Two Indian students arrested for sedition

Indian student activists Umar Khalid (with striped scarf) and Anirban Bhattacharya (with white shawl) walking across the campus of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University on their way to surrendering to the Indian authorities on Tuesday.
Indian student activists Umar Khalid (with striped scarf) and Anirban Bhattacharya (with white shawl) walking across the campus of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University on their way to surrendering to the Indian authorities on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They are accused of shouting slogans in support of Pakistan

India has arrested two students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on sedition charges as a heated political debate rages in Parliament on the right to expression in the world's biggest democracy.

Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya surrendered to police overnight, after the Delhi High Court declined to protect them.

The two students had gone into hiding, saying they feared for their safety after the Feb 12 arrest of JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who has become the target of right-wing groups and was beaten up in court by nationalist lawyers.

The students have been accused of shouting slogans in support of Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013 for the 2001 Parliament attack, in a meeting on Feb 9. They have denied shouting the slogans and have found support from thousands of teachers and other students.

"They have placed their faith in the law and we hope that they will be released soon," said Ms Shehla Rashid, vice-president of the JNU Students Union, in a statement. The police are now waiting for three other students to surrender.

Still, the split in India over the issue of nationalism and right to expression was apparent in Parliament where opposition politicians accused the ruling party of silencing dissent.

"I believe students, teachers and others must be permitted to express their opinion even if it conflicts with the ideology of the government," said Professor Sugata Bose, a lawmaker from West Bengal's Trinamool Congress party and a Harvard University professor, in Parliament. "The government must end this witch-hunt."

Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia said merely shouting slogans was "not a crime", even as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the opposition of supporting "anti-national sloganeering".

"You can criticise the Indian government but criticising India is not acceptable," said BJP MP Anurag Thakur in Parliament.

The arrest of the students has capped a series of recent incidents.

Last month, student leader Rohith Vemula committed suicide after he was suspended and his scholarship terminated by Hyderabad University. This happened after a tiff between him and the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist non-governmental organisation.

Over the last six months, dozens of students have protested against the scrapping of a programme that gives financial support to thousands of post-graduate students.

"There is a general discontent among the youth and this is finding ways of expression," Communist Party of India MP M. B. Rajesh told The Straits Times.

On Wednesday, teachers and students from various universities protested.

"In India, universities have been a space for free thinking," said Mr Rahul, an art historian who declined to give his last name and blacked his face with ink in protest. "That space is shrinking."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2016, with the headline 'Two Indian students arrested for sedition'. Print Edition | Subscribe