India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Altaf Qadri / AP)
New Delhi — Police in southern India have arrested seven people, including four students, and charged them with defaming the country’s new prime minister in a college magazine, officials said Friday.
The arrests came after an annual student magazine at the Government Polytechnic College in Kerala state included a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a collage of what it called “negative faces.” Others included in the collage were Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and former U.S. President George W. Bush.
The seven people were arrested Wednesday and charged with defamation and criminal conspiracy, said district police chief N. Vijaya Kumar. They were released on bail Thursday. If found guilty, they could face prison terms and stiff fines.
The four students helped edit the magazine. The others who were arrested included the college’s top official, the magazine’s faculty adviser and the owner of the company that printed the publication.
Police seized a printing press and computers used to design the magazine, as well as nearly 400 copies of the magazine, Kumar said.
“They were arrested under several charges, including defamation, intentional insult to provoke breach of peace, criminal conspiracy and printing matter known to be defamatory,” he said.
Police made the arrests after Yuva Morcha, or Youth Front, a group affiliated with Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, complained about the photo.
An official said the college has temporarily suspended five students involved in planning and printing the magazine. All five belong to the Students’ Federation of India, a student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The SFI runs the college’s student union.
The student union publishes the magazine each year based on a theme. This year’s issue, which was distributed last week, explained world history through pictures of faces. The magazine listed people under five categories: spiritual, literature, world leaders, negative and sports.
Modi, who was sworn in as prime minister late last month, was chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat when it was ripped by sectarian violence in 2002. More than 1,000 Muslims were killed and Modi was widely seen as having done little to stop the carnage, though he denies any wrongdoing.
The SFI has openly accused Modi of being responsible for the sectarian violence.
Indian politicians are known for being sensitive to public criticism or ridicule.
In November 2012, two 21-year-old college students were arrested in Mumbai for posting a comment on Facebook criticizing the shutdown of India’s financial hub for the funeral of a powerful right-wing politician.