Why India’s student protests keep growing

Arrest of student leader in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University stirs unrest and divides opinion across the country.

India protests
The Delhi arrest has set off the largest nationwide protests by students in 25 years [Tsering Topgyal/AP]

The protests at one of India’s most famous universities continue to widen and polarise public opinion across the country.

It began after the president of the student union was arrested on charges of sedition, a move widely seen as an attempt to silence dissent.

Thousands of students have participated in a series of protests and Jawaharlal Nehru University has come to a standstill.

The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, 28, last week took place after a demonstration that marked the anniversary of the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of an attack on India’s parliament in 2001.

The attack left 10 people dead and was blamed on an armed group based in Pakistan.

Kumar was arrested after a student group, ABVP, linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a police complaint alleging anti-Indian slogans were heard during the demonstration.

A smartphone video of Kumar’s speech, which has since been widely shared, disputes these accusations.

Accusing finger

Kumar points an accusing finger at the ABVP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a nationalist group loyal to the BJP. He also explicitly condemns violence.

The Supreme Court of India on Wednesday ordered Kumar to be held in judicial custody until a new court date of March 2.

On Thursday, BS Bassi, Delhi Police commissioner, said if Kumar were to apply for bail, the police would have no objection. The Supreme Court will hear the bail plea on Friday.

As the verdict was delivered on Wednesday, there was a fresh round of violence outside the court in Delhi.

Kumar was attacked by a number of pro-nationalist lawyers inside the court, as was a journalist and a student.

Witnesses said about a dozen lawyers threw rocks at reporters and protesters. In the ensuing violence, one lawyer grabbed the camera strap of an Associated Press news agency photographer, breaking his lens.

The lawyers waved Indian flags and chanted “Glory to Mother India” and “Traitors leave India”.

Nationwide protests

The case has set off the largest nationwide protests by students in 25 years and provoked an uncompromising response from supporters of Narendra Modi’s government, who say the actions against Kumar are justified.

The protests have since spread to several other universities and colleges across India as students and teachers have held rallies to condemn Kumar’s arrest.

In the southern city of Hyderabad, demonstrators clashed with right-wing student activists. Students from Chennai clashed with police on Thursday, and protests at a university in Kolkata also turned violent.

India’s opposition leaders voiced their concerns earlier this week with Modi.

In a sign of how grave the situation is, they are due to meet the prime minister again on February 23.

Hundreds of supporters of Kumar marched on Thursday in protest against his arrest.

Shehla Rashid, vice president of JNU Students’ Union, has urged students to engage in a peaceful march and avoid clashes with the police.

Perception of intolerance

The official reaction of the police and judiciary to the protests at JNU is feeding a growing perception in India of a rise in intolerance in India since BJP under Modi’s leadership came to power in 2014.

Modi is perceived by his critics as a deeply polarising figure and has been accused of fostering sectarian prejudice and authoritarian tendencies.

The government has also been accused of trying to repress free speech and tacitly ignoring extremist nationalists who intimidate critics of the BJP.

Last week, Rajnath Singh, the home minister, said on Twitter: “If anyone shouts anti India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.”

The protests are also a reminder that areas of history, education and culture are becoming battlegrounds in a struggle for dominance by India’s secular left and Hindu nationalists.

Last October, Indian police had to protect the launch of a book by a former foreign minister of Pakistan after a pro-nationalist group said it would disrupt the event.

Only weeks earlier, a Muslim man on the outskirts of Delhi who was suspected of eating beef was lynched by a mob.

Caste tensions

Last month Rohit Vemula, a 26-year-old doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad, was found dead after he was suspended from university.

His death prompted protests in Hyderabad and Delhi.

He was one of five students, all from India’s Dalit caste, to be suspended after being accused of assaulting the head of a student political group.

All five denied the charge.

Kumar’s mother has defended her son and rejected all accusations.

“My son spoke the truth. He was arrested because his views questioned the government policy and their agenda,” said Meena Devi, who lives in Bihar.

“My son can never be a traitor. He would lay down his life for his country.”

Source: Al Jazeera