Human Rights Watch has slammed Narendra Modi government over the Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy adding that ‘Indian authorities should stop charging peaceful activists with sedition for alleged anti-national speech,’
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the Human Rights Watch said, “The BJP government seems eager to punish peaceful speech – but less willing to investigate supporters who commit violence in the name of nationalism. The authorities not only need to find out why BJP supporters were apparently involved in an assault inside a court, but also why the police did nothing.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting Indian democracy around the world as an attractive market, and yet back home, his administration is cracking down on peaceful dissent. Failing to uphold basic human rights is not a good global message.”
The HRW demanded that the Indian authorities immediately drop all charges that ‘violate the right to free expression, and fully investigate the attack inside the court and fairly prosecute those responsible, including any ruling party supporters.’
On 12 February, Delhi police had arrested the JNU Students’ leader Kanhaiya Kumar, after the BJP student-wing accused him of making anti-national speeches on the anniversary of the February 2013 hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, who was convicted for his role in the December 2001 attack on parliament that killed nine people.
SAR Geelani, a former Delhi University teacher, was also arrested on 16 February, after he participated at a separate Afzal anniversary event at the Press Club of India, where a group of people allegedly made anti-India slogans. Police said Geelani was charged with sedition because he had organised the event.
On 15 February, when Kanhaiya was produced in a Delhi’s Patiala House court, a group of about 40 men wearing lawyers’ black coats attacked students and university faculty members who had come to support the student leader.
Among those caught on camera assaulting Kanhaiya’s supporters was also BJP leader, Om Prakash Sharma.
Sonal Mehrotra, an NDTV reporter at the scene, reported that the assailants confronted her and several senior professors sitting nearby and threatened to harm them if they did not leave the courtroom.
Five police officers were in the courtroom but did nothing. Mehrotra said that when she started recording violence outside, she was threatened again: “Around 10 lawyers cornered us and said give us your phones or we will break your bones.”
Several other journalists too said they were threatened and attacked.
The HRW said that the case highlighted the urgent need for India’s parliament to repeal the country’s sedition law.
It said, “Section 124A of the Indian penal code prohibits any words, spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause ‘hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection,’ toward the government. India’s Supreme Court has imposed limits on the use of the sedition law, making incitement to violence a necessary element, but police continue to file sedition charges even in cases where this requirement is not met.”
It further said, “Repeated use of the law to silence peaceful speech is a violation of India’s international human rights obligations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy.”