A senior Indian minister appeared on Sunday to support police in a row over free speech that saw Amnesty International slapped with sedition charges for an event about the disputed Kashmir region.
Police in Bangalore filed the initial charges last week following complaints that slogans on independence for the troubled region had been chanted at the event organized by the rights group. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley compared the freedom slogans to those at another event earlier this year at a prestigious New Delhi university that saw a student leader arrested on sedition charges.
“During an event in Bangalore, there were slogans for freedom [from India]… it was organized by a group that receives a lot of funding from abroad,” Jaitley said at a rally in the Jammu part of the Himalayan state that includes Kashmir, without directly naming Amnesty. “In Delhi, there were slogans calling for destruction of the country… raising slogans that advocate breaking the nation into pieces cannot be seen as freedom of speech and expression,” he said.
Jaitley was referring to the rally in February at the university in which slogans were chanted that led to the student’s arrest, sparking a major row over freedom of expression in India.
Sedition carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, although convictions are rare.
In the latest case Amnesty denied its staff made any such comments on independence for Kashmir. It said the charges showed a lack of “fundamental rights and freedoms in India.” Amnesty has said the event was focused on human rights violations in India-administered Kashmir, which has been reeling from weeks of deadly violence between protesters and security forces.
Police have said they will investigate who made the comments following complaints from a Hindu nationalist student group.
Rights campaigners have long accused India’s governments of using the British-era sedition law to clamp down on dissent. Sedition charges have been used in the past against supporters of independence for Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both.
Indian forces have since 1989 been fighting militant groups seeking either independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan. At least 63 civilians have been killed and more than 6,000 injured in the most recent clashes between protesters and security forces, sparked by the killing of a top militant.