Thousands of Indian students protest as government cracks down on dissent

Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested Friday, days after a demonstration was held at Jawaharlal Nehru University to mark the anniversary of the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of an attack on India’s parliament.

Indian students hold placards during a protest against the arrest of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Student Union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, in New Delhi on February 14, 2016. Sajjad Hussain / AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // India’s biggest nationwide student protests in a quarter of a century spread across campuses on Monday after the arrest of a student accused of sedition.

It was the latest battle with prime minister Narendra Modi’s government over freedom of expression.

Outrage over the arrest of the left-wing student leader, who had organised a rally to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri separatist, has led to demonstrations in at least 18 universities.

In the largest protest, thousands of students and academics at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) boycotted classes and put up barricades for a fourth day in an escalating conflict with the authorities.

“The government does not want students to have a say,” said Rahila Parween, vice-president of the Delhi unit of the All India Students’ Federation, a left-wing student union. “It wants to dictate what students think, understand and say.”

The incident marks another flare-up in an ideological confrontation between Mr Modi’s nationalist government and left-wing and liberal groups that is prompting critics to compare it with Indira Gandhi’s imposition of a state of emergency in the 1970s to crush dissent.

Members of Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, of “anti-India” sentiment. One BJP lawmaker said the university, which has a tradition of left-wing politics, should be shut down.

“I can assure you that every action we take is to protect our country. Any anti-India activity will not be tolerated,” said BJP president Amit Shah, one of Mr Modi’s closest allies.

Protests spread when Kumar was arrested last week for sedition, after giving a speech questioning the hanging in 2013 of Mohammad Afzal Guru over his role in the 2001 attack on parliament.

Activists have long questioned Guru’s conviction, and India’s supreme court has described the evidence against him as circumstantial.

Scuffles erupted outside a New Delhi courthouse between lawyers and students where Kumar, 28, was to appear before a judge on Monday.

A leader of the student group that is aligned with the BJP said freedom of expression should not be misused to justify acts that could harm the country.

“You cannot be an Indian if you celebrate the death anniversary of a terrorist,” said Saurabh Sharma, joint secretary of theAll India Student Council.

“The crackdown signals an utter lack of judgment in the government, where ministers manage to manufacture a national crisis out of what were always, at best, minor affectations in student politics,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading political commentator, wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

Since Mr Modi rose to power in May 2014, people in India have been attacked by Hindus enraged at reports of cows - sacred in their religion - being slaughtered, smuggled or consumed.

There has been a series of attacks on churches, while writers have returned awards in protest over the government’s silence over a series of murders of secular scholars.

At least 18 university campuses witnessed protests on Monday. Students in the eastern city of Kolkata burnt an effigy of Mr Modi and left-wing groups in the neighbouring state of Odisha planned state-wide demonstrations.

Analysts said the student protests were the most widespread in India since the self-immolation of a young Indian in 1990 after the government ruled in favour of providing affirmative action to the lower castes in higher education.

“We are witnessing liberal India, particularly young people who are usually more idealistic, fighting back,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation.

* Reuters