New Delhi: The escalating tension arising from an obscure meeting on Kashmir held at the JNU here has spiralled into an acrimonious nationalism-versus-intolerance debate.
The row has pitted Hindu nationalists, mostly from the ruling saffron alliance, against those opposed to the Narendra Modi government's alleged intolerance and its bid to crush dissent.
An incident that would in normal times have made no ripples exploded on the national stage after the arrest of JNU's left wing student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, fuelling a debate on issues related to freedom of speech.
Held for allegedly making "anti-national remarks" under a colonial-era sedition law, Kumar's detention has caused political fireworks just ahead of parliament's budget session.
JNU students backing Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, have drawn support from large sections of the civil society -- but have also run into a wall of aggressive Hindu nationalists.
"They have arrested an elected student union president on the draconian charge of sedition without even a shred of evidence. The message is clear. Fall in line with the BJP/RSS agenda," CPI-M leader Brinda Karat told IANS.
Brinda Karat, whose husband and Marxist leader Prakash Karat was once a student leader in JNU, said the Modi government wanted to "impose its political and ideological hegemony over all academic institutions".
"It is an authoritarian move to subvert democratic ethos," said Karat, an MP and a former student activist.
Modi supporters who love to dub people like Karat "anti-national" now want the JNU -- a known leftist bastion -- to be shut down.
BJP spokesman Sambit Patra said the JNU row had nothing to do with free speech as the heart of the issue was the shouting of slogans denouncing the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for the terror attack on parliament.
On Wednesday, when a court sent Kumar to judicial custody till March 2, lawyers calling themselves Hindu nationalists assaulted him as well as the journalists covering the case.
One of the lawyers was identified as Vikram Chauhan, who is said to be close to leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On his part, Kumar has denied shouting anti-India slogans or taking part in anything that could invite sedition charges - which carries the maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
The sedition law was widely used during India's independence movement and was slapped on Mahatma Gandhi in 1922.
Legal experts doubt if Delhi Police can prove the sedition charge against the jailed Kumar - who has been transformed from an unknown student leader to a virtual national figure.
Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde said sedition requires speech to cross the line into action. "The law is clear. Unless there is an actual incitement to violence, there is no sedition," Hegde told IANS.
"There are two points regarding this case. Did Kanhaiya shout slogans? Was there any incitement to violence? I don't think police have evidence to prove that."