SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 23, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Jawaharlal Nehru University

Region & Country:Southern Asia | India

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 23, 2020, police reportedly arrested two Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students in apparent retaliation for their participation in a protest against a controversial citizenship law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The CAA, which was enacted in December 2019, generated widespread criticism for discriminating against Muslim migrants by excluding them from a pathway to citizenship provided in the same law. Introduction and passage of the legislation sparked protests at universities across India, often met with violent force by police and counter-protesters. Police have arrested a growing number of student-activists in connection with the anti-CAA protests, often accusing them of inciting violent riots that occurred in New Delhi in February 2020 that left 53 people dead, mostly Muslims, and hundreds injured and displaced. The riots occurred shortly after Kapil Mishra, a well-known member of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, held a rally in New Delhi and called on authorities to clear the city of anti-CAA demonstrators. While some clashes broke out between Hindu nationalists and anti-CAA activists, the riots were largely marked by reports of Hindu nationalists violently attacking Muslim Indians and destroying their homes and businesses, as well as reports of police refraining from intervening and even stoking anti-Muslim violence.

Natasha Narwal is a PhD candidate at the Center for Historical Studies at JNU. Devangana Kalita is a Master of Philosophy student at the Center for Women’s Studies at JNU. Narwal and Kalita are also founding members of Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students advocating for gender equity and accessible accommodations in higher education. In February, Narwal and Kalita reportedly participated in a sit-in demonstration at the Jafrabad Metro Station over the CAA. Later that day, a First Information Report (FIR) — a document prepared by police that is often a prelude to criminal charges — was reportedly filed against Narwal and Kalita. Months later, on May 23, police arrested Narwal and Kalita in their homes. On May 24, a court granted bail to Narwal and Kalita.

After their release, police immediately arrested Narwal and Kalita based on a different FIR accusing them of “rioting,” “attempt to murder,” and “using criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty,” at the Delhi riots. A court ruled that Narwal and Kalita be held in Tihar jail for fourteen days until their trial. On June 14, a Delhi court denied Narwal and Kalita bail.

On September 16, police charged fifteen people, including Narwal and Kalita, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with inciting the Delhi riots as part of a planned conspiracy to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As of this report, Narwal and Kalita remain in jail.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and prosecution of students in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected by 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. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliating against the nonviolent exercise of the rights to free expression and association. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.