The World Responds to JNU, Academia Condemns Govt Action on Campus
NEW DELHI: The arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the police crackdown on the university campus has made international headlines. In addition to making it to the pages of The Guardian, BBC, New York Times, and The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, to name a few, the government’s response to the incident has drawn criticism from the international community at large.
400 academics from international universities including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge, issued a statement in support of the students of JNU. The statement read: “ “JNU stands for a vital imagination of the space of the university -- an imagination that embraces critical thinking, democratic dissent, student activism, and the plurality of political beliefs. It is this critical imagination that the current establishment seeks to destroy. And we know that this is not a problem for India alone.”
“Similar attacks on critical dissent and university spaces are being attempted and resisted across the world. An open, tolerant, and democratic society is inextricably linked to critical thought and expression cultivated by universities in India and abroad.”
“As teachers, students, and scholars across the world, we are watching with extreme concern the situation unfolding at JNU and refuse to remain silent as our colleagues (students, staff, and faculty) resist the illegal detention and autocratic suspension of students,” said the statement.
A number of international scholars signed a statement by JNU alumni, in “solidarity with the students, faculty and staff of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi against the illegal ongoing police action since February 9, 2016. With them, we affirm the autonomy of the university as a non-militarized space for freedom of thought and expression. Accordingly, we condemn police presence on campus and the harassment of students on the basis of their political beliefs.”
In addition to the statements, the incident has made international headlines. The Guardian noted that “The government has repeatedly been accused of seeking to repress free speech and of encouraging extremist nationalists who systematically intimidate critics.” “Ugly scenes broke out outside a Delhi courtroom on Monday when Kumar was produced, as several dozen lawyers and BJP supporters attacked students and reporters.”
“A visibly shaken correspondent from the Indian broadcaster NDTV reported that several journalists and students were beaten, and she was threatened with physical assault as she attempted to record the violence on her phone.”
“The BJP supporters chanted slogans, calling the reporters and students “anti-nationals” and demanding that they leave India and go to Pakistan, the country’s Muslim-majority neighbour.”
“Kumar was arrested after Delhi police, who are under Singh’s authority, entered the university and searched accommodation blocks. They also demanded audio and video recordings of the demonstration in support of Guru. The student leader, who has denied making any anti-India comments, was remanded in custody for a further two days.”
“India’s human resource development minister, Smriti Irani, supported Kumar’s arrest, telling reporters: “The nation can never tolerate an insult to Mother India.”
The article in The Guardian then went on to quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s scathing piece in The Indian Express, saying, “ome political commenters said the arrest was an attempt by the government to silence dissent. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the head of the Centre for Policy Research, a leading Delhi-based thinktank, said the decision to detain Kumar represents an open declaration by government that it will not tolerate any dissent.”
“[The government] is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions … the government’s disproportionate response smacks of tyranny of the highest order,” Mehta wrote in an opinion piece over the weekend.
“Educational, cultural and academic institutions are fast emerging as a key battleground between a broadly secular left and Hindu nationalists,” the article notes, as it details recent incidents of clashes between various groups.
The BBC, in an article titled “Why an Indian student has been arrested for sedition” by Sanjoy Majumder notes, “At the heart of the row is a fight between the political right and left.
India's mainstream political parties play an active role in campus politics in the country's major universities.”
The article continues: “Many of the students believe that the move is a direct assault on their right to dissent. "We are defending the right to have opinions," says one student. "You can have opinions on a judgement, you can have opinions on any issue that is going on and they are taking away that right." Some are angry at suggestions made by BJP leaders, that the university has become a hot-bed of anti-national sentiments with some accusing the campus of supporting Kashmiri militants. One student tells me that they totally condemned the "anti-national slogans that were [allegedly] raised [at last week's rally] by certain fringe elements. "But that doesn't give them the right to label an entire university of 10,000 students as anti-national," he argued. And it's not just the students who are protesting. Many of the university's faculty members have also come out in strong support.”
An article in The Atlantic notes: “The sedition law with which Kumar is charged is, like many holdovers of the Indian Penal Code, a British colonial-era law passed in the 19th century. It has been used in recent high-profile cases, including against a cartoonist. Critics say it stifles free speech.”
It then goes on to quote Amnesty India as saying that said Kumar’s arrest and the charges against him are “uncalled for.”
It adds: “The Emergency to which he refers is the 21-month state of emergency declared by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. The era witnessed a curtailing of civil liberties, mass arrests, and the crushing of political dissent. Many critics of India’s BJP government say those conditions are slowly returning along with intolerance of dissenting views. The BJP’s supporters dismiss those claims.”
The New York Times pointed out the details of the charge of sedition. An article quoted Vajinder Singh, Mr. Kumar’s lawyer, saying, ““A person can have a dissenting opinion under freedom of expression, but you become a traitor only if you incite violence.”
“Mr. Kumar contended instead that he was only in the vicinity because he was trying to break up a clash between those protesting the death penalty and right-wing students, according to The Press Trust. He said he believed he was arrested because he defeated a candidate from a right-wing students’ group for the presidency of the students’ union,” the NYT article stated.
“The turmoil is the latest to trouble Indian universities. In January, universities across the country erupted in protests after a doctoral candidate at Hyderabad University who was a Dalit, or a member of India’s untouchable caste, hanged himself in a student residence. He and four other students were barred last August for allegedly attacking a member of a right-wing student group, and had been expelled from student residences. After the episode, students staged protests at universities across the country over the hostility faced by Dalit students, many blaming the government of Narendra Modi for empowering right-wing student groups,” NYT concluded.