New York Times: 'Violent Clash Between Free Speech and PM Modi Govt's Determination to Silence Dissent'
NEW DELHI: In a hard-hitting editorial, The New York Times came out in support of the students and teachers at Jawaharlal Nehru University, holding the Narendra Modi government responsible for the “lynch-mob mentality” that has surfaced after the arrest of JNU Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the sedition charges levelled against other students.
The editorial reads: “India is in the throes of a violent clash between advocates of freedom of speech and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its political allies on the Hindu right determined to silence dissent. This confrontation raises serious concerns about Mr. Modi’s governance and may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms.
The crisis began with the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union, by the Delhi police on charges of sedition. Mr. Kumar’s arrest followed an on-campus rally on Feb. 9 that marked the anniversary of the 2013 hanging of Muhammad Afzal, who was convicted of participating in the 2001 terrorist attack by an Islamist group based in Pakistan on India’s Parliament. The circumstances of Muhammad Afzal’s trial and execution remain controversial.
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and new university leadership appointed by Mr. Modi’s government were involved in calling the police on campus and singling out Mr. Kumar.
The court in New Delhi where Mr. Kumar’s hearing took place last week was a scene of chaos, as lawyers and B.J.P. supporters chanting “glory to Mother India” and “traitors leave India” assaulted journalists and students. The police refused to intervene. A B.J.P. member of India’s legislative assembly, Om Prakash Sharma, who was recorded on camera severely beating a student, said later, “There is nothing wrong in beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan,” as some students were accused of doing.
Responsibility for this lynch-mob mentality lies squarely with Mr. Modi’s government. On the day after Mr. Kumar’s arrest, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said, “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.” India’s Supreme Court has limited the definition of India’s colonial-era crime of sedition to speech that is “incitement to imminent lawless action.” Mr. Singh apparently does not realize that, in a democracy, voicing dissent is a vital right, not a crime.
Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists marched last week in protest from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Thousands of students and faculty at universities across India have turned out to protest in recent days. These Indian citizens are right to voice their outrage at government threats to the exercise of their democratic rights. Mr. Modi must rein in his ministers and his party, and defuse the current crisis, or risk sabotaging both economic progress and India’s democracy. The charge of sedition against Mr. Kumar should be dropped. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, warned in a recent opinion piece, members of Mr. Modi’s government “have threatened democracy; that is the most anti-national of all acts.””
The events playing out in India have received widespread coverage internationally, where in addition to students, academics, professors, thinkers and others who have taken out rallies and messages and statements of support, Opinion pieces have largely fallen on the side of the students and supporters of JNU.
For instance, in the Wall Street Journal, an article titled “What the Response to JNU Protests Says About Narendra Modi’s Government” notes: “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is promoting an increasingly assertive brand of nationalism, marked last week by marches that exhorted citizens to be patriotic and denounced those his party deems traitors.”
In The Guardian, an Opinion piece by Priyamvada Gopal notes: “So what is really at stake here? In short, it is a struggle between those who would lay claim to India as a democratic, heterogeneous, inclusive and at least incipiently egalitarian national project, and those for whom nationalism has devolved into a lethal cocktail of aggressive religious assertion and equally ferocious unbridled capitalist growth, where neither the body count nor widening inequality indices matter.”
“For those committed to the idea of India as essentially a Hindu country, which includes many in the government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, the list of potential “anti-nationals” appears to be compendious. It seems to include everyone from Muslim, Dalit, Christian, leftwing and liberal activists to those who question the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir or suggest that religious intolerance isn’t a good idea.”
In an earlier piece in The Guardian, another writer had noted: “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 AFP agency reported the incident as follows: “Modi's ministers have stood firm, warning of similar tough action against anyone engaging in "anti-national" behaviour, while in striking scenes, pro-government lawyers attacked Kumar at court and pelted journalists with stones. Academics and others fear Kumar's arrest is politically motivated, part of a deliberate attempt to crack down on liberal activism at JNU, seen as the heart of a proudly independent-minded, left-leaning intelligentsia. "In their minds, this was an anti-establishment campus and ideologically opposed to the BJP," said JNU's Gulshan Sachdeva, referring to Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "They were looking for an excuse, it was intended to send a message," Sachdeva, a professor at JNU's school of international studies, told AFP. Others warn Kumar's arrest is the latest in a string of incidents on campuses around the country aimed at muzzling dissent by branding them anti-Indian or anti-national.”
The Washington Post has covered the incident several times. In one article it quoted a statement by academics, including noincluding Noam Chomsky. “Eminent scholars and intellectuals from around the world, including Noam Chomsky, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, Columbia University professor Sheldon Pollock and filmmaker Mira Nair, issued a statement of “heartfelt solidarity” with the JNU students and faculty on Tuesday. “We not only condemn the culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated, but urge all those genuinely concerned about the future of India and Indian universities to protest in wide mobilization against it,” the statement said.”
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.”