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Sedition-Accused Indian Student Activists Granted Bail

This article is part of Feministing’s continued reporting on the current Indian student movements for the rights of minority students and the right to dissent. You can find a complete report from the initial days of the movement, including context, here, and subsequent reporting on the movement here.

Holi, the Hindu holiday that brings in spring, came early on Friday when news of the release of arrested student activists Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya on bail hit Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Students danced, threw colored powder (rangoli), and shouted chants for freedom across the sunny campus.

Ham kya chahte? Azaadi!

Tum kya chaho? Azaadi!

Shaadi chunne ki azaadi

aur na chunne ki azaadi

Bap se azaadi

Khap se azaadi

Brahmanvad se azaadi

Jativad se azaadi.

What do we want? Freedom!

What do you want? Freedom!

Freedom to choose marriage

or not to marry

Freedom from fathers,

Freedom from Khap Panchayats [village councils]

Freedom from Brahmanism [upper-caste Hindu dominance]

Freedom from casteism.

The azaadi chants originated in the Pakistani feminist movement, and in the current Indian student movement too calls for freedom from gender-based violence mingle with calls for freedom from casteist violence, from violent policing, and from state violence. It’s a beautifully utopian vision that loudly and clearly speaks the unity of various social movements.

The two students – activists and Ph.D candidates at the prestigious university – had been arrested in mid-February under a colonial-era sedition law for organizing an event at which a group allegedly shouted “antinational” slogans. They were charged along with four other students, including JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was arrested a few weeks before Khalid and Bhattacharya, was jailed for three weeks, and was released about two weeks ago.

Also granted bail this past weekend was SAR Geelani, a Delhi University professor, who had been arrested on sedition charges for organizing an event on the same topic as Khalid and Bhattacharya. The events were about the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist who was convicted by the Indian Supreme Court for involvement in the 2001 Parliament attacks and executed. Critics have raised concerns about the circumstances in which Guru was found guilty and hanged. Geelani too was arrested and tried in relation to the Parliament case, but acquitted.

The accusations of sedition against Anirban, Umar, and Geelani point to the politically tense climate around discussion of Kashmir, which was claimed by both India and Pakistan at the time of Independence, and which has been wracked by insurgent, Indian military, and Pakistani military violence ever since.

After more than a month and a half of anxiety, daily protests, police harassment, public uproar, government accusations, and media fear-mongering, news of the release hit campus to an outpouring of joy. That night, a procession of upwards of 2,000 students filled the university’s administrative block to listen to speeches by Khalid and Bhattacharya. Chants filled the air: 

Ham leke rehenge — azaadi

Ham cheenke lenge — azaadi

Pyaari pyaari azaadi

Azaadi, azaadi, azaadi, azaadi

We’ll take it and we’ll keep it — freedom

We’ll shout for it and we’ll get it — freedom

Sweet, sweet freedom

Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom

So what now?

The JNU movement has included discussion on a number of issues related broadly to sedition, nationalism, the right to dissent, political self-determination, and the rights of minorities. Here are just a few issues that activists, scholars, and commentators of all stripes have brought up in recent weeks.

Scrapping Sedition Law 

India’s sedition law is a colonial-era British law that was used against many Indians fighting British rule in the independence struggle – including, yup, Gandhi – and, ironically, by Indian governments since independence. While it has been consistently interpreted by the Supreme Court to only be relevant in cases of direct incitement to violence — rather than discussion or even advocacy of violence — police officers, politicians, and lower courts frequently use sedition laws against activists and dissenters. Many have called for the removal of sedition law from the Indian Penal Code entirely.

Justice for Rohith

The arrest of the JNU student activists came in the context of a student movement against caste discrimination in higher education that is challenging casteist student communities, university administrations, and government bodies across India. The movement started after the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) who committed suicide after his expulsion from the school for an alleged altercation between a Dalit students’ group and a right-wing campus group, the ABVP. Dalits are the most oppressed caste under the Hindu caste structure, and Dalit liberation movements have a long history.

The expulsion came as a result of intense pressure from both the university administration and the central government, who accused the Ambedkar Students Association — a group of mostly-Dalit students following the ideology of Indian constitution-framer and Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar — of “casteist” and “anti-national activity.” The group had organized an event related to the hanging of Yakub Memon, who was convicted and hanged for involvement in 1993 Mumbai bombings. We can see here the similarities of the circumstances between Rohith’s and the JNU students’ labelling as “anti-national.” We should also note the absurdity of calling students from an oppressed caste advocating for their rights “casteist.”

Rohith’s suicide, labelled an institutional murder by student activists, sparked a movement that was gaining substantial momentum when the JNU arrests happened. Many student activists claimed that the arrests were an intentional distraction from the issue of justice for Rohith, and calls for justice have been heard throughout the JNU movement.

Turmoil continued at HCU Tuesday after the reinstatement of the Vice Chancellor, whom activists consider responsible for Rohith’s death. Students vandalised the VC’s office and were greeted by heavy police presence.

Goals of the movement include punishment for the university administrators and government officials responsible for persecuting the Dalit students, and the installation of an act, to be called the Rohith Act, protecting the rights of Dalit students in institutions of higher learning.

The Imprisonment of G.N. Saibaba and other Political Prisoners

G.N. Saibaba is a Delhi University professor who has been held without bail under charges of conspiring with the Naxalites — an armed Maoist insurgency mostly concentrated in Central India — under questionable evidence. Saibaba  is 90 percent paralyzed and in poor health. Figures like former Indian Supreme Court justice Markandey Katju have strongly criticized Saibaba’s jailing on the grounds that it violates his civil liberties. Saibaba is just one of many people across India imprisoned under questionable evidence for politically-related charges, and some in the JNU movement have called for his release.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, is a law granting special authority to the Indian military in contested regions of the country like Kashmir and many states in the Northeast — all places that have seen separatist movements. This has been especially relevant in cases of sexual violence against local women by military personnel, who are often shielded from prosecution. There’s been a lot of feminist work and advocacy around the issue of military perpetration of sexual violence under AFSPA.

Some activists have used the space created by the JNU movement to address the issue of militarism and AFSPA, urging its repeal.


Considering that student activists were first accused of sedition related to an event about a Kashmiri separatist, the question of Kashmir has also come up in the movement. The sedition accusations have underlined the ways in which discussion about Kashmir is politically volatile and often-suppressed, and how claims to Kashmir are often mobilized as a metric of nationalism. Activists have used the movement as a platform to discuss not only the geopolitical situation of the region and the injustices committed there under AFSPA, but also the way in which discussion around the Kashmir issue and the expression of dissenting opinions is itself often criminalized. The below lecture, by Professor Suvir Kaul, gives a good primer on Kashmir in the context of the movement.

In the coming days, there will be a new lecture series, on azaadi, or freedom, at JNU, wherein professors from within and outside the university will come to lecture on freedom — what it is, what it means, and what it means to ask for it. The series kicked off Monday with a lecture from renowned postcolonial theorist Partha Chaterjee — you can see his lecture here, and follow subsequent lectures here.

Meanwhile, welcome spring and all of its warm winds and promises of freedom with these handy dandy dubstep versions of the azaadi chant, mixed to speeches by Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. They are really damn catchy, and also politically right-on. Emma Goldman says there will be no revolution without dancing. I challenge you to not dance.


Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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