JNU: India 'sedition' students freed on bail

An Indian student holds a placard with photographs of arrested students during a protest against last month's arrest of students on sedition charges in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Image copyright AP
Image caption The arrest of the students caused outrage across India

Two students from a top university arrested for allegedly shouting "anti-India" slogans have been granted bail.

Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, charged with "sedition" along with student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, received six months' bail from a Delhi court.

They were arrested after a rally against the execution of a Kashmiri separatist who was convicted over the 2001 Indian parliament attack.

The arrests sparked massive protests across India.

Many accused the government of cracking down on dissent.

The government defended the arrests, saying the students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) supported the Kashmiri separatist movement and the break-up of India.

All the students deny the allegations against them.

Image copyright Ronny Sen
Image caption Umar Khalid is a PhD student of history
Image copyright Ronny Sen
Image caption Anirban Bhattacharya says the government wants students to stop thinking

Mr Kumar was freed on bail earlier in March, and returned to JNU soon after, where he made a fiery speech that went viral.

Critics have condemned the charges against the students as an assault on freedom of expression, but government ministers have refused to back down, vowing to punish what they describe as "anti-national elements".

The 9 February rally that prompted the arrests was to mark the third anniversary of the 2013 hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru.

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Guru was one of those convicted of plotting the 2001 parliament attack - charges he always denied.

The attack, which left 14 people dead, was blamed on Pakistan-based militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

Sedition law in India

India's sedition law dates back to 1870, introduced by the British to hit back at anti-colonial movements.

Some of the country's leading independence leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, were tried under the infamous law.

The sedition law has rarely been upheld by India's courts. But anyone charged under the law cannot apply for bail immediately and so can be instantly imprisoned.

"The question of how much criticism a government can tolerate is indicative of the self-confidence of a democracy," writes Lawrence Liang in an article for The Wire.

"On that count, India presents a mixed picture where, on the one hand, we regularly see the use of sedition laws to curtail political criticism even as we find legal precedents that provide a wide ambit to political expression."

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