The Modi government has come under sharp criticism by two of the world’s leading newspapers which have called it "authoritarian" and blamed it for “the lynch mob mentality” witnessed in New Delhi in recent days.
India is in the throes of a violent clash between advocates of freedom of speech and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its political allies on the Hindu right determined to silence dissent. This confrontation raises serious concerns about Mr. Modi’s governance and may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms.
The crisis began with the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union, by the Delhi police on charges of sedition. Mr. Kumar’s arrest followed an on-campus rally on Feb. 9 that marked the anniversary of the 2013 hanging of Muhammad Afzal, who was convicted of participating in the 2001 terrorist attack by an Islamist group based in Pakistan on India’s Parliament. The circumstances of Muhammad Afzal’s trial and execution remain controversial.
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and new university leadership appointed by Mr. Modi’s government were involved in calling the police on campus and singling out Mr. Kumar.
The court in New Delhi where Mr. Kumar’s hearing took place last week was a scene of chaos, as lawyers and B.J.P. supporters chanting “glory to Mother India” and “traitors leave India” assaulted journalists and students. The police refused to intervene. A B.J.P. member of India’s legislative assembly, Om Prakash Sharma, who was recorded on camera severely beating a student, said later, “There is nothing wrong in beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan,” as some students were accused of doing.
Responsibility for this lynch-mob mentality lies squarely with Mr. Modi’s government. On the day after Mr. Kumar’s arrest, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said, “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.” India’s Supreme Court has limited the definition of India’s colonial-era crime of sedition to speech that is “incitement to imminent lawless action.” Mr. Singh apparently does not realize that, in a democracy, voicing dissent is a vital right, not a crime.
Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists marched last week in protest from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Thousands of students and faculty at universities across India have turned out to protest in recent days. These Indian citizens are right to voice their outrage at government threats to the exercise of their democratic rights. 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. The charge of sedition against Mr. Kumar should be dropped. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, warned in a recent opinion piece, members of Mr. Modi’s government “have threatened democracy; that is the most anti-national of all acts.”
You can also view the article on the New York Times page.