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).
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
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