Earlier this month, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and leader of the student wing of the Communist Party of India, was arrested for allegedly holding a rally to commemorate Mohammad Afzal Guru’s death on its anniversary in New Delhi. Just a few days later, former lecturer S.A.R. Geelani and two other students at the same university, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, were also detained under similar charges. The incidents have sparked an outburst of protests across the nation, with uprisings in 18 universities and some students burning an effigy of Narendra Modi — the parliamentary leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) — in Kolkata city. The protests are claimed to be the largest student demonstrations in the past 25 years, and this is only one example of the increasing government intolerance that the country has experienced and the public’s reaction to it in the two years since Modi became Prime Minister.
Kumar’s arrest came soon after he held an event at a conference hall on JNU’s campus, even though permission for the event had supposedly been revoked by the vice chancellor. Alternative reports say that Kumar had only organized an art and photo exhibition portraying the historical political disjoint and consequent struggle in Jammu & Kashmir, a state which has been a longstanding battleground for varying nationalist ideologies since India gained independence in 1947. According to Kumar, the event was merely a symbol of JNU students’ support for the Kashmiri people and their democratic right to self-determination. Mahesh Girri, a member of the BJP, and an affiliated right-wing all-India student union called Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), filed charges accusing Kumar of shouting antinationalist slogans at the event.
Adding to the politically controversial nature of Kumar’s event was that it was held on the anniversary of Guru’s death. Guru had been hanged in 2012 as a result of a contentious and secretive operation. A Kashmiri separatist, he was detained and charged along with several others, including Geelani, who were allegedly involved in the 2001 Parliament Attacks in India, where assailants killed several low-level staff members at the Indian Parliament during an open shootout. Geelani was let off due to the lack of evidence. The Supreme Court declared the evidence regarding Guru’s involvement purely circumstantial, claiming that “there is and could be no evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” Even so, the Supreme Court still recommended capital punishment for Guru and others who were accused, to “satisfy the collective conscience of a shaken nation.” The decision provoked an extreme backlash from human rights groups around the world and it was declared a mistake and a step back in India’s democracy by then Congress Leader Shashi Tharoor. Kumar and other students involved in organizing the event described Guru’s execution as a “judicial killing” and Guru as a “martyr.”
Delhi police arrested Kumar and Geelani under sedition, criminal conspiracy, and unlawful assembly, and Khalid and Bhattacharya were arrested a few days later on sedition charges. As of Feb 19, the Delhi Court has denied Geelani his bail plea, claiming that it can be inferred “from the slogans raised by the accused that they intended to bring the government of India into contempt with likelihood of violence and public disorder.” Delhi police chief BS Bassi has justified the rejection of Geelani’s bail plea by maintaining that his involvement with the organization of the rally was grave and that he might tamper with primary investigation and evidence if released. Union home minister Rajnath Singh has gone so far as to claim, without evidence, that the event was backed by support from the LeT (Lakshar-E-Taiba), a terrorist group often linked to the 2008 bombings in Mumbai.
India’s struggle for independence and successful resistance to British Raj was largely contingent upon the creation of such a nationalist identity based on the very principles of pluralism and tolerance. This secular nationalist identity transformed India into a nation that was previously a mere geographical entity of several independent civilizations. Therefore, the Indian public is infuriated by the government’s constant use of colonial-era laws that fundamentally contradict India’s constitutional values of freedom of speech and expression. The sedition law under which charges were brought against against both Kumar and Geelani dates back over 150 years, when India was still under British colonial rule. The sedition law criminalizes speech that incites violence and mandates anywhere between three years to life in prison. Such laws not only contradict constitutional guarantees, but also stand in direct conflict with the secular, democratic principles the nation was founded upon.
This is not the first time since Modi came to power that colonial era laws have been exploited to serve political and religious motives. Several states in India implemented a 1932 law just last year criminalizing the slaughter of cows and mandating up to a ten-year prison term and a fine for the act. Furthermore, the sedition law is not only archaic, but has also been manipulated to make the arrests of Kumar and Geelani. The law only criminalizes those whose speech explicitly calls for violence, whereas no evidence regarding any of the students or Geelani has been found so far.
Members of the Indian diaspora and several international scholars around the world have reacted negatively to these recent developments. Up to 500 students and faculty members at different universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and several parts of Europe and Asia have signed a solidarity statement that identifies police actions against the JNU faculty, staff, and students as illegal under the constitution of India and “condemns police presence on campus and the harassment of students on the basis of their political beliefs.” Many of Brown’s own students and faculty members are on not only on the list but also organized a JNU-Teach in at the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs. Several undergraduate students, graduate students and professors attended the event and engaged in a fruitful discussion with JNU professors and other students involved in the protests based in India via Skype and later signed a solidarity statement to show their support for the JNU faculty and students.
When Modi came into power in 2014, there were widespread concerns about the kind of India Modi and his government would create. Worries arose because his Bharatiya Janta Party, with an officially declared Hindutva ideology, articulates a Hindu nationalist identity. Modi’s election as Prime Minister has been controversial from the start due to his previous tenure as the chief minister of the Gujarat state. During his term, violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, which led to the death of over 1,000 Muslims. As chief minister, Modi was seen as largely ineffective in stopping the violence.
Incidents since Modi came to power are also raising questions about the “saffronisation” of India, a term that refers to the push for an increasingly Hindu-nationalist identity for the country. In January, Rohith Vemula, a member of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) at Hyderabad University, committed suicide after he and five others were expelled due to a biased investigation that supported ABVP members over the ASA. The two groups got into a fight after the ABVP disrupted a documentary screening organized by the ASA calling it anti-Hindu. Union Minister Bandar Dattatreya, affiliated with the BJP, was later charged for abetting suicide after he wrote to the HRD Minister about the ASA expressing antinational sentiments at the university by protesting the execution of Yakub Memon, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 Bombay bombings.
In July last year, protests broke out on FTII’s campus in New Delhi after BJP affiliate and actor, Gajendra Chauhan was appointed as as chairman. Additionally in October, about 40 Indian writers returned their literary awards after a liberal writer from the state of Karnataka was shot dead for his writings that offended Hindu-right wing groups. These debacles ultimately tie into the bigger question of contesting ideologies and visions of India.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office has decided to set up a cyber media center to monitor news that portrays the government in a “negative” light and counter such narratives through the government’s very own press releases. Modi himself has remained silent, focusing on his Make in India campaign to attract foreign investment and to draw Indian citizens studying abroad back to India to reduce the “brain drain” issue that the country has faced for the past two decades. Amid all these distraction, the real question still remains: What kind of India is Modi’s government building, and why, if at all, would anyone want to come back to it?