In the latest in a wave of arrests in India, Umar Khalid, 25, a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been detained on charges of sedition.
Khalid was arrested in the middle of the night following allegations that he had participated in an “anti-Indian” demonstration. A week earlier, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the student union at JNU, was arrested on the same charges. The “anti-Indian” event was in fact a protest marking the anniversary of the execution of Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru, whose trial and execution six years ago was condemned by human rights’ groups for the secrecy with which it was conducted.
The sedition laws used to arrest the students are hangovers from British colonial rule. The arrests have been met with widespread protest, including from students and over 400 academics around the world. Opposition parties accuse Narendra Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist BJP party of using old colonial laws to crush freedom of speech and intimidate opponents.
Since the arrests, Indian home minister, Rajnath Singh, has said on Twitter that people who are “anti-India ... will not be tolerated or spared”. Meanwhile, pro-government counter-demonstrations have attacked demonstrations in support of the arrested students, beating up pro-free speech demonstrators and journalists and telling them to “go back to Pakistan”.
The idea that being “anti-Indian” is a reason to be arrested is both ludicrous and deeply dangerous. To the extent that such a vague and abstract phrase can mean anything, it can only mean that Indians can be persecuted and arrested for criticizing their own government and state.
Two days before his arrest, Umar Khalid addressed a large student rally. “Today this is not just this university’s struggle but the struggle of every university in this country,” he said, “It is a battle for this society — it is a battle for what sort of a society we have in the days to come.”