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‘Sedition’ swerve after cricket spat

- Booked for cheering Pak win, J&K students get respite

March 6: Sixty-six Kashmiri students of a Meerut university, booked for sedition and thrown out of the city by police for celebrating a Pakistani cricket win over India, have received partial relief but are not out of the woods yet.

The Uttar Pradesh government tonight dropped the draconian, colonial-era sedition charges, which can bring a life term, after a nudge from the Union home ministry and a call from Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah.

However, the students still face charges of provocation with intent to cause riots (Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code) and damaging property (Section 427), which can put them in jail for up to a year.

Sunday night’s Asia Cup match in Dhaka had triggered a fracas on the campus although the details are disputed. The Swami Vivekananda Subharti University suspended the Kashmiri students on Monday and filed an FIR on Tuesday, on the basis of which the police filed sedition charges.

As the social media and the Valley bristled with outrage, the home ministry today sought a report from Lucknow over the police’s “hasty” step. A source said a “firm” message had been sent.

The possible reaction of its Muslim vote base too would have worried the ruling Samajwadi Party.

Late tonight, Meerut police chief Onkar Singh said a preliminary probe had found “little evidence to substantiate the sedition charges under Section 124A”. He added: “The other charges will stand.”

Using cricket affiliations as a test of nationalist loyalties is not unknown outside India, either. In 1990, Conservative politician Norman Tebbit had suggested that British citizens of South Asian and Caribbean origin should support England against their native countries at cricket, giving rise to the term “Tebbit test”.

The complaint to Meerut police by pro-vice-chancellor P.K. Garg accuses 66 unnamed students of “a particular community” of chanting “anti-India slogans” as they watched the match on TV at one of the hostels, police said.

It says the accused made obscene gestures, provoking the other students, and later vandalised hostel furniture and smashed glass panes.

In the Valley, where most of the accused have returned, some of them told reporters they had not shouted provocative or anti-national slogans but merely cheered the Pakistani side.

“The non-Kashmiri students did everything to provoke us, although we were initially watching the match silently. They would make obscene gestures to provoke us,” said a fourth-semester engineering student who refused to be named.

“Rumours were spread that we had distributed sweets (after Pakistan won). While we were moving to our hostel, we were attacked with stones.”

Later, the police gave them “two minutes” to vacate the hostel, said Nazir Ahmad, the father of one of the students. “They were bundled into two buses and dropped at Ghaziabad (near Delhi). They had no money and returned with great difficulty.”

Chief minister Omar had earlier tweeted that the students’ actions may have been “misguided” but were not “illegal”. The sedition charge is “an unacceptably harsh punishment that will ruin their futures & will further alienate them”, he said.

But he added that the accused too needed to introspect, for some of them were studying on the strength of “the PM scholarship for Kashmiris”.

Omar later posted: “Have just spoken to CM UP who has assured me he will personally look into the matter.”

Harass tool

India’s sedition law, dubbed “outdated” by former Union law minister Veerappa Moily, has often been misused to harass dissidents like writer Arundhati Roy and social activist Binayak Sen despite the Supreme Court repeatedly saying that it cannot be used against people who have not incited violence.

Section 124A relates to excitement of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards the government (which does not select or run the cricket team anyway). Some tweeters asked whether giving Pakistani writers good reviews would now attract sedition charges.

The private university offers mainly professional courses. Most of its 100-odd Kashmiri students pursue dentistry courses hoping for jobs in the Gulf, sources said.

“Most of us have returned. A handful of Kashmiri girls and dental college students are there,” one of the accused said in Srinagar.