On February 12, 2016 Kanhaiya Kumar, the head of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, was arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly using anti-Indian slogans during a protest earlier that week. In addition, eight students, who have not been publicly identified by name, were reportedly barred from academic activities on campus pending an inquiry into the protest by the university.
Kumar and other members of the JNU student union (JNUSU) had organized an event on campus to take place on February 9, 2016, the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri activist who was convicted and executed in connection with a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. According to the organizers, the event, titled “A country without a post office — against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt”, would commemorate the struggle of Kashmiri migrants through poetry, art and music. Although administrators initially gave the students permission to hold the event, they withdrew that permission after a group of students affiliated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a group tied to India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), complained about the event to administrators. In a statement, the school’s Vice Chancellor claimed that, while the event was initially presented as a cultural program, it was actually planned as a protest; he stated that the event was cancelled to “keep calm and maintain peace in the campus.”
The JNU students nevertheless held an event on February 9, which included art and photography exhibitions, prompting protests from the ABVP, who demanded the expulsion of the students who held the event. The following day, university authorities instituted a disciplinary inquiry over the JNUSU event.
Over the course of the days that followed, the dispute drew national attention and sparked additional protests. On Friday, February 12, India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, stated publicly that “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” . . . “Stringent action must be taken against those who raised anti-India slogans in JNU”. This led to additional protests on the JNU campus.
On the same day, Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code – a crime which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Police also reportedly conducted raids throughout New Delhi, searching for several individuals who had been identified as having shouted seditious slogans during the JNU events. In addition, university administrators reportedly prohibited eight JNU students from engaging in academic activity pending the disciplinary inquiry over the February 9 protest.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about arrest and prosecution of students, as well as suspension of students from academic activities and cancellation or intervention in student events, in retaliation for non-violent exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State and university have a responsibility not to interfere with such rights, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibility. State and university actions limiting the rights to academic freedom, free expression and association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.
On March 2, 2016, Kumar was reportedly released from prison on bail. The charges against him remain pending.
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