JNU students' union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, centre, is escorted by police into Patiala Court for a hearing in New Delhi on 17 February amid escalating protests / CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images

Academics say they 'refuse to remain silent' while their colleagues 'resist the illegal detention and autocratic suspension of students'

Academics at some of Britain’s most prestigious universities have added their names to a ‘statement of solidarity’ in support of a students’ union leader in India who they say has been part of “illegal ongoing police action” in the country.

Kanhaiya Kumar, president of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union in New Delhi, was arrested and charged with sedition - or being ‘anti-national’ - on 12 February after some students held a rally against the 2013 hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist who was convicted over the 2001 Indian Parliament attack.

According to The Hindu newspaper, the rally’s organisers had displayed posters across the university campus inviting students to gather for a protest march against the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru” and in solidarity with the “struggle” of Kashmiri migrants.

Following the arrest of Mr Kumar, hundreds of staff and students have been demonstrating in protest, criticising police for their “hasty” action and “premature” crackdown, reported the Hindustan Times, with many others, however, supporting police action, having “decried the JNU students.”

Now, though, Professors Barbara Harriss-White and David Gellner of the University of Oxford, along with Professor Maitreesh Ghatak of the London School of Economics, are among some 500 supporters of the ‘solidarity statement’ which has been circulated among the global academic community. 

“The charge of sedition,” it reads, “under the guise of which the police have been given a carte blanche to enter the JNU campus, to raid student hostels, arrest and detain students - including Kanhaiya Kumar, the current president of the JNU Students Union - is an alibi for the incursion of an authoritarian regime onto the university campus.”

Also supported by staff members at SOAS London, and the Universities of Westminster, Warwick, and Edinburgh, it continues: “Under Indian law, sedition applies only to words and actions that directly issue a call to violence. The peaceful demonstration and gathering of citizens does not constitute criminal conduct. The police action on JNU campus is illegal under the constitution of India.”

The academics add how they are watching events in the country “with extreme concern” and say they “refuse to remain silent” while their colleagues “resist the illegal detention and autocratic suspension of students.”

The group of teachers and lecturers have concluded by urging the vice-chancellor of JNU to “protect members of the university community and safeguard their rights.”

According to The Times of India (ToI), Mr Kumar is in judicial custody until 2 March and, on Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a statement asking the public to “be careful” about what they say in regards to the student leader’s arrest. ToI added how the court said: “We are keeping an eye on law and order… Everyone should be careful while giving statements.”