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Protests, counter-protests as Indian sectarian feud erupts

Protests have spread across India and set off counter-protests as students and professors demand the release of a student leader jailed on sedition charges. Violence at a courthouse in Chennai led to at least 40 arrests.

Protesters in at least 10 cities, including Bangalore, Jaipur, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata joined calls for the release of

Kanhaiya Kumar, the student union president at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Protesters in New Delhi carried flowers as a sign of peace, Indian flags and placards saying, "Free speech under attack" and "Just because I don't agree, doesn't mean I am an anti-national."

Jostled by media and protesters, Kanhaiya Kumar (C), head of the student union at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is escorted by police outside the Patiala House court in New Delhi.

Kumar (C) is escorted by police at a New Delhi court house

Police said they arrested 40 students protesting outside a courthouse in the southern city of Chennai.

Kumar is accused of shouting anti-Indian slogans at a rally held last week to mark the 2013 hanging of Kashmiri separatist Mohammed Afzal Guru over a deadly 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Kumar has denied the charges.

Both India and Pakistan claim the region of Kashmir, a divided territory between the two countries.

India has filed sedition charges in the past against supporters of the disputed territory. The charge carries a potential punishment of life in prison but convictions are rare.

Beaten on live television

Nationally televised scenes of Kumar being kicked and punched while he was escorted to a court hearing Wednesday provoked outrage and renewed allegations of intolerance by the country's governing Hindu nationalist party.

Some also accused the ruling Bhaaratiya Janata Party (BJP)

of orchestrating the violence in the name of patriotism.

Soon after the protests began, India Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that anyone shouting anti-Indian slogans "will not be tolerated or spared."

Police block right-wing Hindu activists during a protest at JNU.

Police block right-wing Hindu activists during a protest

Stones were thrown at journalists covering the court hearing, and lawyers who had been sent by the Supreme Court to investigate the case were heckled. One lawyer described an "atmosphere of terror" at the courthouse.

The high court said it was "concerned about the law and order situation arising out of the violence," which also broke out at an earlier hearing for Kumar.

In Kolkata, police prepared for violence as rival groups of students protested on the Jadavpur University campus. Demonstrators affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP demanded harsh action against Kumar and others who they accused of being anti-Indian.

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called for Kumar's immediate release, accusing the government of using British-era sedition laws to "silence and harass those with divergent opinions."

The opposition Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi met India's President Pranab Mukherjee to express concern, saying the scenes at the court were an "affront to the democratic ideals of this country."

bik/sms (AP, AFP)

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