Student leader urges freedom of speech after arrest, release in India

Kanhaiya Kumar addresses students and activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University  in New Delhi on Friday. "We will defeat those who are destroying the soul of our constitution," he said.

Story highlights

  • "We will defeat those who are destroying the soul of our constitution," Kanhaiya Kumar says
  • He spoke at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University a day after his release on bail
  • Kumar was arrested on February 12 over a demonstration that was labeled "anti-national"

New Delhi (CNN)A student leader whose arrest last month on sedition charges sparked massive protests in India has vowed to protect free speech in the world's largest democracy as it engages in an intense civil rights debate.

On Friday, a day after his release on bail, Kanhaiya Kumar spoke with the national media on the sprawling campus of New Delhi's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, a 46-year-old institution known for its left-leaning ideological discussions on a variety of issues.
    Kumar was arrested on February 12 over a demonstration that India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, alleged was "anti-national" because it commemorated the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri separatist convicted for his role in the militant attack on the nation's parliament in 2001. Authorities accused the participants of shouting anti-India slogans.
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    But Kumar's arrest, under a law designed by the British in 1870 to curb rebellion against colonial rule, reignited a fierce debate over citizens' right to dissent in a democracy.
    "We will defeat those who are destroying the soul of our constitution," the 28-year-old student said at the news conference, surrounded by colleagues and university teachers. India's Constitution guarantees freedom of expression unless it compromises national sovereignty.
    "The truth will triumph," Kumar said, citing the country's motto, "Satyamev Jayate." "The people who came out on the streets (after my arrest) came out to show their solidarity with democracy, with the right to free speech. We will always stand up for that right," he said in comments greeted by rapturous applause from fellow students.
    Hours after he came out of Delhi's Tihar Jail on Thursday, Kumar accused the BJP-led government of attempts to suppress criticism, echoing concerns raised by a cross-section of Indians over the past few months.
    "What is happening in the country is dangerous," he said in his passionate speech at the university. "But our voices will only grow stronger if you try to suppress us."

    Journalists speak out

    In an opinion piece, celebrated Indian journalist Barkha Dutt described Kumar as a "new political star" who she said was a product of a "clumsy overreach and mindless muscle-flexing" of authorities operating under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
    "You don't have to be a supporter of the left or its economic policies to recognize that Kanhaiya's passionate address -- made incidentally under the protective flutter of the Indian tricolour (national flag) -- captured a sentiment that was in fact post-ideology," said Dutt, consulting editor of broadcaster NDTV. "Whether neo-liberal or Marxist, right or left is beside the point; what it represented was the assertion of freedom -- yes 'azaadi' -- from unpalatable McCarthyism and political highhandedness," she wrote in a piece published by her broadcaster. "Azaadi" means "freedom" in Urdu.
    Several other columnists also slammed the government for prosecuting Kumar over alleged sloganeering.
    "The crackdown was an act designed to revel in ignorance of the law of sedition. Indeed, it was insidious in its remarkable ability to make ignorance the flaming torchbearer of nationalism," Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, said in a column in The Indian Express last month.
    After Kumar's arrest, The New York Times ran an editorial headlined "India's Crackdown on Dissent." "Mr. Modi must rein in his ministers and his party, and defuse the current crisis, or risk sabotaging both economic progress and India's democracy," it warned. "The charge of sedition against Mr. Kumar should be dropped."

    Rejecting intolerance

    Last year, a number of Indian writers returned their literary awards in protest over what they called a growing climate of intolerance and threats to free speech under Modi's Hindu nationalist government.
    Their action came after the murder of a Muslim man suspected of eating beef in the Hindu-majority India. Some BJP officials suggested that Muslims should not eat beef or otherwise offend the religious sensibilities of Hindus, who consider cows to be sacred.
    Also last year, the head of the country's central bank made an appeal for tolerance, warning that the economy will never reach its potential if debate is stifled.
    "India's tradition of debate and an open spirit of inquiry is critical for its economic progress," Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan said in a speech at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in November.