ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The arrest of a student leader at a university in India's capital is exposing deep political fault lines in the country. The student was arrested on charges of sedition. The government crackdown is fueling an ongoing debate about free speech, and has led to large protests at the school and beyond. NPR's Julie McCarthy sent this report from New Delhi.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) The people united shall always be victorious.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Students on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU, scorn the government clampdown and circulate petitions demanding it back off. JNU is seen as a sort of Indian Berkley, where students lean left and mobilize against issues such as caste and gender violence. Students say the government is quashing dissent to impose its own right-wing ideology. Police raided the campus last week and bundled student union president Kanhaiya Kumar off to jail, putting the school on edge.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting).
MCCARTHY: Outside the university gate fortified by police, forces who oppose the students rallied this week, diehard supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They shouted approval of his government's crackdown. Among their many slogans, JNU traitors should be hanged. The standoff started when students organized an event to protest the hanging last year of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted in the 2001 attack on India's Parliament. Some students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans that condemned Guru's execution. Afzal, your death will bring revolution, one slogan said. A rival student group aligned with Modi's ruling party had tipped the police off, saying there was anti-national activity afoot. But could this also have been youth indulging in political excess? Ruling BJP party spokesman Nalin Kohli says no. It's a flagrant violation of free speech.
NALIN KOHLI: This was about recognizing a terrorist and a martyr, rejecting due process of law, and calling those who had given the judgment as murderers, murder by the Supreme Court. And therefore, this becomes far more serious. There will be concerns and obviously, an investigation is bound to happen.
MCCARTHY: Kohli says any comparison - for example, to the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, when sedition was not invoked - is not apt in a world preoccupied today with terrorism. But Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde doubts that sedition can be proven because he says it requires speech to cross the line into action.
SANJAY HEGDE: The law is that unless there is an actual incitement to violence, there is no sedition.
MCCARTHY: Om Prasad is a PhD student at JNU. He notes that Gandhi was tried under the same colonial-era sedition law. He says a warning by a top Indian minister that anyone making anti-Indian slogans will, quote, "Not be spared," has sent a chill through the campus.
OM PRASAD: I think it is more a case of actually criminalizing dissent. And it is what - I think that it's largely a witch hunt of people who actually don't agree with the regime of the government.
MCCARTHY: Since he rose to power, some of Modi's fiercest followers have pursued a hardline agenda. They have incited against those who eat cow meat, demanded the revision of history books, tried to restrict how Indians consume entertainment. Investigating students who utter offensive words would open up a new front in a battle over what constitutes acceptable speech in India today. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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