Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition and ‘freedom’ in India

Indian student leader was arrested in New Delhi for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Kanhaiya Kumar addresses students inside the university campus after being released on bail from a Delhi prison in New Delhi
Kanhaiya Kumar called for "freedom in India" in a speech to students at JNU university [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Indian student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who was jailed by authorities on sedition charges, isn’t backing down from his criticism of the government following his release on bail from jail.

Police in New Delhi arrested Kumar, a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans – a charge he has denied.

His speech on March 3 went viral and #Kanhaiyakumar was on Twitter’s top 10 global trending list.

Kumar has attacked the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for what he calls its dictatorial tendencies. Al Jazeera spoke to the 28-year-old student about his arrest.

Kanhaiya Kumar, Jawaharlal Nehru University 

Al Jazeera: There is an outpouring of support for you. How do you feel after coming out of jail?

Kumar: Through your channel I want to thank people around the world who have stood in support of JNU, democracy and justice. A fight has been waged against those who have attacked democracy. I feel, it’s the beginning of that fight and it’s going to be long.

Can you tell us about the incident in court in Delhi when lawyers attacked you?

It was a worrying moment for me, but I was not scared. What’s happening in my country is that on the one hand people are talking about justice, constitution and patriotism and on other hand one accused [Kanhaiya] was attacked inside a court complex. It was an attack on democracy. Those who did were in lawyers’ dress, whose profession is to serve justice. They are now talking about mob justice instead of law of the land.

READ MORE: Loud and clear, Indian students send message of freedom

What’s your take on the sedition law under which you were arrested?

Words can be wrong and right, but they cannot come under sedition law. Unless the words are put into practice, sedition should not be slapped on anybody.

This government has resorted to dictatorial and fascist ways. Those who speak against them and their ideology are being branded as anti-nationals. Laws like sedition are not needed in a liberal democratic state. It is being misused. It is being used as a political tool by this government.

It’s the same law drafted by the colonial power. No changes have ever been made. It’s being used on the same pattern as the British used it.

The current controversy has its genesis in an event organised by students at JNU on the issue of Indian-administered Kashmir. Do you think there is freedom to talk about the Kashmir issue in India?

In India, Kashmiri people can speak – freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution. The way they [government officials] are trying to control freedom of speech, it shows their dictatorial tendency. It’s not a matter of Kashmir or Pakistan, this government does not tolerate persons, institutions and groups that have differing views.

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They have this tag of anti-national that they impose. If somebody talks about Kashmir, border disputes, capital punishment, if somebody talks about it under the limits of the constitution then it’s not wrong. There was a public outcry after a section of the media focused on the slogan “Bharat tere tukde honge” [India you will be broken into pieces]. But was that slogan shouted or not? I don’t know. It’s still under investigation.

Is the controversy about freedom of speech – or a student backlash against the government’s education policy?

The government is attacking educational institutions. It’s a continuous attack against India’s intelligentsia, which talks about protection of constitution, human rights and freedom. Voice of dissent arises from there. These voices of dissent become basis for agitation against anti-people policies being pushed by this government.

To limit freedom of expression and trample voices that are against the government’s wishes, and crush any chances of agitations building up against the government – attack on JNU is part of this strategy because JNU stands up against anti-people policies.

READ MORE: New Delhi protest: Thousands call for student’s freedom 

Why do you think the government and far-right groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are attacking JNU?

RSS is an organisation with a terrible ideology. It does not understand India; it has always tried to destroy India’s social fabric. It has nothing to do with India’s sanskriti [culture]. It runs its politics on the basis of rumours and divisive agendas. For them attacking institutions like JNU is necessary as these institutions stand for human rights.


Multicultural tradition and thought is against RSS ideology. RSS believes in dictatorial ideology. Its guidelines have been inspired from Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and their hardcore nationalist views. That’s why they are not able to digest JNU, and thus continuously attack. This government is guided by RSS diktat more than parliament and constitution.

Do you think space for freedom of expression has narrowed in India?

The scope of freedom of expression has not shrunk but it is under continuous attack from the government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not spoken on this issue. Do you think he should have intervened?

It’s ironic that Modi used to tell us about the last Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that he was silent as if he did not have tongue. But reality is that the previous prime minister at least used to speak on important issues of the country. He used to take a stand when it was required. I don’t know what’s Modi’s majboori [helplessness] that after becoming prime minister – be it the issue of education, people rights, health, attack on constitution – he has remained silent. Modi has turned out to be the real silent prime minister.

How do you define Azadi [freedom] – a term that landed you in trouble?

When we talk about Azadi it is not just about one state against another. Its ambit is big and meaning is very big. Azadi is also about getting rid of issues facing the country. By relating meaning of Azadi with unity and sovereignty of the country there was an attempt to misinterpret it. Now the truth is coming out.

Two other students from JNU are still in jail. What is being done to address their cases?

We have a students union and we will take a call as per its constitution. Student council will decide what course of action needs to be taken. There is consensus among students that we will continue agitation for the release of jailed students who are facing sedition cases, and reinstatement of those students who have been suspended.

Even teachers, common students and employees are supporting us, only ABVP [the ruling BJP’s student wing] is not part of this.

Your speech went viral. Why do you think people liked it so much?

Whatever happened to me, I put before people the truth and my pain. I am very glad and thankful that people liked my speech.

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Source: Al Jazeera