“Faculty, Students, and Staff of Simon Fraser University urge the Vice Chancellor of JNU to uphold the institutional autonomy and the democratic rights of the student community,” reads the title of an online petition started by SFU’s Director of Humanities, Samir Gandesha. Dr. Gandesha created the petition in response to the recent arrests of students in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, on accounts of sedition (a charge involving speech provoking others to rebel against the state).
According to The New York Times, an on-campus rally on February 9 ended with the arrest of the president of JNU’s student union, Kanhaiya Kumar. The rally was calling into question the trial and execution of Afzal Guru, a participant in a 2001 terrorist attack on India’s Parliament.
The issue further escalated when lawyers and supporters of the BJP, the party currently in power in the Indian government, assaulted students and journalists at the scene of Mr. Kumar’s hearing on the basis of their supposed anti-nationalism.
In regards to the events that transpired, Dr. Gandesha told The Peak that this incident speaks to a “much larger problem in the Indian state, certain elements with the Indian institution, [that are] not prepared to accept points of view they disagree with.”
The concept of sedition is one that is strongly propagated by the current Indian government, something which Dr. Gandesha found particularly troubling: “[The charge of sedition] is being used by the government to deal with any kind of dissent that the government doesn’t wish to see or doesn’t like.”
Dr. Gandesha’s petition stands alongside similar petitions and protests internationally. Once the students were taken into custody at JNU, the twitter handle #StandwithJNU began trending as various academics and intellectuals internationally began to stand in solidarity with the students. When asked why he started the petition, Dr. Gandesha said, “The more this action is condemned by the international community, and not just by Indians living in India, the more pressure will be brought to bear on the Indian government, including the courts, to address this case impartially and according to the rule of law.”
So far, the condemnation of the international community has been proven effective, as the JNSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, was recently released on bail.
However, other students arrested at the time still remain in jail. The petition for SFU students has a goal of 1,000 signatures, and at the time of publication has reached 179.
Dr. Gandesha hopes his petition will prompt the SFU community to “think about what is happening in India in relation to what is happening in Canada,” citing Bill C-51 as an example. “[Bill C-51] has been criticized by the BC Civil Liberties Association for criminalizing dissent. And this is exactly what’s going on in India — there’s a criminalization of dissent.”
Dr. Gandesha also emphasized the international implications of this pattern of suppression occurring currently in India: “We need to see this attack on civil liberties, academic freedom, freedom of expression as part of a worldwide pattern, a global pattern. It has to do with global spread of neoliberal policies.”
SFU’s various strategic ties further link SFU students to the country and its controversial current affairs.
Recent advancements in SFU’s relationship with India include our partnership with Ryerson University and the Bombay Exchange Institute to develop an incubator and accelerator program in India in January 2014, as well as the expansion in the relationship between SFU and Indian Oil Corp. Ltd. in fuel cell technology research in October 2014.
The university commented on SFU’s increasing links towards India in the face of the current events concerning academic freedom of speech in the country, in a statement sent to The Peak: “The current situation at JNU is concerning and is quickly evolving. SFU is committed to intellectual and academic freedom. We respect and protect the right to free speech [. . .]”
“Why should we have ties to a country where academic freedom doesn’t mean anything?” questioned Dr. Gandesha.
“We expect our students to be safe, even when they speak out and say things we necessarily may not agree with. We have to expect that from all universities we partner with. That, to me, is a given. And it’s a question of human rights.”