© AFP

India’s Bharatiya Janata party government has been accused of cracking down on political dissent, after a student activist at one of the country’s most prestigious universities was arrested for sedition for leading a campus protest against capital punishment.

Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the student union at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, was arrested on Friday, and eight other JNU students were suspended, after organising a protest against a 2013 hanging of a Kashmiri convicted of terror offences.

The arrest came hours after India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, demanded tough action against students engaging in what he described as “antinational” activities.

“If anyone shouts anti-India slogan and challenges nation’s sovereignty and integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared,” the home minister tweeted hours before the Delhi police — which answers directly to the national home minister — arrested Mr Kumar.

“Whatever happened at JNU is extremely unfortunate. I have instructed the Delhi CP to take strong action against the anti-India elements,” he said in a second tweet.

Mr Singh’s attention had been drawn to the JNU protests by activists from the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Speaking to JNU students at the weekend, Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the opposition Congress party, accused the BJP of suppressing political dissent, threatening the core of India’s democracy.

“The right to dissent and debate is an essential agreement of Indian democracy,” he said.

Professors at JNU, one of india’s top graduate schools for social sciences, have also accused the administration of engaging in a “witch hunt on campus”, although the administration — which answers to the central government — said students should not “misuse” their freedoms.

India’s university campuses have seen rising tensions recently between members of the BJP-associated AVBP and leftist student groups, challenging government policies, especially the use of capital punishment against Indian citizens involved in planning terror attacks.

Some of the students at the JNU rally have also been accused of calling for self determination for India’s Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, which has a history of separatist insurgency.

Last month, India was rocked by the suicide of Rohit Vemula, PhD student at Hyderabad University, who had been suspended — and had his scholarship money cut off for months — after a squabble between Ambedkar Students Association, to which he belonged, and the leader of the local branch of the ABVP.

Campus tensions in Hyderabad had erupted over an ASA protest against last year’s execution of Yakub Memon, an Indian who was convicted of helping to plan and fund a series of devastating bomb explosions in Mumbai in 1993.

A BJP lawmaker had demanded tough action against what he termed antinational elements, and eventually students involved in the protest were suspended and expelled from their student housing.

At JNU, students had been protesting the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man who was convicted of providing logistical support to a 2001 terror attack on the Indian parliament. His execution was controversial, as many Indian liberals questioned doubted his guilt.

Liberals have long feared that the BJP would crack down on university campus politics, as part of a longer-term project to reshape Indian society, and the nature of its political debate.

Those fears have been exacerbated by the recent events. But Smriti Irani, the minister who oversees the country’s universities, has been unapologetic. After Mr Kumar’s arrest last week, she declared that “the nation will never tolerate insults to mother India”.

Additional reporting by David Keohane in Mumbai

Get alerts on Indian politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article