• World

The Arrest of a Student Leader Spotlights India’s Battle for Free Speech

8 minute read

Set in a tranquil, 400-hectare sprawl on the edge of the ancient Aravalli hills that skirt southern New Delhi, the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a world apart from the Indian capital. Drive through its front gates and the traffic snarls and disorder of the city’s choked roadways give way to an almost sleepy calm—in between classes, students saunter up hilly pavements or loiter, casually, at one of the campus dhabas, small, ramshackle eateries that serve up affordable hot food.

As night falls, the dhabas double up as popular forums for tea-and-cigarette-fueled student debates. In recent weeks, however, the university’s tranquility has been replaced by a menacing tension: students, teachers, writers, artists and other liberal Indians have accused the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of trying to stamp out political dissent with the arrest of a JNU student leader.

It began on Feb. 9, when a group of JNU students held a campus protest to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Muhammad Afzal Guru, who was found guilty of involvement in a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament in 2001. ­Guru’s hanging touched off protests against the death penalty, most prominently in his home state of Kashmir, the northern province that has long been a crucible of dispute between India and Pakistan, New Delhi’s chief geopolitical foe. University authorities had earlier withdrawn permission for the event following a complaint, say local media, by a right-wing student organization allied with Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP-linked student group accused the JNU protesters of shouting “anti-national” slogans in support of Guru and Pakistan.

On Feb. 12, Modi’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh used Twitter to proclaim that “if anyone shouts anti India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.” His next tweet was more pointed, aiming directly at JNU, which is known for its left-wing political activism: “Whatever has happened in JNU is extremely unfortunate. I have instructed [the Delhi police commissioner] to take strong action against the anti-national elements.” That same day, police arrested JNU student-union president Kanhaiya Kumar, charging him with sedition under a statute that has its roots in India’s colonial past, and one which carries a possible sentence of life imprisonment. University authorities had given the police permission to enter the campus, an action that was condemned by students and faculty.

Kumar denies the sedition charge and told the court that he had only gone to the Feb. 9 event to prevent a clash between the organizers and members of the BJP-linked student group; a statement signed by leading Indian intellectuals and artists—including the historian Romila Thapar and the sculptor Subodh Gupta—called the sedition charge “trumped up.” Other JNU students accused of the same offense became the targets of an extensive manhunt after they went missing on Feb. 12. (Five eventually surfaced on campus on Feb. 22; two of them—Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya—surrendered to police around midnight Feb. 24.)

“This was a gross government overreaction to what was essentially a campus issue,” says Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of the Indian news website the Wire and a prominent critic of the Hindu right. There are, says Varadarajan, hundreds of ­universities across India with dozens of student groups that hold campus meetings every day, “and if student meetings on campus are going to be policed and become the subject for police cases, then God help us.”

The JNU case has opened up a new divide between nationalist forces allied with the BJP and the country’s liberals, who fear that the space for dissent and free expression in India is shrinking under Modi’s rule. A few months ago, many prominent writers returned their national awards to protest what they said was a growing climate of intolerance, with the government not doing enough to safeguard the Hindu-majority­ country’s minorities.

The BJP is closely linked to hardline right-wing groups propagating an ideology that views India above all as a Hindu nation, and has itself practiced the politics of divisiveness. In a key regional election last year in Bihar state, Modi said that the BJP’s opponents planned to transfer benefits reserved for certain Hindu groups to “another ­community”—widely understood to be a reference to minority Muslims. And BJP president Amit Shah told voters that were the Hindu nationalist party to lose, celebratory firecrackers would be set off in Pakistan. (The attempts backfired, with the BJP suffering its biggest political defeat since Modi’s election.)

JNU also follows other campus controversies involving the ruling party. In January, for example, a Hyderabad University student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after he and a group of his fellow students were banned from their hostels by university authorities following a clash with the leader of a right-wing student group. The death of Vemula, who belonged to a community at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste ladder, which has faced widespread discrimination, sparked allegations from opposition parties that the BJP had pressured the university to take action against him and his fellow students.

Many liberal activists believe that the authorities are deliberately fanning nationalist emotions. A group of lawyers chanting nationalist slogans and calling for the punishment of “anti-national­” forces physically assaulted journalists at a court where Kumar was due to appear on Feb. 15; a second attack saw the student leader being assaulted at the court on Feb. 17, despite the presence of scores of policemen. A BJP state legislator was also implicated in the first instance of violence.

India’s National Human Rights Commission said the “alleged inaction of the police … amounted to dereliction of duty and negligence.” Human Rights Watch said Indian authorities should “stop charging peaceful activists with sedition for alleged anti-national speech.” Said HRW’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly: “The BJP government seems eager to punish peaceful speech—but less willing to investigate supporters who commit violence in the name of nationalism. The authorities not only need to find out why BJP supporters were apparently involved in an assault inside a court, but also why the police did nothing.”

The BJP rejects accusations of political or ideological motivations. “This is not something against JNU or a university or students studying at a university,” says Nalin Kohli, the party’s national spokesperson. The authorities, he insists, are acting within the law to investigate “the kind of comments and slogans that we heard” on campus, adding that the suggestion that the police was acting under political direction “would be laughable.” Says Kohli: “Students are meant to have a free atmosphere, but where does that stop? The constitution guarantees us freedom of expression and speech … but subject to reasonable restrictions.” On the violence at the lower court in Delhi, he says that “any form of violence by anyone is not correct … there’s a member of our party—he was called for investigation, he was arrested, he is out on bail.”

The JNU affair has implications for Modi’s plans for the Indian economy. With the Indian Parliament’s key budget session commencing on Feb. 23, opposition parties could seize on the controversy to further stall the government’s legislative agenda. As it is, Modi has failed to build a political consensus to back initiatives like a plan to implement a nationwide goods-and-services tax and introduce land reforms that can boost domestic and foreign investment.

The still unfolding saga also spotlights what some Indians say are two sides of the Modi government. Overseas, the Prime Minister has cultivated an image as his nation’s economic reformer in chief and made India the most talked-about country at business conferences worldwide. All the while, critics say, the BJP and its cohorts are pursuing a narrow political and social agenda at home.

The day after Kumar’s arrest, Modi was in Mumbai launching a weeklong series of events to drum up support for his drive to boost India’s manufacturing sector. But as protests surrounding the JNU issue flared, the national focus remained fixed on New Delhi. “[The government has] been trying to get away with this Jekyll-and-Hyde act where it’s lauded abroad for so-called opening-up initiatives and economic enterprise, even as retrogressive things are being done at home,” says Varadarajan. “But I think they’ve seriously miscalculated in this case.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com