The president of the Students’ Union at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on charges of “sedition” and “criminal conspiracy” on February 12. Coming just before several Indian state elections are due to be held, the case is playing out within the context of bigger national political divisions.
Kumar, who is also a member of the All-India Students’ Federation, an organization affiliated with the Communist Party of India (CPI), has contended that his only “crime” was to defeat the candidate of the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the contest for the JNU student presidency.
The charge against him stems from an assembly that took place three days earlier at the JNU campus protesting the 2013 execution of convicted terrorist and Muslim Kashmiri separatist, Mohammad Afzal Guru. The police contend that Kumar was the organizer of the demonstration at which “anti-Indian” slogans were raised.
When he was brought before the courts in police custody, a group of lawyers loyal to Indian Prime Minister Naendra Modi’s BJP physically assaulted Kumar. Immediately after being beaten up, he stood before the court and declared, “Send me to jail if there is evidence against me. If not there should be no media trial against me.”
“I am an Indian,” he continued, “My patriotism and respect for secular values was well known.”
Kumar contends that he was not an organizer of or participant in the February 9 event held in a park within JNU by a small group of students, at which the provocative statements urging the separation of the Kashmir region from India were allegedly heard. He told the court that he was only at the scene that day in an attempt to prevent a clash between event participants and other students from the right-wing All-Indian Student Council, an ally of the BJP.
It is believed the event was actually organized by a small group of Kashmiri students, perhaps affiliated to the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which previously ruled the state. Initially, none of them were arrested; only Karma was targeted by police. When asked by the judge why no one else affiliated to the demonstration was taken into custody, officers replied no one else could be identified and all had disappeared. Under public scrutiny, police have since reversed course and announced the arrest of two more suspects.
Karma’s affiliation to the Students’ Federation and the CPI leaves the charge of supporting a religious-based separatism with little credence. All the secular political parties in India have united in protesting the communalist policies of the BJP. Both of the country’s communist parties (the CPI that Karma is connected to, as well as the Communist Party of India-Marxist, or CPI-M) are known as strong opponents of the religiously-divisive politics practiced by the ruling party, which is based on Hindutva, or Hindu chauvinism. Modi’s BJP, for instance, has been stirring up violent conflict between Hindu and Muslim segments of India’s population for several years.
The student wings of the two communist parties have dominated JNU’s student union for decades. The university is named after the first prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, a beacon of India’s freedom struggle, who founded the concept of “Mixed Economy Socialism.” He introduced it as India’s national policy in 1957. With the continued inability of BJP candidates to win the campus elections, it is believed that the legal case against Kumar is an escalation of the right-wing’s effort to dislodge leftist student leaders.
To achieve their goal, they have resorted to using the contentious issue of Kashmir in the charges against Kumar. Since the founding of India and Pakistan, the Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries, has been a flash point of violent conflict. The BJP has pursued policies and employed rhetoric targeting the Muslim population, as well as secularists and the left, provoking further violence.
The trumped-up case against Kumar is not going unchallenged though. Secular lawyers’ groups and social media workers staged a demonstration in Delhi protesting the physical assault on him in the court by BJP lawyers. The Indian National Congress Party, which ruled India for more than 50 years, has condemned the high-handedness of the police and the home minister who is responsible for law and order. The CPI and other left groups have also been protesting these attacks.
Kumar’s next appearance before the court will be at a plea bail hearing scheduled for February 29.
Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar state, which has more than a hundred million inhabitants, has challenged Prime Minister Modi to give his definition of “anti-nationalism” which makes up part of the charges against the student leader. “One week has passed since Kanhaiya was arrested and no government agency has succeeded in producing any evidence against Kanhaiya.” The chief minister also asked, “Is it not a fact that the government has no evidence against him?”
He further raised the issue of how figures such as Mahatma’s Gandhi’s assassin, Nathu Ram Godse, have been glorified at events attended by government ministers, yet no action is taken against them. Godse was an activist in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization, which PM Modi has also belonged to, when he carried out the murder in 1948.
The Bihar leader also pointed to the political hypocrisy involved. “If talking of and [expressing a] slogan against the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted of the terrorist attack on parliament, is a crime, and this meeting was called for that, and if slogans were shouted for separation of Kashmir were raised in there, and there are anti-national acts, then why is BJP keen to form an alliance with PDP party of Kashmir? Leaders of PDP have openly opposed the hanging of Afzal Guru.”
That is why the charges against Kanhaiya Kumar must be understood against the backdrop of the elections to be held in several Indian states in the next few months. These include West Bengal and Kerala, the two states where CPI and CPI-M are offering a challenge to the parties in power. Secular unity is being forged in opposition to the ruling BJP, which is finding itself isolated and faces a rout, as its misrule has failed to improve its standing with the public.
The communist parties and other secular forces are isolating the BJP for its religious fanaticism and other right-wing policies. In the Kashmiri PDP, the BJP finds a Muslim religious fanatic ally for its own Hindu fanaticism. As mentioned, it is believed that it was precisely the student wing of that allied party which took advantage of the situation in the university to raise Kashmiri separatist slogans. Yet, in line with the political priorities of the BJP, none of the PDP-affiliated students was arrested. Instead, only the communist president of the student union was targeted.
The Indian people will answer Modi and the BJP’s divisive policies at the state elections in the coming months.