NEW DELHI: Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested by the Delhi police following a complaint made by the ABVP in regard to an event held at JNU campus to mark the death of Afzal Guru. As anti-India slogans were raised by masked unidentified masked persons at the event, the Indian government stepped in with Home Minister Rajnath Singh warning of “stringent action” against the organisers of the protest. “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared,” he said. HRD Minister Smriti Irani said: “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India.”

The police swooped in and picked up Kumar on the charges of sedition and conspiracy. The arrest was made despite the fact that Kumar made a public speech outrightly condemning the sloganeering, in which he also reiterated the sanctity of the Indian constitution. “We have full faith in this country’s Constitution, if anyone raises a finger against India’s Constitution, be it of the Sanghis or anyone else, we will not tolerate that finger,” Kanhaiya declared.

As the incident grips headlines in India and internationally, the government has come under the scanner, with critics stating accusing the government of flexing that state’s muscles in a bid to crush free speech, dialogue and dissent.

This criticism is seen in the context of government interference in educational institutions, at the behest ABVP, with recent examples including the University of Hyderabad, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Indian Institute of Technology - Madras, amongst others.

A brief timeline is as follows:

February 2016: Arrest of JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar.

At the time of writing, Kanhaiya Kumar is still in police custody on the charges of sedition. Sedition under Indian law requires the imminent threat of violence. As Fali Nariman writes in the Indian Express: “As a consequence, “sedition” in India is not unconstitutional, it remains an offence only if the words, spoken or written, are accompanied by disorder and violence and/ or incitement to disorder and violence. Mere hooliganism, disorder and other forms of violence, though punishable under other provisions of the penal code and under other laws, are not punishable under Section 124A of the penal code. Likewise, mere expressions of hate, and even contempt for one’s government, are not sedition. When a person is dubbed “anti-Indian”, it is distasteful to India’s citizenry, but then to be “anti-Indian” is not a criminal offence, and it is definitely not “sedition”. (It only means that you are a freak, and that it is high time to have your head examined!).”

Academics, civil society and political bodies, student bodies and universities in India and abroad have issued messages in solidarity with JNU. One such statement, made by 400 academics from universities such as Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, amongst others reads: “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.”

The BJP government came under further criticism for scenes that played out at Patiala House court before Kumar was to be produced. Lawyers associated with the ruling party, along with a BJP MP caught on camera, were seen hurling abuses and physically assaulting peaceful students, faculty and even journalists.

January 2016: Rohith Vemula kills self.

The year began with the death of Rohith Vemula, as he and four other dalit students were targeted for several months by the University authorities, the central government and the local ABVP for weeks until finally the lid burst with Vemula’s suicide. The harAssment was sparked off by a letter by Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatraya on August 11 to the HRD Minister Smriti Irani, that demanded action against the scholars after ABVP leader Shushil Kumar was allegedly “manhandled.” Following the letter, and presumably on the instruction of the HRD ministry at the centre, five Dalit scholars were singled out, and faced enquiries, threats and persecution that led them to be ‘expelled’ from the hostel, without access to the university facilities except basic classes. Sources said that the emboldened ABVP made them a target. On January 17, one of the students, Vemula took his life leaving behind a suicide note that reflected the pain he had undergone, and highlighted the issue of dalit discrimination and harassment in educational institutions across the country.

Vemula’s suicide led to protests across the country, with government authorities responding in what has become a typically high-handed manner. In Delhi, students protesting outside the HRD ministry were arrested. A video showing Delhi Police brutally beating up protesters outside the RSS headquarters went viral. In Hyderabad, hundreds of students were taken into custody as the protests continued to spread. In Coimbatore, police arrested 23 students for shouting slogans. In Bangalore, several students were detained. In four students were detained for participating in a fast to protest their suspension for a demonstration held earlier. In Mumbai, students filed a case against the RSS members for allegedly attacking them with rods and sticks during an event in the Dharavi. The list goes on…

October - December 2015; Occupy UGC protests.

