Dozens of Muslim students from the disputed territory of Kashmir were expelled from their university and threatened with sedition charges because they cheered for the Pakistani cricket team during a televised match against archrival India, police said Thursday. Amid outcries over the students' expulsion, the Indian state's elected leader called for leniency.
Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of northern Uttar Pradesh state, said Thursday he told state officials that such a serious charge as sedition, which carries a possible life sentence, should be withdrawn because the students probably didn't understand the gravity of their actions.
The sedition charges were subsequently dropped, but the students were still charged with a lesser offense of disturbing public harmony.
Yadav's statement in an interview with the New Delhi Television news channel came amid widespread outrage over the students' expulsion in the Indian portion of Kashmir, a divided Himalayan territory that both countries claim.
Earlier Thursday, authorities tried to track down the 66 students for questioning to determine whether sedition charges were appropriate, police officer N.K.S. Chauhan said.
Love of cricket — a legacy of Britain's long colonial role of South Asia — is one of the few things that unites Pakistan and India, despite a long history of animosity that has fueled three wars since the subcontinent's bloody partition in 1947.
But the fracas over Sunday's match, which Pakistan won, shows how easily passions are inflamed over predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Insurgents have been fighting for Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan since 1989.
The students had been living in the dorms at the private College of Swami Vivekanand Subharti University, in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh state, which is nearly 560 miles from their homes in Kashmir.
The students' cheers for Pakistan would not have raised any alarms back home in Kashmir. Minutes after Pakistan won the nail-biter of a match, hundreds of Kashmiris lit firecrackers and chanted "Long live Pakistan!" and "We want freedom!" There were joyful processions and celebrations in Srinagar and at least a dozen other areas in the region.
Before the sedition charges were dropped, Omar Abdullah, the top elected official in the Indian portion of Kashmir, said such a punishment would ruin the students' future and further alienate them.
"I don't condone what they did, what they did was obviously wrong and misguided," he told Indian news channel NDTV. "That having been said, they are young ... (Sedition charges) will further push them to the fringes."
The banned Kashmir University Students Union voiced its support for the students. This "is nothing new, but a testimony to the fact that we have been in a perpetual state of war with India since the past 67 years," the organization said in a statement.
Pakistan's government showed support for the students. "If these Kashmiri students want to come and pursue their studies in Pakistan, our hearts and academic institutions are open to them," Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press