NEW DELHI — A protest that rocked a New Delhi university this week spread across India on Thursday, with students and teachers in at least 10 cities demanding the release of a student leader arrested on sedition charges and accused of being anti-Indian.
The protesters were outraged by nationally televised scenes of Kanhaiya Kumar, the student union president at Jawaharlal Nehru University, being kicked and punched while he was escorted to a court hearing Wednesday, renewing allegations that the Hindu nationalist governing party is intolerant.
He was arrested last Friday over his participation in events where anti-India slogans were allegedly shouted. A New Delhi court has ordered him to stay in custody for two weeks. The court will hear his bail plea on Friday.
The demands for the student’s freedom in the Indian capital were met by mobs of Hindu nationalists, including many lawyers, attacking students and accusing them of being anti-Indian.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu groups accuse left-wing student groups of anti-nationalism because of their criticism of the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri separatist convicted of an attack on Parliament.
Kumar’s treatment and attacks on teachers who supported him have triggered allegations that the Modi government and the BJP are cracking down on political dissent in the name of patriotism.
Soon after the protests began, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that anyone shouting anti-India slogans “will not be tolerated or spared.”
The violence by lawyers occurred despite the Supreme Court ordering the police to ensure security in the court and has drawn wide criticism of the lawyers and police.
“Such a deliberate obstruction of justice amounts to constitutional contempt and cannot go unpunished,” said Maja Daruwala of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
The Bar Council of India said it had appointed a three-member panel to investigate the violence by lawyers.
“We are going to take a strong action against them,” Council president Manan Kumar Mishra said. “We are going to punish the lawyers if they are found guilty,” he said before apologizing on behalf of the lawyer community.
On Thursday, students in at least 10 Indian cities marched through the streets and denounced Kumar’s arrest.
In New Delhi, thousands of students, professors and journalists gathered in the center of the city. They carried flowers as a sign of peace, Indian flags and placards saying, “Free Speech under attack” and “Just because I don’t agree, doesn’t mean I am an anti-national.”
Police said the rally was not authorized, but allowed the march to proceed to a central space used frequently for public protests.
In the southern city of Chennai, 40 students were arrested after they clashed with police.
In Kolkata, police were on alert as two groups of students held rival rallies in the Jadavpur University campus. Student groups affiliated with the BJP demanded strict action against Kumar and others who they accused of being anti-Indian.