independence. On February 12, police arrested student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on the charge of sedition, which can carry a sentence of three years up to life imprisonment. His request for bail is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Since then, protests have enveloped JNU as both students and professors struck and police surrounded the campus premises. Government ministers have commented in interviews on the dangers of anti-national rhetoric, and opposition party leaders — including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi — have spoken out against the arrest. It is impossible to understand the national furor that has erupted over this issue without familiarizing oneself with the national debate about rising intolerance in India. The arrest is coming less than one month after the suicide of Rohit Vermula, a Dalit PhD candidate who was suspended from the University of Hyderabad allegedly as a result of government pressure. To those who are critical of the BJP government, the JNU debacle is the latest episode in a sustained effort to suppress dissenting views.

A mass protest was held today from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar, in the heart of Delhi’s downtown — pictures below. At the heart of it were JNU’s students and their numerous Left political associations. As per JNU students, more than 10,000 people were in attendance at the march.

Here is a nice primer on the different Communist student groups, for those curious about the ins and outs of student politics on JNU. The involvement of the Left in these protests may energize their party members in Kerala and West Bengal, where state elections are to be held in the middle of this year. Stay tuned to see how this issue informs political debate in India, both at the national level and in upcoming state elections.

Protest 1

Protest 5

Protest 2

Protest 4

Protest 3

Protest 6

Protest 7

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