As part of peaceful protests, students from various Universities 'occupied' the UGC premises for the past several days, in protest against the UGC’s move to scrap all non-NET fellowships for research scholars. As activist Kavita Krishnan wrote in an article for The Citizen, “in response, the Government has responded with the arrogance and brutality of batons, leaving several students battered and bloodied and concussed,” as protests were met with police brutality in the form of lathi charges and arrests. As Krishnan wrote, “to begin with, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) - student wing of the RSS and BJP - turned up at midnight to indulge in vile sexist abuse directed against women protesters. Then, police intervened in the name of 'preventing a clash' - but did not arrest or disperse the abusive and violent ABVP cadre. Instead, they spirited away the protesting students to the Bhalaswa police station on Delhi's border, hoping this would leave the field free for the ABVP to take up the role of pliant 'protesters' who would then' accept' the UGC/MHRD position. But this was not to be. Thousands of students from Delhi's various Universities flooded the road to the UGC to take the place of their detained comrades, while the students at Bhalaswa went on hunger strike demanding to be released. That day, too, the police responded with a lathicharge, injuring several men and women students.

“Even this bout of violence could not disperse the determined students,whose numbers swelled as they held a sit-in at the UGC premises near ITO. They were joined by students from Aligarh Muslim University,Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Punjab University Chandigarh and MD University Rohtak. Also protests were organized in various Universities of the country (reportedly Central University Gujarat, Allahabad University, NEHU Shillong, University of Hyderabad,EFLU Hyderabad and Aligarh Muslim University, as well as TISS and TIFRand Mumbai University, as well as in Jadavpur University in Kolkata).The MHRD then made a devious attempt to divide and confuse thestruggle. Did they consult with the protesting students? They did not- instead they met solely with the ABVP in a backdoor consultation.”

“How can the MHRD choose to deal primarily with the ABVP before announcing a 'decision' on twitter?! This is not an in-house issue to be settled within the Sangh family!”

June 2015 - Present: FTII protests

Protests by students at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune against the appointment of RSS functionaries in top positions have grabbed headlines for a large part of the last year, with police and authorities using force on several instances. The students have been objecting to the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the institute, maintaining that Chauhan does not have the credentials to warrant the appointment. The RSS, in an article published in their mouthpiece ‘Organise’ in July, said that there was a “conspiracy” behind the protests, adding that they were “anti-Hindu.” The state has allied with Chauhan, with students being lathi charged, arrested and detained. Following one such protest in January this year, after 40 peacefully protesting students were arrested, Rahaat Jain of the FTII Students Association said, “We strongly condemn the police action. They have acted as agents of a political establishment,” and adding that “Their assault on the students was entirely unwarranted and unprovoked. We had given them advance notice of a peaceful and silent protest. We were not allowed into our own campus while a bunch of outsiders - ABVP members who are not students of the FTII - were allowed in."

May 2015: Ban on Ambedkar – Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras.

In May, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras derecognised the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student association, following an anonymous complaint that it was instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus. The complainant had drawn attention to a pamphlet distributed by APSC that had been critical of PM Modi and his government’s policies. The criticism was against the ban on cow slaughter and the use of Hindi. The ban came after HRD Minister Smriti Irani stepped in to investigate the “anonymous” complaint. In a response to the ban, APCS members wrote a letter saying, “We stand by our opinions. Yes, we were very critical of the government. However, we do not understand how dissent and criticism of the government’s policy is akin to “spreading hatred”.” “We have been accused of spreading hatred between SC-ST and the Hindus and vitiating the atmosphere of the institute. We are surprised and slightly amused. Are SC, ST not part of the so called ‘Hindus’? How MHRD and IITM is perceiving such a venomous anonymous mail with full of hatred towards the SC, ST and Ambedkar?” the letter added.

June 2014: Students arrested for “Anti Modi” crossword

In June 2014, police arrested nine students in Kerala's Sree Krishna College in Guruvayur for allegedly using invectives to describe political leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi through a crossword puzzle in a college magazine. The college magazine titled 'Name' had used Modi's nickname 'NaMo' as a crossword clue with the purported solution 'NAyeente MOn' (s.. of a b....). Coincidentally, the students were all activists of Students Federation of India, the student wing of CPM.

The incident came close on the heels of another incident, when the Principal and six students of a polytechnic in Kerala were arrested for featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi in its campus magazine as a "negative face"