On January 10, 2019, authorities in the northeastern Indian state of Assam charged retired literature professor and critic Hiren Gohain, along with an activist and a journalist, with sedition-related offenses in connection with their public statements concerning a citizenship bill currently pending in India’s parliament.
Critics of the bill charge that it is anti-democratic and religiously discriminatory, insofar as it extends the path to citizenship for individuals who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, so long as they are non-Muslims. Professor Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta spoke at a January 7 event organized to protest the bill. During his speech, Professor Gohain reportedly highlighted the importance of relying on secular principles within the Indian constitutional framework; he also reportedly used the phrase “independent Assam”, which he believed might have been the reason he was charged with a crime.
Professor Gohain, Mr. Gogol and Mr. Mahanta were reportedly charged with sedition and conspiracy on January 10, following the event. As of this report, the charges remain pending; further details about the case are unavailable as of this report.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of a scholar and others in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from interfering freedoms of expression and association, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.
UPDATE: On February 13, 2019, the Gauhati High Court granted pre-arrest bail to Professor Gohain and Mr. Gogol, stating that the “custodial interrogation… is not necessary.”