On February 23, 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested and eventually charged with sedition in connection with their participation in an on-campus protest earlier that month, during which anti-India slogans were allegedly shouted.
The on-campus event had been scheduled 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.
Following the February 12 events, police reportedly began searching for Khalid and Bhattachary, based on their alleged involvement in the protest. On February 23, Khalid and Bhattachary turned themselves in to police custody. They reportedly remained in custody for three weeks, and eventually were released on bail. They were charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code – a crime which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The charge remains pending as of this report.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about arrest and prosecution of students, 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 authorities 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.
This is an update to an earlier report. To view related reports, please click here and here.