In response to controversies surrounding the arrest of students at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) following a pro-Kashmiri separatist event, a group of McGill students have responded to a call for an international day of protest and action on March 2, creating a statement of solidarity for students at JNU and collecting signatures.
On February 9 students at JNU, a university in New Delhi, held an event to discuss the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination. Students also questioned the controversial hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted as a terrorist who played a role in an attack on India’s parliament in 2001.
On February 12, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of JNU’s Students’ Union (JNUSU), was arrested after the university administration had let police, who were wearing civilian clothes, into the JNU campus to find students who were involved in the event.
Kumar was charged with sedition after “anti-India” slogans were allegedly shouted at the February 9 event. According to The Indian Express, Kumar and his supporters were allegedly beaten by lawyers on court premises, in police presence. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in a tweet, said that any individual who opposed the sedition charge has been labelled as an anti-national by the Indian government, which is currently led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has close ties to Hindu nationalist ideology.
Kumar has now been released from jail on a bail period of six months, based on a lack of any evidence that Kumar participated in anti-national slogans. However, two other students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, remain in police custody under charges of sedition.
Arrest and controversy
Kumar’s arrest and the subsequent handling of the situation by the government have generated massive protests across India and international criticism.
In an interview with The Daily, Vertika, a first-year McGill PhD candidate and alumnus of JNU, said, “The stance of the JNU community has been that [the arrest] was a pre-planned political move by the right-wing forces […] so as to generate this polarization in [India] about nationalism, and then define who is an anti-national.”
“India is such a diverse country. How can there be only one idea of nationalism?” Vertika continued.
Bayar Goswami, a first-year McGill Law student, and a member of Stand With JNU, told The Daily that the sedition charges themselves are problematic.
“The Supreme Court has a clear ruling that for sedition to exist in any act, incitement of violence has to occur,” said Goswami, yet noted that the students charged with sedition were not violent. Additionally, many separatists have called for the freedom of Kashmir in the past and were not charged with sedition.
Speaking to The Daily about India’s political state, Arunima Sharan, a U1 Economics and International Development Studies student who signed the statement of solidarity and is a member of the Indian Students Association, said, “We call ourselves the biggest democracy in the world but are we getting our rights as a democracy?”
McGill stands in solidarity
Vertika, Goswami, and Sharan, along with Gaurav Singh, a first-year MBA student, and Aishwarya Nair, a first-year PhD candidate, organized a meeting to support JNU’s cause and created a statement of solidarity from concerned individuals of McGill, which has gathered fifty signatures so far.
“As students […] we need to stand up for the rights of other students across other parts of the world for the right of freedom of speech and expression. Why? Because universities are spaces where students should be able to critique even the ideas of the state, critique the policies of the government,” noted Vertika.
Universities across the world have also created their own statements, with some holding public rallies. According to Goswami, “This kind of peer solidarity […] creates pressure on the government to think about its actions.”
The pressure resulting from international statements of solidarity has undeniably had an effect, said Vertika, as media that was aggressively branding students as anti-national have had to back down, and the administration of JNU no longer lets police enter the campus to arrest students.
Vertika suggested that McGill faculty could write public letters to the administration of JNU. Vertika has also submitted a motion for the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) to take a position on the issue in order to raise more awareness in the McGill community.