NEW DELHI — For two days police stood at the gates of a distinguished university in India’s capital without being invited in.
Inside, five students wanted on sedition charges were holed up, protected by private security guards. Just before midnight Tuesday, two of the students turned themselves in and were arrested, joining the student union president, who remains in custody.
“People outside have to carry on the struggle. We will fight from inside,” Umar Khalid, one of the students, said as he was led away in the dark.
For decades, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — which sprawls across 1,000 leafy acres in Delhi frequented by roving antelope — has been an oasis of thought in the chaotic capital.
It has long attracted many of the country’s brightest minds, who, under the sheltering canopy of trees, felt free to talk, sing, drink tea and debate the issues of the day — however radical their views might be.
But since students chanted anti-India slogans at an event to honor a man executed by the government as a terrorist, JNU has become a flash point over freedom of expression in India.
“JNU has been known for its vibrant culture, where all kinds of discussion and debates — from the extreme right to the extreme left — enjoyed space on campus,” said Nitheesh Narayanan, a leader of the Students’ Federation of India and a former JNU student. “Now there is an attempt to stop it.”
Officials from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party said in Parliament on Wednesday that they had no intention of impeding free speech at the school.
“This is not about expressing your point of view,” Smriti Irani, the minister of human resource development, said in an interview. “Free speech thrives at JNU. This is a law-and-order situation that needed to be dealt with.”
The drama comes at a time when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of undermining the autonomy of universities by trying to impose new subjects in the curriculum, appointing partisan leaders and working to curb activism.
Since assuming power in 2014, critics say, the government pressured a university in Chennai to discipline a student group alleged to be spreading “hatred” of Modi. Another school suspended a group of students critical of the government — one of whom then hanged himself. Students at the country’s premier film academy are still complaining that their new head is a political crony and a B-grade movie actor not qualified for the job.
Rakesh Batabyal, a professor of media studies at JNU, said a larger ideological battle is at play between liberals on campus and Modi’s government, backed by the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi has been closely associated with the RSS since he was a young child, and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), is active on many campuses.
“Now when the RSS has state power behind them, changing education to the Hindu nationalist line is their prime agenda,” Batabyal said. “The student group is trying to help the government counter any voice of dissent.”
Irani, whose ministry oversees education, dismissed the charge.
“I completely condemn that. Give me one ounce of evidence,” she said, noting that out of 40 universities, 20 chancellors were appointed by the previous government. “If there was an agenda, would I still work with academicians not appointed by my government? Would these academicians still lead these institutions?”
Students from the ABVP complained to the administration about the Feb. 9 gathering at JNU, billed as a “cultural evening of protest” over the 2013 hanging of a Kashmiri man convicted of an attack on Parliament more than a decade ago.
“For me, JNU stands for freedom and freedom of expression. It is a very good campus to study; it is an open, free atmosphere. We can question everything. Two years ago, we even burnt the effigy of [politician] Rajnath Singh,” said Ravi Ranjan, 26, a PhD student and the joint secretary of the local ABVP. “But do not take advantage of this freedom and work against the country.”
Gathering near a small food shop, the students had shouted “The war will continue until India’s ruin!” and “India, you will be broken to pieces, if Allah wills.” A grainy video eventually emerged that went viral and was disturbing to many.
Singh, now the home minister, vowed that anyone chanting anti-Indian slogans would “not be spared.” Universities nationwide agreed to fly Indian flags.
The school administration then contacted police, who descended on the dormitories and classrooms of the university — prompting protests by students and teachers. They eventually arrested student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who remains in jail. In the firestorm that followed, Kumar was kicked and punched by a group of rogue lawyers on his way to court for a hearing.
When police returned Sunday to arrest the rest of the students, they were not invited back in. Nor did they make a formal request to enter the campus, JNU authorities said.
The pursuit of academia has been largely stalled on campus, with hundreds gathering to hear fiery speeches on the steps of the administration building each evening. Most classes resumed Monday after several days off.
Students from other universities also streamed into town this week to march and show solidarity with JNU, including Jebin Thomas, 24. Thomas, studying for his master’s degree in political science at the University of Hyderabad, is a friend of the young student who committed suicide in January.
“This is a movement, not just a protest,” he said. “It will continue.”