Protests sparked by the arrest of a Jawaharlal Nehru University student on the charge of sedition have been widely covered by the global media, which said the incident reflected the growing debate within India on democracy and intolerance.
The protests erupted after JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on Friday after some persons participating in a demonstration against the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru shouted slogans about breaking up India into pieces.
Tensions increased after lawyers purportedly linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party allegedly beat up students and journalists when Kumar was produced in court on Monday.
“At the heart of the row is a fight between the political right and left,” the BBC reported in a piece headlined “Why an Indian student has been arrested for sedition”.
Many students believe the arrest is a “direct assault on their right to dissent”, the article said. It added that the issue has “divided India sharply with some coming out in support of the government’s action”.
BBC noted that the JNU students union has close ties to Communist parties and that the entire opposition had come out in support of students because they believe Kumar’s arrest “is an attempt by the BJP to push its Hindu nationalist agenda”. Surajit Mazumdar, an economics professor, said the arrest was an attempt to “terrorise the students into submission”.
The Guardian newspaper reported that the “reaction of authorities to the protests at JNU – which is well-known for its politically active student body – comes against a background of what critics say is rising intolerance in India since Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power”.
The government has “repeatedly been accused of seeking to repress free speech and of encouraging extremist nationalists who systematically intimidate critics”, it added.
The Los Angeles Times reported that critics had pounced on the government “for what they describe as a widening crackdown against student protests over the past year”. BJP supporters had earlier clashed with lower caste students at a university in southern India and students at a prominent film institute who opposed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointments to the school’s governing body”, it said.
“In each case, the student demonstrators have been accused by BJP officials and authorities of anti-national behaviour. Kumar is the first student to face charges of sedition, under a colonial-era statute that was enacted to protect the country’s former British rulers but is now often used to discipline government critics,” the report said.
The Los Angeles Times noted that home minister Rajnath Singh had “caused the government some embarrassment” when he said Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed supported the JNU student. “A tweet in which Saeed purportedly backed the protest turned out to have come from a parody account, and the militant took to social media on Monday to needle the Indian government,” it said.
The Washington Post reported that Kumar’s arrest had “snowballed into a tense standoff between the Indian government and a prestigious university, fuelling a heated debate here about democracy, treason and campus activism”.
“Some analysts say that Modi’s government has deliberately tried to quell student activism on campuses in the past year,” the report added.
Closer to home, the Pakistani media too covered the protests triggered by Kumar’s arrest. A report in The Nation daily was headlined “Historic student protests rock India”.
In an opinion piece written for Pakistan’s The Express Tribune, Indian columnist Aakar Patel wrote that Kumar’s arrest was a “repeat of the sequence in Hyderabad where the BJP acted strongly against students protesting the hanging of another man, Yakub Memon. That episode ended with the tragedy of one of the students hanging himself.”
Patel wrote that India reserves the death penalty “mostly for Dalits and Muslims”, with a study by the National Law University showing 75% of all death sentences and 93.5% of all death sentences for terrorism were given to Dalits and Muslims.
“Dalit and Muslim are also synonyms for ‘poor’. Afzal Guru got almost no legal representation in the trial court stage. Given the reality, it should not surprise us that Dalits and Muslims and their supporters are protesting against the government. They have every right to and are justifiably upset,” he added.