How Kanhaiya Kumar went from 'anti-national' to freedom icon

We have learnt to speak the truth to power. There will be more to come.

 |  3-minute read |   05-03-2016
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JNU has always had the reputation of being a radical university. Left leaders like Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, DP Tripathi, NCP leader formerly CPI(M), Anand Kumar, ex-AAP, Sandeep Mahapatra, BJP, and Prasenjit Sen, ex-CPI(M) were part of the galaxy of student leaders. One student leader Chandrasekhar Prasad, AISA and CPI(ML) Liberation, had great promise but was murdered in Siwan.

But none of them became a national star or student icon like Kanhaiya Kumar. How did this happen? Kanhaiya was born into a poor Bhumihar family in Begusarai, Bihar. But Begusarai is an old bastion of the CPI, though diminished in recent years.

Thus, for Kanhaiya, the route to the CPI linked All India Students Federation (AISF) was clear. But Kanhaiya had another hill to climb. The AISF is one of the smaller Left organisations in JNU and Kanhaiya was standing for the post of President, which the AISF had never won in JNU. But he confounded the odds with his moving speeches and persuasive answers to difficult questions, and won the JNUSU's President's post. He had passed through his trial by fire.

The JNUSU faced the challenge of diminishing resources for research fellowships from the UGC. The JNU students repeatedly marched to the UGC in their "Occupy UGC" movement. They demanded non-Net scholarships for all universities, in keeping with the JNU tradition. This became an all-India campaign. Here in this crucible of struggle, Kanhaiya Kumar became a major leader of the students and a significant section of the youth.

His self-effacing personality, his art of compromise endeared him to many, but so did the quality of his comrades shape and strengthen their struggles. The vice-president, Shehla Rashid Shora, played a major role in running the union when Kanhaiya was in jail on false charges of sedition. Her's was a formidable task as the general secretary, a fellow AISA comrade Naga, was also falsely accused, along with another former JNUSU President and AISA leader Ashutosh Kumar. Shehla hails from Kashmir.

Intriguingly, the charge of pro-secessionist and seditious slogans was mainly made against the AISA and AISF both Left anti-secessionist organisations. Their parent parties the CPI(ML) Liberation and CPI have consistently opposed secessionist and seditious tendencies. But the police concentrated their attacks on these nationalist forces. Is this an accident?

Some bumbling by the whimsical commissioner BS Bassi? It is difficult to believe that the home ministry was not involved.

Perhaps the idea was to smash the strongest organised forces of the Left in JNU, so that troublesome problem was crushed forever. The fact that home minister Rajnath Singh went to the extent of claiming that Hafiz Saeed had congratulated the JNU, a charge that he has not even tried to prove much less apologise, is no small matter.

When Kanhaiya returned after an unusual judgement of the Delhi High Court, he was in full flow. Thanks to the diverse media who gave a new meaning to "Azadi" as he had done in JNU. Freedom became freedom from poverty, freedom from casteism, freedom from patriarchy, freedom from Brahmanism, freedom from unemployment, freedom from starvation, and so on.

Who could question this? Who could allege that this is secessionist?

Of course, the Judge Pratibha Rani, only gave conditional bail. This despite the fact that a 1995 Bench of the Supreme Court with Faizanuddin and Anand JJ ruled that even slogans like "Khalistan Zindabad" are not seditious.

Evidently, more education is required in legal circles, not to speak of the lay public. In the interviews that followed Kanhaiya was asked about his opinion on the Afzal Guru slogans. He deftly redirected his interlocutors to Rohith Vemula who was the JNU icon.

But a legend is being created. The media has acknowledged that revolutionaries too have a major role in nation building.

The JNU students backed by the faculty have reiterated what we teachers learnt as students. We have learnt to speak the truth to power. There will be more to come.


Kamal Mitra Chenoy Kamal Mitra Chenoy @kamaichenoy

The writer is an academic and activist.

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