Students Challenge Modi Over Freedom of Speech

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Jawaharlal Nehru University student Kanhaiya Kumar addresses other students on campus after being released on bail from a prison in New Delhi on March 3. Kumar had been accused of sedition for an "anti-national" speech he made on February 9. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Narendra Modi's government got its comeuppance on the night of March 3, when Kanhaiya Kumar, the 29-year-old New Delhi student controversially accused of sedition three weeks ago, was released from jail on bail and immediately starred at a rapturous late-night rally on the grounds of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

It is surely rare for a prisoner, other than a political hero, to walk to freedom and immediately hold such a protest meeting and challenge those who wanted him detained.

Yet that is what the Ph.D. student from a desperately poor background did, implicitly criticizing Modi's home minister, Rajnath Singh; his emotionally combative education minister, Smriti Irani; and B.S. Bassi, Delhi's insensitively blunt police chief who metaphorically led the charge against students' freedom of expression before he retired four days ago.

Kumar's alleged crime (I wrote about it here) was that a speech he made on February 9 was anti-national. "If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation's sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared," Singh had provocatively tweeted. "I have instructed the Delhi CP [chief of police] to take strong action against the anti-India elements."

Violent scenes followed at the university and elsewhere, along with a national debate on the meaning of nationalism—and how far Singh and his colleagues thought it meant being loyal to their Hindu nationalist government.

Kumar, who is president of the JNU students' union, was the alleged leader of those "elements" and was arrested for sedition. Many legal experts said it was a misuse of the law, which dated from the days of British rule. On March 3, he was freed on six-month bail on condition that he did "not participate actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national."

That led him to establish his patriotism, saying, "We don't want freedom [azadi] from India.… We want freedom in India."

Irani had demanded at the height of the row that the Indian tricolor flag should be flown on all university campuses, presumably daring students to challenge her instruction. So a large flag was waved energetically at the demonstration, in effect mocking Irani and demonstrating the students' patriotism, though not for her Hindu nationalism.

It was compelling television as midnight approached, and most channels ran it live. Kumar reasserted the students' right to hold meetings and to protest, but carefully said nothing that could encourage those in Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sometime-violent student wing, the ABVP, to strike back.

Speaking for some 50 minutes, Kumar said the charge of sedition had been used as a political tool against the students and attacked Modi for misleading people with his promises in the last election. If one criticized the government, he said, a special cybercell would make doctored videos against you (as happened with him).

He condemned BJP leaders and speakers on television discussion programs for using the sacrifice of soldiers on India's border with Pakistan to condemn the JNU students, some of whom had been protesting about the execution of a Pakistani.

He said he had been criticized for using the word azadi, or independence, and asked whom he wanted independence from because India did not deny anyone their freedom. That led him to make the remark about wanting "freedom in India" and adding freedom from "hunger, corruption, poverty, casteism."

A Delhi government-appointed inquiry by a magistrate did not, it was announced on March 3, find any evidence that he shouted anti-India slogans on February 9. It had examined seven tapes of students' speeches, two of which turned out to have been doctored to incriminate Kumar and other students.

The events three weeks ago generated a wide debate, with many people condemning the students for their slogans and attitude, while opposing or at least not condoning the crisis that the government created with the sedition charges.

One extreme was illustrated by the judge in Delhi's high court who said, when he granted Kumar bail, that some of what the students had said was not protected by freedom of speech and that it was "a kind of infection from which such students are suffering which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic," adding:

Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.

This is far from the end of the story. Dates for state assembly elections starting next month were announced March 4, generating desperate campaigning by the BJP and its extreme wings that will emphasize Hindu nationalism and try to strengthen its hold on the country.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality.