Student protests have erupted throughout India in response to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (formerly called untouchable) Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad (India) and the recent arrest of student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, a poor working-class student, of JNU (Jawarhal Nehru University, one of India’s most prestigious universities). Kumar was arrested for his speech at a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of the death of Afzal Guru’s (a Pakistani involved in the attack on Parliament in December 2001) and has been charged with sedition—a colonial law originally intended to break the Indian National Freedom Struggle and the law under which Gandhi was repeatedly arrested.

Vemula and four other Dalit students—all members of the Ambedkar Student’s Association (ASA)— had been recently suspended from university facilities on a trumped up charge for allegedly assaulting a fellow student, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, who was a member of the right-wing student union Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) student wing. Kumar claimed that the five ASA members attacked him after he criticized the group for protesting the hanging in 2015 of Yakub Memon (a Muslim convicted in 1993 serial bombings). ASA member Munna Sannakki claims, however, that Kumar (a member of BJP’s student wing) filed a false complaint and tried to bring in BJP pressure from outside. The suspension forced Vemula and other suspended ASA members to sleep in tents outside of the campus, Vemula’s stipend was also withheld.

Activists are condemning the university’s actions against Vemula and the other suspended Dalit students as a form of anti-caste discrimination. Strong criticism against the central government’s role in pressuring the University to take action against the ASA members is also being voiced—including criticism of labor minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who referred to Hyderabad University as “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” in her letter to the Human Resource Development Ministry after hearing of Kumar’s complaint.

Vemula’s suicide is the 9th student suicide by a Dalit student at Hyderabad in the last ten years—highlighting the ongoing struggle against anti-caste discrimination in education. In India the treatment of Dalits has been comparable to the treatment of blacks in the United States since the days of slavery. The Dalits, at least in some parts of the country, were semi-slaves for millennia (see Joan Mencher’s The Caste System Upside Down found here). The Dalits and their allies, including not only Ambedkarites (Dr. Ambedkar was the writer of the Indian Constitution and a held a law degree from Columbia Un. In New York City), have also been critiquing the severely rightist and non-democratic BJP government since it came into power 1 ½ years ago. As seen in the events at JNU, the BJP has shown a persistent disregard for universities as centers for debate, dialogue and critical thinking: they have sent in the police to terrorize and control the intellectuals who stand with humanity.

Further fueling what is being called the “largest nation-wide protest by students in 25 years,” is the recent arrest of student leader Kumar under charges of sedition. The arrest has drawn both national and global attention. On February 13th over 2,000 students and faculty gathered to protest police action on campus, and yesterday thousands joined in protest of Kumar’s sedition charges (Kumar has yet to be released, though The Delhi High Court might decide on this either on Friday or Monday).

As noted by media, students and young people have been at the forefront of protests across the country even before the BJP came into power, protesting against land acquisition by relentlessly neo-liberal regimes (supported by the United States), corruption, sexual harassment, gender and caste discrimination, as well as cutbacks in education budgets, and anti-workers policies. Yet, the protests, though noisy and militant, have been totally non-violent and were previously accepted by authorities as a legitimate form of speech. However, since the last national election, the police have treated them as criminal acts and responded with violence. The protests have involved many young people from poor and struggling families, who with a great sense of responsibility have taken their leadership seriously. The protests have led verbally in the direction of favoring social transformation that is possible.

According to The Hindu newspaper, some of the mass media reporters and the cells of the BJP student activists have been using various kinds of one-sided reportage, with the explicit support of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Grants to Universities have been delayed or stopped, and salaries not paid to those staff members supporting these students and teachers. The Hindu also notes that ‘sedition’ as a crime has no place in a modern democracy, i.e. there is no justification for provisions that criminalize and silence dissent and ethical challenges to the dominant order. They note that this colonial-era provision, which has been loyally upheld in India, was repealed in the UK (the country’s former colonizer) in 2009.

Many see the present regime as bringing back the colonial attitude towards the working class and poor, and offering cheap labour to global capital. It is these young people that pose a formidable challenge to a neo-liberal vision of India. As noted by Prof. Priyamvada Gopal of Delhi University) in the Guardian: “This is a watershed moment for India. It must choose freedom over intolerance.”