Caste. Sedition. Oppression: How A Student's Suicide Sparked An Uprising In India

rohith vemula

NEW DELHI -- "Duck, you f**ker, duck!" The cameraman leapt off the fence as a large rock whistled through the air and clanged into the broadcast van parked outside Patiala House, one of New Delhi's six district courts.

Inside the court premises, on Feb. 17, a mob of lawyers strutted about the landscaped lawns, waving upraised fists, sticks and Indian flags and flinging rocks and abuse at the television cameras positioned beyond the tall iron gates of the courthouse.

"He's here!" The lawyers darted towards the rear entrance of the compound and pounced upon Kanhaiya Kumar, a slender, bearded graduate student, as he appeared before the court. On Feb. 12, Kumar, who is the student union president of Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India's premier public universities, was arrested for allegedly raising "anti-national" slogans on campus and booked for sedition under a 156-year-old colonial era law.

"Shoot the traitor! Hang the traitor!" the lawyers screamed as they punched, kicked and slapped Kumar until ineffectual policemen dragged him away to the magistrate's chambers. "Long live Mother India! Long live Mother India! Mother, we bow before you!"

Later, the mob would charge at the gates once more, flinging stones at reporters, harassing women, thumbing their noses at the law. The police did little to stand in their way.

The violent lawyers -- some of whom were associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's ruling party -- would later justify their behavior on TV, claiming they were unable to tolerate any insults to the nation.

"I was standing at a courthouse in the heart of the national capital, not far from the Supreme Court, the highest seat of justice in the land, and I was beaten by lawyers," a TV reporter who was attacked when he recorded the violence told me. "It's unbelievable."

kanhaiya kumar

Kumar, after being arrested for sedition, is taken to court on Feb. 17 in New Delhi, India. The hearing descended into chaos as protesting lawyers chanting pro-government slogans barged into a courthouse compound. (Virender Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A fever of political dissent has swept India's universities. The unrest, government ministers claim, is the work of forces determined to destroy the country from within. In a speech on Feb. 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lashed out at a presumed campaign by unnamed nongovernmental organizations to destabilize his government at the behest of their presumed foreign funders.

Since assuming power in May 2014, Modi's government has branded dissenters -- filmmakers, actors, writers, students, scholars, activists and environmentalists -- as "anti-nationals." In the name of national interest, students have been jailed, businesses vandalized, film screenings halted and the consumption of beef criminalized to the extent that mobs of enraged Hindu activists have lynched Muslims on the suspicion of eating beef or transporting cows to slaughter.

Government-funded educational institutions have received special attention: in one memorable instance, a prestigious film institute found its new chairman was an actor whose only qualification appeared to be a career-defining role as Prince Yudhisthira in a television series based on the Hindu epic "Mahabharata."

'I was beaten by lawyers. It's unbelievable.'

The current wave of unrest began in January, when Rohith Vemula, a young PhD scholar at Hyderabad Central University, a public university in southern India, died by suicide after a senior BJP minister denounced him as being "anti-national."

Vemula was the son of a single mother who worked as a tailor for about $2 a day to raise him and his two siblings. Vemula and his family are Dalit, the lowest group in India's caste hierarchy and one of the most discriminated against.

His suicide in Hyderabad and the events that have followed point to a question both fraught and fundamental: What does it mean to live in this land -- if you are Dalit? Or Muslim? Or Kashmiri? Or just unhappy with your government?