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NEW DELHI: Police personnel stop demonstrators during a protest outside a university campus here on Monday.—Reuters
NEW DELHI: Police personnel stop demonstrators during a protest outside a university campus here on Monday.—Reuters

NEW DELHI: India’s biggest nationwide student protests in a quarter of a century spread across campuses on Monday after the arrest of a student accused of sedition, in the latest battle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over freedom of expression.

Outrage over the arrest of the left-wing student leader, who had organised a rally to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri leader, has led to demonstrations in at least 18 universities.

In the largest protest, thousands of students and academics at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) boycotted classes and erected barricades for a fourth day in an escalating conflict with the authorities.

“The government does not want students to have a say,” said Rahila Parween, vice president of the Delhi unit of the All India Students’ Federation, a left-wing student union. “It wants to dictate what students think, understand and say.”

The incident marks another flare-up in an ideological confrontation between Modi’s nationalist government and left-wing and liberal groups that is prompting critics to compare it with Indira Gandhi’s imposition of a state of emergency in the 1970s to crush dissent.

Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, of “anti-India” sentiment.

One BJP lawmaker said the university, which has a tradition of left-wing politics, should be shut down.

“I can assure you that every action we take is to protect our country. Any anti-India activity will not be tolerated,” BJP president Amit Shah, one of Mr Modi’s closest allies, said at the party headquarters.

Protests spread when Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested last week for sedition, after giving a speech questioning the hanging in 2013 of Mohammad Afzal Guru over his role in the 2001 attack on parliament.

Activists have long questioned Guru’s conviction, and India’s Supreme Court has described the evidence against him as circumstantial.

Scuffles erupted outside a New Delhi courthouse between lawyers and students where Kumar, 28, was to appear before a judge on Monday.

A leader of the student group that is aligned with the BJP said freedom of expression should not be misused to justify acts that could harm the country.

“You cannot be an Indian if you celebrate the death anniversary of a terrorist,” said Saurabh Sharma, joint secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Student Council).

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has, meanwhile, faced ridicule for citing a fake tweet to say that the JNU demonstration had been backed by Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Pakistan-based Jamaatud Dawa organisation.

Delhi police circulated the fake tweet at the weekend in a warning to students “not to get carried away by such seditious and anti-national rhetoric”.

A spokesman did not answer calls to his mobile phone on Monday seeking comment.

Since Mr Modi rose to power in May 2014, people in India have been attacked by fanatic Hindus enraged at reports of cows – sacred in their religion – being slaughtered, smuggled or consumed.

There has been a series of attacks on churches, while writers have returned awards in protest over the government’s silence over a series of murders of secular scholars.

At least 18 campuses witnessed protests on Monday. Students in the eastern city of Kolkata burnt an effigy of Mr Modi and left-wing groups in the neighbouring state of Odisha planned state-wide demonstrations.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2016