India opposition politicians and media called for a colonial-era sedition law to be scrapped on Wednesday, accusing authorities of trying to suppress dissent after it was invoked against students marking the execution of a Kashmiri militant. Police used the 1870 law against 10 people, including a student organiser, for the 2016 rally at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University where police say anti-India posters were raised. The students denied the allegations and critics said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government was trying to curb free speech and pander to his Hindu nationalist base ahead of his re-election bid in a few months.
"There is no need for a sedition law in today's times, it is a colonial law," said Kapil Sibal, a senior leader of the main opposition Congress party. "Many who merely speak or tweet against the government have sedition charges imposed against them; it is being misused by the centre just to keep citizens in check." Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader, attended the rally questioning the execution of the Kashmiri separatist convicted of an attack on parliament in 2001, but his lawyers said he rejected the use of violence and made no incendiary comments. Instead, his supporters said he criticised a right-wing student fraternity and a Hindu-nationalist umbrella group to which Modi's ruling party belongs.
"The fact that the charges are being made three years after the alleged use of "anti-national slogans" by JNU students in February 2016, and on the eve of the general elections, suggests that their motive is political," Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, wrote in Mail Today. India is sensitive about Kashmir, its only Muslim majority state, where it is struggling to put down a decades-old revolt.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but the rule in part. Hindu nationalists tied to Modi's party have long advocated a tough posture on Kashmir and say any policy of appeasement undermines India's security. The sedition law carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
"Independent India should have the confidence to scrap the anachronistic sedition law suited for the police state that existed before 1947, and let free speech flourish without fearing its own citizens so much," The Economic Times said. Police in the remote northeastern Indian state of Assam said last week they were also investigating an academic, a journalist and a peasant leader for possible sedition for publicly opposing a proposal to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. "This law now needs to go. A mature, liberal democracy cannot fight its own citizens," the Hindustan Times said.
(With inputs from agencies.)