Noam Chomsky
MIT professor Noam Chomsky has warned about India's human rights image under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruleKhalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty

Renowned academic Noam Chomsky has hit out at India's human rights record under Narendra Modi, accusing the prime minister of a "crackdown on students". Chomsky's remarks come in the wake of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar being arrested on charges of sedition, sparking a row about freedom of speech versus nationalism in the country.

Chomsky questioned the way authorities had handled the situation at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and said that a culture of "authoritarian menace" had been seen during the incident. He also questioned the JNU vice chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar's decision to "allow police on campus when it was not legally required".

Speaking to the Press Trust of India, Chomsky said: "The intolerance debate is not just limited to India. There is plenty of intolerance everywhere. As for India's image, among people who care about human rights, freedom, and justice, it is declining."

Chomsky's comments come days after he signed an open letter condemning the "unlawful" arrest of Kumar and warned that the incident had brought "great dishonour to the [Indian] government". The letter was also signed by other academics from leading universities around the world, including Cambridge, UCL and the University of London. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was among the signatories who urged "all those genuinely concerned about the future of India and Indian universities to protest in wide mobilisation" against the "culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated".

Chomsky, 87, has noted that academic freedom was an important factor in determining freedom in a country. He is currently an emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has been awarded more than 40 honorary degrees from educational establishments around the world, including Harvard University and Columbia.

Chomsky said: "Academic freedoms are a key indicator of the overall status of political freedom and democracy. The acceleration of privatisation across the public higher education system is undermining these freedoms on a global scale. The sequence of events at JNU signal towards a culture of authoritarian menace."

Chomsky's slam on Modi's human rights record comes days after India denied a visa to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for the group's planned trip to the country. The USCIRF was due to visit India to assess conditions of religious freedom under the Modi government, amid reports of increasing intolerance experienced by the country's religious minority community.

Chairman of USCIRF hit out at the Indian government following the visa rejection: "As a pluralistic, non-sectarian and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit."