(New York, February 20, 2016) – Indian authorities should stop charging peaceful activists with sedition for alleged anti-national speech, Human Rights Watch said today. In mid-February 2016, police arrested a student union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, and a former teacher, S.A.R. Geelani, in apparently politically motivated cases. On February 15, a member of Delhi state legislature from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others were filmed physically assaulting Kumar’s supporters in a New Delhi court while police stood by.

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.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

“The BJP government seems eager to punish peaceful speech – but less willing to investigate supporters who commit violence in the name of nationalism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

The Indian authorities should 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, Human Rights Watch said.

Demonstrators hold placards and a t-shirt featuring Kanhaiya Kumar during a protest demanding his release in New Delhi, India on February 18, 2016. 

On February 12, police in Delhi arrested Kumar, the student union leader, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, 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. Geelani, a former Delhi University teacher, was arrested on February 16, after participants at a separate Afzal anniversary event at the Press Club of India made anti-India slogans. Police said Geelani was charged with sedition because he had organized the event.

The police reportedly began conducting search operations in several Indian cities for other students they say were “ring leaders” after the minister for home affairs warned that those who shouted anti-India slogans and challenged India’s sovereignty and integrity during these meetings “will not be tolerated and spared.”

On February 15, when Kumar was produced in a Delhi court, a group of about 40 men wearing lawyers’ black jackets attacked students and university faculty members who had come to support Kumar.

Among those caught on camera apparently assaulting Kumar’s supporters was a BJP leader, Om Prakash Sharma. Sonal Mehrotra, a television 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 journalists said they were threatened and attacked.

Sharma was arrested, briefly detained, and released on bail on February 18. He told India Today television that he had retaliated in self-defense. “If someone hits you, if they abuse your motherland, you have to react.” At the same time, Sharma also stood by an earlier statement he made after the incident: “If I had a gun I would have opened fire. If someone abuses our mother, won’t I hit him?”

Acting on a petition that alleged that the police were a “mute spectator to the brazen display of brute force,” the Supreme Court restricted the number of people inside the courtroom for Kumar’s hearing on February 17 and asked the police chief to ensure his safety.

However, as Kumar was being escorted inside the courtroom, men in lawyers’ black jackets slapped, kicked, and punched Kumar, according to media reports. The Supreme Court then rushed a delegation of senior lawyers to assess the situation, which confirmed that Kumar was assaulted and that the police had failed to ensure his safety. The Supreme Court has sought an explanation from the Delhi police commissioner by February 19. The Bar Council said it would revoke the licenses of any lawyers involved in violent attacks.

The government should undertake an independent investigation into the police response to the violence, Human Rights Watch said. Strong disciplinary measures should be taken against police personnel found negligent.

Kumar’s arrest has led to protests by students and academics in universities across India and has prompted condemnation from scholars around the world.

The case has highlighted the urgent need for India’s parliament to repeal the country’s sedition law, Human Rights Watch 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.

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.

“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,” Ganguly said. “Failing to uphold basic human rights is not a good global message.”