It’s in their core to question the establishment: Kanhaiya Kumar5 min read . Updated: 30 Dec 2016, 05:03 PM IST
Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest and oratory caught the nation's imagination. We met him to talk about his year
Kanhaiya Kumar, a 28-year-old PhD candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has had a heck of a year. An arrest on the charge of sedition, a speech relayed over national television after release from jail, the publication of a memoir, and a country awakened to the debate on free speech and dissent that has followed his every move for the better part of 2016. Kumar is a member of the All India Students’ Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India, and was the president of the JNU Students Union from 2015-16.
In October, Kumar lost his father, Jai Shankar Singh, a daily wage labourer and farmer. His family, which lives in Bihat, a village in Bihar’s Begusarai district, comprises his mother, Meena Devi, an anganwadi worker, elder brother Manikant, sister Juhi and younger brother Prince. His memoir, From Bihar To Tihar was published the same month. Its release, a well-attended affair at the India International Centre in New Delhi, saw politicians from across the political spectrum in the audience, including Mani Shankar Aiyar from the Congress and K.C. Tyagi from Janata Dal (United). At the launch, Kumar spoke about the loss of his father and the power of students movements to bring parties across political lines on the same platform.
Earlier, in February, Kumar, along with students such as Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, was charged with sedition—they allegedly participated in and shouted slogans deemed anti-national at a cultural event meant to question the hanging of Afzal Guru. Videos that showed Kumar shouting slogans were shown on national television, and later proved to be doctored. A Delhi government probe and a JNU high level enquiry were instituted. One cleared him, the other penalized him. Yet, the student activist, out on bail, continued to hold conversations across campuses about the importance of students questioning the status quo.
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When we met Kumar in November, he had just returned from meeting his family, and was mourning the loss of a parent. A student of African studies at the School of International Studies, Kumar has to submit his PhD thesis soon. Sitting outside the Brahmaputra hostel in JNU, Kumar talked about the challenges and the future of student politics. Edited excerpts:
There are several factions within the student’s movement itself. These fissures don’t always allow unity within movements. What, according to you, is the way forward?
The situation for such unification is there, but we need someone to make it happen. It is not just that one person will do this, it could be a political party, it could be a group of people. And this is something I learnt from the students’ movement itself. During the Occupy UGC movement, had I been part of a large powerful students’ wing, then perhaps the movement may not have been as democratic as it was. I needed people to join us and take part in it. I became an engine, as it were. This is what students need to do—become an engine for change. I don’t have much hope from mainstream political parties, because the contradictions that exist between them are what BJP channelized (exploited) to come to power.
It’s true that across sections right now, a direct or indirect relationship is being created, because of opposition to what is happening. And I hope that tomorrow, corporates will also create a lobby to protest against the monopoly of two or three large entities.
To unite all these diverse groups, the platform will be created by student leaders.
Only students have that dare (needed) to challenge, descend on the streets to protest, especially when there is such widespread alarm. Student leaders cannot be part of political parties’ cadre-generating machine. They have to emerge from this, and think bigger.
This sort of an India-level platform created by students must address questions of economy, democracy (political) and identity (sociocultural), and it must be able to function continuously. This platform can unite several groups—queer, feminist, those fighting for ecology, journalists, capitalists, artists, farmers, labour, adivasi. Basically, this is a platform for people who are against regressive capitalism, and regressive ideas like casteism, patriarchy; it’s for people who are pro-democracy, pro-welfare state, pro-Constitution. Whether political parties unite or not, their cadres on the ground will unite.
Have you been involved in attempts to get something like this off the ground?
Yes, we have attempted to do this twice. The JNUSU passed a resolution to create a students’ youth convention that would form a committee to visit different universities and mobilize students; and students would leave the campus and visit bastis to mobilize people. But unfortunately, we couldn’t create such a convention. There were multiple political ideologies, and they were not willing to come on to one platform. Our sectarian attitude—our flag-banner fights—prevented this from happening. But here’s what I think. We continue to have such attitudes as long as we are comfortable. When push comes to shove, and things actually get bad, that’s when we drop these attitudes and come together.
Take Bihar, for example. Lalu (Prasad) and Nitish (Kumar) were on two opposing sides, but when they saw the impact of what the RSS could do, they came together to fight the state election.
There is fear, of course. But I feel one thing has changed. People are a lot more outspoken now, and taking things head-on. Yes, they may not be organized like those who have cyber cells, who can launch attacks on social media. But look at the number of people who are posting about their unhappiness with the government’s policies.
You have spoken before about the power of social media, especially to reach the youth.
People have started speaking up. Also, social media makes it easy to oppose, although there have been instances of people being arrested for what they’ve said or written.
The trouble with the students movement is that it has a short-lived component—student leaders come and go. But now, children in schools, who will enter universities, are seeing different ideas. The generation is different from the older voters, who would stick with one party no matter what. This is an OLX generation. They will ask questions from all parties; and it is in their core to question the establishment. So I’m not too worried about the students’ movement. In fact, I’m quite hopeful.
Political parties cannot create a joint platform. Only students can. And political parties are coming to talk on these platforms, create a dialogue. It has to be an initiative of the students.