New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar was slapped with sedition charges and arrested on 13 February for a speech he gave after a group of students held an event on the campus marking the third anniversary of terror convict Afzal Guru’s hanging.

Kumar, currently the JNUSU president, is also a member of All India Students Federation (AISF), which is the students wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI), India’s second-largest Left party that has suffered waning political clout. On Monday, Kumar’s three-day police custody was extended by two more days.

Kumar was born and brought up in Bihar, in a village called Bihat in Begusarai district, more than 1,200km from the national capital. The village is part of the Teghra legislative assembly constituency and is known to be a key CPI bastion. Kumar’s village is so big and politically active that it comprises four panchayats and has been the centre of Left parties’ presence in Bihar.

Kumar’s father, Jaishankar Singh, is suffering from paralysis and has been bedridden for a few years. His mother, Meena Devi, is an Anganwadi worker who runs the house along with Kumar’s eldest brother who is in private service. Kumar studied in RKC High School in Barauni, an industrial town in Bihar. His family has traditionally been CPI supporters.

According to a friend of Kumar, during his school days, Kumar took part in several plays and activities organized by IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), a left-leaning cultural group going back to the days of India’s freedom struggle.

After completing his school education, he moved to Patna and joined the College of Commerce, where he was initiated in student politics. In 2002, Kumar joined the AISF and a year later was selected as a delegate at its conference in Patna. Kumar also became involved in the National Service Scheme (NSS), the government’s public service programme. He helped revive many Marxist centres of learning at his college and the Patna University.

“Kanhaiyya is a very social person. His ability to connect with people around him is heartwarming and he is known for being very considerate to all his friends. He is politically very sound and his strength in all this is that he knows he has not done anything wrong," said a friend of Kumar who has known him for nearly 15 years, requesting anonymity.

“He is a strong person and I am sure that this incident will not break him down or shatter his confidence. I think, he will emerge stronger out of all this," the friend added.

As a student, he is known to have performed exceptionally well in inter-college and inter-university debating championships. In 2007, he was a member of the Bihar students’ delegation that took part in debate and discussion competition of the NSS organized by the Union government. After completing his post graduation, Kumar moved to Delhi and joined JNU where he is currently pursuing a PhD in African studies at the School of International Studies. Last September, Kumar became the first AISF member to become president of the JNU students’ union.

“Please do not call my son a terrorist," Kumar’s mother Meena Devi told the Press Trust of India last week as she broke down while watching television news at a neighbour’s home in their village. “We are constantly watching TV after we got to know that Kanhaiya has been arrested. I hope police does not beat him too much. He has never disrespected his parents, forget the country. Please do not call my son a terrorist. He cannot be one," she added.

Kumar has been detained on charges of sedition, a fact that has been widely criticized by opposition parties and academics. A provision of the Indian Penal Code, Section 124A, defines and penalizes the offence of “sedition". It penalizes exciting “disaffection" against the government established by law, or bringing it into “hatred or contempt", and allows for life imprisonment in case of conviction.

Analysts feel the government is trying to control universities and usurping the space for dialogue and dissent. “This is a clear attempt by the government to control universities which are often seen as open spaces for dialogue and dissent. Sedition charges against Kanhaiya who is a student of JNU which is known for its culture of debate and discussion has a deeper connotation—to confine any critical space of dissent," said Badri Narayan, a Delhi-based political analyst and political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

“However, what the government doesn’t understand is that by calling people who have a different opinion as anti-national, they are just producing conducive conditions for people to actually become anti-national. People will only end up losing their faith in the state and the judiciary as well. Students have no arms or ammunition, just words and feeling threatened by mere words show that we are a fascist society in the making," Narayan added.

PTI contributed to the story.

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