On February 28, 2020, police arrested Souradeep Sengupta, a guest lecturer in physics at Gurucharan College in Assam and a PhD candidate, for a Facebook post that criticized the ruling party and India’s prime minister over violence and riots targeting Muslims in India.
According to media reports and a screenshot of the Facebook post, on February 27, Sengupta commented on ongoing religious riots that began on February 23 after a member of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held a rally in New Delhi calling on authorities to clear the city of demonstrators protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law enacted in December 2019 that extended citizenship to religious minorities, but excluded Muslims. While clashes broke out between Hindu nationalists and anti-CAA activists; reports indicate that the riots were largely marked by Hindu nationalists violently attacking Muslims and destroying their homes and businesses, and reports of police refraining from intervening and even stoking anti-Muslim violence. The riots left more than fifty people dead and hundreds injured.
In his Facebook post, Sengupta accused the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a conservative, Hindu-nationalist organization, of attempting to “recreate Godhra,” an apparent reference to the wave of anti-Muslim violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Commenting on the present situation, Sengupta’s post pointed to Muslims being asked to show identification, beatings of Muslims, and arson targeting mosques and the homes of Muslims. He further criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, commenting “We elected a mass murder twice as PM – this is what we get. Everyone who voted for BJP should know they sold the country off for a few bucks.” In a separate post, he reportedly described Hindutva, a form of Hindu nationalism, as a cancer.
Shortly after publishing the post, Sengupta reportedly started receiving threats from students of Gurucharan College. Later that night, Sengupta deleted the post and published an apology to Facebook, describing his original post as “irresponsible.”
On February 28, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, of which the ruling BJP is an affiliate, reportedly protested against Sengupta on the college campus, demanding his dismissal. ABVP members also reportedly submitted to the police a first information report (FIR) complaining about the Facebook post.
That evening, a large mob of at least forty people formed outside Sengupta’s family home and shouted “What kind of Hindu are you?”, referring to an absence of images of Hindu gods on their portico. Later, when Sengupta returned home, police arrested him under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for “grossly offensive or menacing” communications (Section 66a has been struck down by the Supreme Court, but this is reportedly often ignored by the police) and Sections 153A (promoting disharmony or enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc. and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 507 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.
On March 3, authorities released Sengupta on bail. According to one of Sengupta’s cousin, who spoke with The Hindu, authorities released him on the condition that “he will not leave the town without seeking permission from the appropriate authority.” It is unclear whether Sengupta continues to face charges as of this report.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the arrest and harassment of a scholar in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from retaliating against or restricting nonviolent expressive activity. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests and harassment intended to retaliate against expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.