NEW DELHI -- The arrest of an Indian student last week on the charge of sedition has snowballed into a tense standoff between the Indian government and a prestigious university, fueling a heated debate here about democracy, treason and campus activism.

It all began when some students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru  University (JNU) organized a commemorative event last week to protest the 2013 hanging of a Kashmiri man convicted of facilitating an armed attack on the nation’s parliament more than a decade ago.

At the event, things got out of hand when some participants chanted angry slogans about breaking up India into pieces. A day later, a grainy cellphone video of the chanting went viral here, outraging many Indians. Members of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliated student wing called the students anti-nationals and demanded their immediate arrest.

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Police cracked down on the campus, searched dorms and college corridors on Friday and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU students union. They charged him with sedition and criminal conspiracy. Kumar told a court magistrate that his union had nothing to do with the slogan-shouters and said he went to the event to bring order between clashing groups.

Kumar’s union is affiliated with the Communist Party of India, a bitter rival of the BJP’s student wing in campus politics.

“This man was there at the event, he participated in the meeting where anti-national speeches were given,” B.S. Bassi, the city police commissioner, told reporters on Monday. He added that those who had chanted the slogans were on the run.

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Hundreds of angry students protested Kumar’s arrest and are accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of trying to control student activism on campuses.

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On Sunday, home minister Rajnath Singh even alleged that Hafiz Sayeed, the Pakistani chief of the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e- Toiba, was supporting the students at the university. JNU has traditionally been known for its left-leaning student politics. But many supporters of the BJP argue that the university’s culture borders on radicalism.

A lawmaker with the BJP, Sakshi Maharaj, said that traitors should be shot dead or executed because life imprisonment is not enough for them.

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On Monday, political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express: “Nothing that the students did poses nearly as much threat to India, as the subversion of freedom and judgement this government represents.”

The sedition law has been invoked repeatedly by various governments against dissenters, including a cartoonist, students cheering for a Pakistani cricket team, anti-nuclear activists, protest-singers and human rights advocates. Human Rights Watch has urged India to repeal the law, which carries a minimum of three years in jail and a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

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Some analysts say that Modi’s government has deliberately tried to quell student activism on campuses in the past year.

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Last month, a lower-caste student committed suicide after his PhD scholarship was suspended by a university in southern India because of a protest he led against the hanging of another man who was found guilty of helping plan the bombings in 1993. He was branded anti-national by the student wing of the BJP, and Education Minister Smriti Irani demanded that the university take strict action against the student. The suicide snowballed into a groundswell of anger against the government.

Last year, students at a premier film academy protested for months against a string of top appointments at the school made by Modi’s government.

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