Students in India resist nationalist crackdown

The biggest wave of student unrest for 25 years has hit India following the arrest in Delhi of Kanhaiya Kumar, a student union president at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Cops seized Kumar after he addressed a demonstration in February and charged him with sedition.

Far right students, linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, had accused him of making “anti-national” statements during the protest held to mark the execution of Afzal Guru—a Kashmiri convicted of a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

They were backed by the BJP Home Minister who declared, “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.”

Kumar insists he did not organise the protest and only attended to try to defuse conflict between opposed groups of students. JNU has a strong tradition of left-wing activism and charges against Kumar and other student appear to simply be aimed at a crackdown against student activism in general.

Eight other JNU students have also been accused of sedition and suspended from the university, and two of them remained in police custody as Solidarity went to press.

Thousands have joined protests in response to Kumar’s arrest. These took place at colleges across the country, from Udaipur in the north to Chennai in the south.

The students say that raising slogans does not constitute sedition, and that the crackdown is simply an attack on freedom of speech. They are demanding the repeal of the sedition law, a hangover from the colonial era.

More than 10,000 students from across Delhi blocked city streets.

Elsewhere, scores of protesters were held by cops as they tried to march in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency. Meanwhile, demonstrators clashed with right wing student activists in the southern city of Hyderabad.

In Patna, students stormed the BJP headquarters and tried to vandalise the offices of the hard-right party.

Some students were injured as police drove them out with baton charges.

The tempo of struggle rose dramatically after a large group of BJP lawyers threw rocks at Kumar and journalists covering his court case after a hearing, as police stood by.

The BJP lawyers waved Indian flags and chanted “Glory to Mother India” and “Traitors leave India”.

This is not the first time students have been under attack by the BJP and its nationalist hysteria.

Last year five student activists were indefinitely suspended from Hyderabad Central University in the south of India following pressure from a government minister after being labelled “anti-national”.

One of them, Rohith Vemula, a dalit who had faced continual discrimination, killed himself in January. The student movement has been demanding action against those who drove him to this ever since.

Pogroms

The BJP is the political party of the RSS, a tight-knit Hindu nationalist organisation. It promotes the idea of Hindu superiority over the country’s Muslim minority and has incited repeated pogroms against minority groups. These include a notorious anti-Muslim riot in Gujarat in 2002 that left 2000 people dead.

BJP leader Narendra Modi has been the country’s president since 2014.

Since his election the BJP has stepped up its nationalist campaign, passing laws banning the sale of beef in several states, cancelling a performance by a Pakistani singer in Mumbai and re-writing school history textbooks.

This has led to further vigilante actions against Muslims and those considered “anti-national”. Late last year a Muslim man was beaten to death near Delhi after rumours that he had eaten beef at home. Academic Dr. MM Kalburgi was shot and killed a few months before for his criticism of Hindu rituals.

The BJP is desperate to whip-up anti-Muslim tensions in the run up to state assembly elections later this year. They calculate that by polarising Indian society they can rally right wing voters into their camp.

As one student from Jawaharlal Nehru University said, “Until the time Kumar is released, we will continue this struggle. Unless they drop the sedition charges against our comrades we will carry on with our strike.”

The spread of the student protests to the millions of workers and poor who are being attacked by the government is the best way to ensure the BJP’s plans turn to dust.

Adapted from an article by Simon Basketter, Socialist Worker UK

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