Grad student arrested and suspended for distributing pamphlets

Posted July 28, 2017

On July 12, 2017, authorities reportedly detained and later arrested Valarmathi, a graduate student at Periyar University, in Salem, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in apparent retaliation for distributing pamphlets encouraging students to oppose government energy projects.

At the time of her arrest, Ms. Valarmathi (who has only been identified in the press by a single name) was on the campus of the Government Arts College for Women, in the city of Gorimedu, where she and another woman were distributing pamphlets expressing solidarity with individuals protesting two local Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) projects. Ms. Valarmathi was detained for six days and charged on July 18 for violating the Goondas Act, which prohibits instigating others to disturb public order. According to the local Chief Minister, the charge was based on her past protest-related arrests, stating “Valarmathi has been causing disturbance to the public by taking part in various protests, and instigating students to cause trouble; despite cases being filed against her, she has refused to mend her ways and has been disrupting public peace.” Human rights activists have called Valarmathi’s arrest an abuse of the Goondas Act, which they say is intended for serious criminal offenses and organized crime, and not meant to criminalize political expression.

On July 24, Periyar University officials reportedly suspended Ms. Valarmathi in connection with her arrest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about arbitrary arrest and suspension of a student in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of association — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.