Student leader’s sedition charge for defending Indian Constitution

By Savi Hensman
February 18, 2016

A student leader from  Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been charged with sedition after refusing to give in to India’s far right. Repression against defenders of the principles of India’s Constitution has led to national and international outrage.

There were extraordinary scenes at the New Delhi courtroom. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU students’ union (JNUSU), was assaulted along with protestors and journalists.

He is seeking bail from the Supreme Court, which sent senior lawyers to find out what was happening. They reported that they witnessed "an unprecedented atmosphere of fear and terrorising."

OP Sharma, a politician from the extreme-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs, was later arrested and bailed. He had been caught on camera apparently assaulting a left-wing activist but claimed he had been hit first.

Recently, trouble has spread through university campuses, where the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student organisation has been active. It is part of the same movement as the BJP and paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which distort Hinduism to increase their own power. Top posts in the higher education sector have increasingly been filled by members or sympathisers.

In January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student activist at Hyderabad University, was driven to suicide, setting off protests. He had been suspended after a clash with ABVP activists which was followed by the intervention of two BJP government ministers.

In the following month, JNU became a focus of controversy. After ABVP complained, the administration had denied permission for a student meeting on Kashmir, to protest at the judicial killing of two men convicted of terror attacks (criticised by anti-death penalty as well as regional campaigners) and back calls for self-determination.

Some of the organisers gathered anyway, supported by others on campus committed to free speech. Amidst heated argument, a few people – reportedly outsiders – shouted anti-India slogans. Kumar was later accused of having taken part, though his own views were clearly different. It is reported that even the police confirmed this.

But he did make an outspoken attack on the Indian far-right (‘Sanghis’), including bringing up their largely unimpressive record during the years of British rule.

“We don’t need the RSS to certify us as nationalists. We are of this country and love the soil of India. We fight for those 80 per cent of this country’s people who are poor”, he said ( Indian Express translation).

“We have full faith in our country’s Constitution. And we want to firmly assert that if anyone lifts a finger against this country’s Constitution – whether the Sanghis or anyone else – we won’t tolerate it.”

He warned that “Even the media won’t be safe from the way fascism is creeping in this country” and condemned caste-based and women’s oppression. “We have to safeguard our freedom of expression, our Constitution, our country.”

He made it clear that “The JNUSU does not support any violence, any terrorist, any terror attack, any anti-national activity. I want to reassert this in no uncertain terms. There are some unidentified people who have raised the slogan of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ [long live Pakistan]. The JNUSU strongly denounces them.”

The Preamble to the Constitution resolved to secure for all India’s citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.

Human rights principles, including social, economic and cultural as well as political rights, are reflected. Matters covered include “Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”; “Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc” and a pledge to “endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities”.

This is far removed from the divisive and brutal politics of the extreme right, which has been given a boost by overseas governments’ enthusiasm for Modi.

Students in various parts of India have joined in protests. Numerous academics there and abroad have also spoken out in defence of Kumar and the principles of democracy and freedom now under attack. Signatories to letters include Arjun Appadurai, Homi Bhabha, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Ashoke Sen. Even some ABVP leaders at JNU have resigned over the situation.

The crackdown on dissent has caused such alarm that whole centres of learning have objected, including the South Asia Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Centres for South Asian Studies at the Universities  of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

Attempts to victimise Kanhaiya Kumar have drawn attention to growing authoritarianism by sections of the Indian state, combined with lawlessness on the ground. Many people are showing considerable courage in defending basic liberties and the ideals of an India where all communities are valued and treated justly.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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