By Swati Gupta and Nida Najar, New York Times News Service
NEW DELHI — The police have arrested the president of a student union here on a complaint of sedition, a news agency reported, the latest controversy to hit one of the country’s highly politicized universities.
A group of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi organized a protest Tuesday on the third anniversary of the execution of Muhammad Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, who was found guilty of involvement in an attack on Parliament in 2001 that left nine dead. His hanging ignited protests across the country over the use of capital punishment in such cases, particularly in Kashmir, his home state. Tuesday’s protest was also in support of the rights of Kashmiri people.
Police Friday arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the student union president, and a Delhi court remanded him to police custody for three days, The Press Trust of India reported. The complaint against Kumar was for criminal conspiracy and sedition, which can carry a sentence of three years to life imprisonment. Rajan Bhagat, a police spokesman, confirmed that a complaint had been filed Thursday, but gave no further details.
On Tuesday, some people at the protest shouted slogans in favor of Muhammad Afzal and Pakistan, according to The Press Trust. Kumar told the court Friday that he did not know the identity of all those shouting the slogans and dissociated himself from their views.
“A person can have a dissenting opinion under freedom of expression, but you become a traitor only if you incite violence,” Vajinder Singh, Kumar’s lawyer, said in an interview Friday with ANI news agency.
Kumar contended instead that he was only in the vicinity because he was trying to break up a clash between those protesting the death penalty and right-wing students, according to The Press Trust. He said he believed he was arrested because he defeated a candidate from a right-wing students group for the presidency of the students union.
But after a string of terrorist attacks in India, the issue of punishing the perpetrators provoked strong reactions.
“If anyone raises anti-India slogans and questions the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country, they will not be forgiven in any way,” Rajnath Singh, India’s Home Minister, said in a televised interview Friday. “Whatever has happened at JNU, I have given the required instructions to the police commissioner, and there should be strict action taken against them.” Singh is a member of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.
On Saturday, the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University was on lockdown, with armed police guarding the entrances. Local media reported that protests over Kumar’s arrest continued Saturday.
Bhagat, the police spokesman, said the investigation continued, and he declined to comment further.
The turmoil is the latest to trouble Indian universities. In January, universities across the country erupted in protests after a doctoral candidate at Hyderabad University who was a Dalit, or a member of India’s untouchable caste, hanged himself in a student residence. He and four other students were barred in August for allegedly attacking a member of a right-wing student group and had been expelled from student residences.
After the episode, students staged protests at universities across the country over the hostility faced by Dalit students, many blaming the government of Narendra Modi for empowering right-wing student groups.