Modi govt criticised for arrest of student at top uni

Activists of the right-wing Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad participating in a protest march in Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard in New Delhi, last Friday against a group of Jawaharlal Nehru University students for allegedly shouting anti-national
Activists of the right-wing Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad participating in a protest march in Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard in New Delhi, last Friday against a group of Jawaharlal Nehru University students for allegedly shouting anti-national slogans.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Teachers join protest over sedition charge against leader of JNU students' union

The sedition charge against a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India's top institutions, has sparked criticism that the Modi government is cracking down on freedom of political expression in Indian universities.

The university, which is in Delhi and has more than 7,000 students, has a long tradition of encouraging political debate and is known for its liberal left-leaning politics. Most political parties are represented and it has a powerful alumni represented in top political and bureaucratic positions.

Yesterday, teachers and students, many of whom did not attend classes, led protests over last week's arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of Jawaharlal Nehru University's (JNU) students' union.

Kumar was arrested and seven others are under investigation for allegedly shouting slogans in support of Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013 for a 2001 attack on Parliament. The arrest has also been termed as excessive by many commentators.

Students from 40 universities have extended support to JNU where teachers, too, have decided to go on strike today.

"The strike is in protest against what has (occurred), with sedition charges being slapped against the president, remarks that this campus is a den of terrorists and police entering the campus at will," said Professor Ajay Patnaik, head of the teachers' association. Criticism has grown over police entering the campus to look for the student.

"There is an attempt to declare students as anti-nationals," Prof Patnaik told The Straits Times.

Yesterday, Indian media reported that lawyers roughed up journalists and JNU students during Kumar's bail hearing. Kumar was sent back to jail for two more days.

Mr Modi came to power in 2014 on a wave of support from Indian students, but trouble has been brewing in a number of educational institutions after the elections.

Students at the Film and Television Institute of India have been protesting against the appointment of a little-known actor affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the institute's head.

The suicide of student leader Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad University last month has also sparked outrage.

Mr Vemula, who came from an impoverished background, took his life after his scholarship money was cut off and he was suspended for a tiff with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological backbone of the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

Critics have taken the episode involving Kumar as another instance of the BJP and its affiliates trying to silence dissent and spread their influence.

The ruling party has remained firm, saying it was a question of national security. "No government can tolerate anti-national sentiments and slogans," said BJP president Amit Shah yesterday.

Analysts noted that the campus controversy was hurting the global image of the government which is trying to woo investors during the "Make in India" week, currently under way in Mumbai.

"The university started an inquiry into the matter so what was the need to take action before the inquiry is over? Is this really a national security issue?," Dr Bhaskara Rao of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Modi govt criticised for arrest of student at top uni'. Print Edition | Subscribe