Police stop demonstrators during a protest against the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University outside the university campus in New Delhi, India, February 2016.
Anindito Mukherjee

On February 9, police in New Delhi arrested a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) named Kanhaiya Kumar. They charged him with sedition under a law that dates back to the British Raj and carries a mandatory prison sentence of three years to life. A week later, a former Delhi university lecturer, S.A.R. Geelani, was arrested on the same charge. On February 24, police picked up two more students. Their crimes: also sedition.

The crime of sedition was first introduced in India during British rule. In sixteenth-century England, monarchs used the charge to stamp out political revolution in an era characterized by constant unrest. Now, however, the concept of sedition conflicts with the freedoms guaranteed by most democracies: most importantly, the right to free speech and expression.

It isn’t surprising that the most recent application of the law was connected to JNU, which has a long history of student activism. After the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman, Nirbhaya, in New Delhi in December 2012, JNU students were the first to begin demanding justice for her and for all victims of sexual violence in India.

This time, protesters gathered to express their support for Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant executed in 2012 for his role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, which killed nine people. They shouted slogans such as “Long Live Pakistan,” provoking the ire of India’s government, led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Policemen stand guard outside the high court during the bail hearing of Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student union leader who was arrested for sedition, in New Delhi, India, February 2016.
Policemen stand guard outside the high court during the bail hearing of Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student union leader who was arrested for sedition, in New Delhi, India, February 2016.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Authorities arrested Kumar and the two other students in connection with the protests on February 9. On February 12, S.A.R. Geelani organized a demonstration at the Press Club of India, where he was arrested when protesters began shouting in support of Guru.

Although he was convicted of terrorism, Guru has remained popular in Jammu and Kashmir for his role in fighting for Kashmiri independence. His execution prompted a crackdown in parts of the Kashmir Valley, with Indian authorities imposing strict curfews and shutting down telecommunications. Kashmiris, and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, raised serious questions about the fairness of Guru’s trial and his fast-tracked execution. His family says they were not informed before the authorities scheduled Guru’s execution and were denied the right to see him before he was hanged.

India’s constitution guarantees the rights to free expression and assembly, but its government has historically taken a lax approach to protecting them.

The arrests in New Delhi, and a series of police raids across the country, are part of a crackdown on “anti-national elements,” people or groups that the government deems a threat to India’s national interests. And its efforts to stamp out opposition have led to a fierce debate on the streets, in the media, and in parliament over the limits of freedom of expression.

India’s constitution guarantees the rights to free expression and assembly, but its government has historically taken a lax approach to protecting them. Large-scale domestic unrest, especially in places like Kashmir, has led authorities to equate legitimate political dissent with treason. In fact, for decades, New Delhi has restricted free speech and assembly in areas such as Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, and the tribal belt in eastern India. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in these areas, thanks to decades-long militarization and a record of impunity for Indian security forces and their human rights violations. In response, state and national governments have imposed frequent curfews, subjected Facebook and Twitter accounts to government surveillance, tapped phones, and arrested people at random.

Months before New Delhi, too, erupted in protests over the “anti-national” demonstrations at JNU, the BJP-led government sent a message to the state government of Jammu and Kashmir to “take tough action against anti-national activities,” after demonstrators in the Kashmir Valley raised Pakistan’s national flag and shouted “anti-India” slogans. In Kashmir, police can arrest and detain protesters without charge or trial under the Public Safety Act, special security legislation allowing for administrative detention for up to a year.

In part, the government’s strong response to the protests at JNU has to do with its knee-jerk reaction to any pro-Kashmiri speech. Pro-Kashmiri is seen in the government as anti-national, and New Delhi remains sensitive to any implication that Kashmir is not a part of India. When Al-Jazeera mistakenly published a map showing Kashmir as part of Pakistan in April 2015, India banned the media outlet for five days.

Demonstrators demand the release of Jawaharlal Nehru University student Kanhaiya Kumar at a protest march in New Delhi, India, March  2016.
Demonstrators demand the release of Jawaharlal Nehru University student Kanhaiya Kumar at a protest march in New Delhi, India, March  2016.
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Although the Indian government has always been sensitive to criticism of its presence in Kashmir, the crackdowns remained relatively limited to the Kashmir valley. But the Modi government has reacted severely to perceived opposition in all parts of the country. In the year after his Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power, New Delhi has revoked more than 9,000 NGO licenses; frozen the financial assets of institutions such as Greenpeace; harassed prominent activists (including Greenpeace’s Priya Pillai and human rights lawyer Teesta Setalvad); censored documentaries such as “India’s Daughter,” which tells the story of the 2012 gang rape, and which officials deemed “an international conspiracy to defame India;” and seen a rise in murders of academics criticizing Hinduism and Muslims suspected of consuming beef. The BJP has shown little tolerance for anyone or anything perceived to be criticizing Hinduism, which many members consider synonymous with India’s national identity.

New Delhi remains sensitive to any implication that Kashmir is not a part of India.

Still, the BJP enjoys wide public support. Modi’s reputation as a shrewd businessman tends to obscure his history as a deeply conservative Hindu nationalist with a record of animosity toward minority communities. He joined the extreme right-win group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when he was just eight years old.

The BJP’s defeats in the 2015 state elections indicate that the party’s harsh measures may have consequences. Yet given India’s ambivalent relationship with the freedoms of speech and expression, it is unlikely that the party will be held to account for using draconian measures against seeming opposition.

For now, the New Delhi police continue to deny Kumar bail because doing so would, according to the police record, “send across the wrong signal.” But, in truth, it is Kumar’s imprisonment that could be sending the more alarming message about India’s future.