What’s the issue?
As we reported last week, Kumar was arrested in connection with an event held on the JNU campus on February 9 to mark the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru. Guru, who was from Kashmir, was sentenced to death in connection with a deadly attack by militants on India’s Parliament in 2001. Debate over Guru’s guilt has swirled ever since his arrest.
The JNU protests, news reports say, involved slogans in praise of Guru and called for the breakup of India into smaller pieces. These allegations, which have also been leveled against Kumar, have enraged many Indians. But it’s unclear whether such words were actually uttered. There are conflicting videos purporting to show entirely contradictory events. (You can watch a video of Kumar shouting what his critics call anti-national slogans here, while this video, which also claims authenticity and comprehensiveness, says he did not. Though it now appears the video that purportedly shows him shouting for freedom for Kashmir is doctored. ) The debate is complicated by the fact that Indians enjoy freedom of speech, but with restrictions. Cases like this come down to the courts.
Following complaints to the police after the JNU rally from rival student groups, Kumar was arrested last week and charged with Sections 124A (sedition) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code. Police are seeking others in connection with the case. They too have been charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy.
Why are the remarks controversial?
The issue is a sensitive one in India, which since independence from Britain in 1947, has quelled several separatist rebellions in various parts of the country. One of those places is Kashmir, which lies at the heart of the current debate.
Kashmir occupies a unique place in Indian public consciousness. India, while predominantly Hindu, is officially secular. Kashmir is the country’s only Muslim-majority state. It is also the scene of a sometimes-bloody separatist rebellion. Part of Kashmir is administered by neighboring Pakistan, a Muslim country. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over it, have come close to a third one, and have been engaged in countless border skirmishes over the region.
Indeed, the sedition law was previously used to charge three Kashmiri students who cheered for Pakistan during a cricket match between India and its neighbor. The charges were eventually dropped.
What is the law?
The sedition law, which was enacted in 1860, states:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, a shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
The colonial-era law has been used in recent high-profile cases, including against the Kashmiri students; against Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist who was arrested in 2012 after altering the three lions, India’s national emblem, to lampoon corruption; Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and social activist who was accused of making an anti-national speech in 2010 when she called for Kashmir’s independence; and Binayak Sen, a social activist accused of helping India’s Maoist rebellion. But the charges have rarely stood up to judicial scrutiny, and have eventually been dropped.