Indian Nationalism Spurs Crackdown on Student Protesters

Indian Nationalism Spurs Crackdown on Student Protesters

Imagine for a moment that Skidmore students have gathered in peaceful protest, only to be arrested by government police moments later. Despite how difficult it may be to visualize this scenario unfolding in Saratoga Springs, the same situation occurred just over a month ago at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India, sparking waves of protest and debate over national identity.

On February 13, dozens of JNU students gathered in peaceful protest on the university’s primary campus to remember the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri  blamed for the 2001 Indian Parliament terrorist attacks. The protesters questioned the legitimacy of the trial and the quality of Guru’s legal representation.

The protest proceeded much like the many others held at JNU every year—peacefully and non-disruptively. Around midday, however, events began to escalate. Police descended on the protest, breaking it apart and arresting the student president, Kanhaiya Kunmar, along with two other student leaders. Such unprecedented action against peaceful student protests at JNU shocked students and spectators alike.

In the aftermath of the incident, government officials have tried to justify the police intervention and subsequent arrests by highlighting national security concerns. They point to the pro-Kashmiri independence chants that ensued during the protest as evidence of an effort among the students to incite revolutionary fervor by promoting secessionist sentiments. The arrested students were held in prison for several weeks under charges of sedition.

The government’s response to the protest highlights an underlying geopolitical issue: the Kashmir dispute. The conflict remains a major source of tension and insecurity in the region. Many feel that Kashmir has been inadequately integrated into the Indian state, raising questions of independence for the province. The dispute has been raging since India’s conception, serving as a major source of separatist violence in the region. An increasingly nationalist Indian government, led by Narendra Modi, has embraced a hardline approach to the issue.

The government’s proclaimed security concerns do not obscure the unusual nature of its intervention at the JNU protest. The university has a strong tradition of political debate and activism among its left-leaning student body. As Skidmore College professor Mahesh Shankar, a JNU alum, confirmed, “Political rallies, marches, and gatherings are very common among JNU’s student body.”

There is little evidence to suggest that the most recent JNU protests differed significantly from previous student protests. Students were non-violent and non-disruptive in their actions, as they have been in the past.

Additionally, the government’s accusations of sedition hold little legal ground or precedent in matters regarding student protest. The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression—including the right to protest—just as the American constitution does. Consequently, signs of dissent over the Kashmir region from student protesters do not seem to justify government intervention on a university campus.

In fact, discussion of the Kashmir issue has occurred on JNU’s campus for decades. Commenting on his experience, Shankar said, “Kashmir and the idea of independence were always part of the conversation.” In this regard, the February 13 protest hardly introduced a new narrative among students. The only thing that has changed seems to be the government’s reaction to this kind of activism.

Many assert that the action taken against the JNU protest demonstrates the state’s increasingly nationalist and authoritarian tendencies. Since Prime Minister Modi’s assumption of power in May 2014, Indian nationalist sentiment has been on the rise. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained power on a platform informed by Hindu nationalist opinions, which have discouraged any questioning of the state in its handling of the Kashmir dispute. The JNU protest—and the larger conflict in Kashmir it evokes—thus serves as just one example of the state’s intolerance toward dissent. Such intolerance should hardly be welcomed in a functioning democracy.

Evidence of the increasing tension could be observed during Kunmar’s bail hearing. A dozen right-wing lawyers dressed in professional garb assaulted him with rocks as he entered the courthouse, with one man carrying an Indian flag and chanting, “Glory to Mother India.” The assaults continued until authorities forcibly removed the lawyers from the scene.

There has been an overwhelming outpouring of support in response to the JNU protests. Following the arrest of Kumnar and his classmates, thousands of students took to the streets of Delhi in protest, shutting down city functions for days. Their support has resulted in the temporary release of Kumnar, and has also encouraged a government probe into the incident. The display of student support suggests that India’s young people are unwilling to yield their freedom of expression in the face of increasing nationalist pressure.  

While the protests in New Delhi may seem distant, American students should watch with care. Presidential candidates such as Donald Trump have encouraged nationalist rhetoric similar to what is heard in India today. Already, protesters have been assaulted and harassed at Trump’s rallies by his supporters. Should a leader who condones such violence come to power, American students may one day face challenges to their right of expression—just as their Indian counterparts already have.

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