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The night Kanhaiya Kumar reclaimed JNU and azadi

Something has shifted and we can dare to believe that we have dared to participate.

 |  IST  |  8-minute read |   04-03-2016
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How many times can you demand "azadi" in the space of 51 or so minutes ?

If you're Kanhaiya Kumar and you have recently returned to Jawaharlal Nehru University after spending 20 days in Tihar jail, you can transform that single, allegedly seditious word, first into an invocation, then a chorus, soon a litany, until, finally, it is exhaled from your mouth on a wing, perhaps even a prayer.

On Thursday night, a thousand or so students marched from Sabarmati Dhaba to the administrative block inside the Republic of JNU, a distance of less than a kilometre, their strong, young voices punctuated by raised arms and clenched fists.

Woh jail ka taala toota hai

Comrade Kanhaiya chhoota hai.

(The lock on the jail has been broken/

Comrade Kanhaiya has been let free.)

And then a full-throated growl, much louder than the response to Kanhaiya Kumar's sloganeering from an undoctored February 9 video in which he is seen demanding freedom from starvation and the Brahmanical order. Azadi!

Last night, the streets of JNU belonged to JNU. On the side of the dhaba, a congregation of women have taken to singing Bhojpuri folk as well as several language versions of "We Shall Overcome". Rumour is that Kanhaiya will be brought back to JNU from Tihar in half an hour. Posters of Babasaheb Ambedkar, in black and white, urge you to "Save Constitution", "Save Democracy", "Save University," topped with bold black letters, "FROM HCU TO JNU".

The students never let you forget it. Rohith Vemula paid the price for his dreams at Hyderabad University, the HCU in the poster, because he was a Dalit. JNU has picked up the baton of his scattered hope and is determined to forge his memory with their own battle cries. The one that draws students from all parts of the country to this march - its really a walk - last night, from Sabarmati Dhaba to the admin block is the belief, nay, the knowledge, that the Modi government has wronged the students.

And so they have gathered - a male student with recent onslaught of facial hair from Mau (its near Azamgarh, says Manzoor), studying for a master's degree in Arabic and dreaming of consultancies with the Gulf states, a young girl from Meghalaya pursuing her PhD on Christianity in the Garo Hills, Dalit activists from outside JNU, teachers from JNU who supported the students in their darkest hours since Kanhaiya and Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were picked up for sedition, two students studying Russian, two girls pursuing degrees in public health, one boy from the Andaman Islands, another boy who confesses to being "politically neutral," from Allahabad - to offer support to the idea that universities must remain pools of exception from the onslaught of the University Grants Commission, and through it, the government.

You cannot control the university, these students say, many of them loitering on the outskirts of the core group singing songs on the side of the Sabarmati Dhaba. It's wrong of the Modi government to say that our protests, Kanhaiya's protest, were anti-national. The "politically neutral" student points out that actually the Modi government is responsible for creating this enormous demonstration today, by using the sedition law to quell what were, essentially, "student" matters. "Earlier, only Kanhaiya and a few people were saying, azadi. Now everybody is saying it," he adds.

Now the JNU Students Union general secretary Rama Naga - his father is a bangle seller in Kalahandi, Orissa and Rama came to JNU after graduating in political science from Vikram Dev Autonomous College in Jeypore - is telling the students that as they march to the admin block they have to remember that Comrade Kanhaiya is out only on interim bail and no one should raise any slogans or say or do anything that will compromise his or their collective safety.

You fall in with a bespectacled boy wielding a tambourine, currently working on his PhD, but who doesn't stay on campus any longer. He explains how it all started, with the Occupy UGC Movement, when JNU students led the protest against the University Grants Commission's decision to stop fellowships to doctoral students some months ago. That gave way to the clampdown on the pro-Dalit Periyar study circles in the university in Chennai, which led to the Dalit protests in the University of Hyderabad. Then, when Rohith Vemula committed suicide, the circumstances of his death creating a national outcry, the demonstrations and protests in JNU got a fresh leash of life.

From the group of students marching in front of us comes the slogan:

Woh manuvaad se, pratirodh se, pratishodh se, Comrade Khara karo khara karo khara karo barricade.

(Against the discrimination of women and against vengeance/Put up the barricades, comrade)

The group behind is marching to its own tune, an invocation to the father of the Constitution: Jai Bhim! But interspersed are slogans to Periyar and how the time has come to complete his work by pulling down the upper castes from their holy castles and cows.

Inquilab, Inquilab, Inquilab!

(We shall fight, we shall win!)

By now the marchers have grown. Some adults have brought their babies to the event, on their shoulders, as if you would take the children to the mela after burning the effigy of the evil king Ravana in the Dussehra festival.

Soon they reach the admin block, where hundreds of students are already sitting on a series of steps, amphitheatre style. But this is not the self-conscious, self-absorbed sloganeering of the middle classes demanding a deepening of reform in the hope that the Sensex will rise.

Perhaps these students will also get there, soon enough. For the time being, they wear the mass-produced, export surplus from nearby Sarojini Nagar that is the uniform of Delhi college students, except there is very little colour here. Perhaps, colour is a luxury from where they come, back home in Mau and Allahabad and the urban cesspools of the outskirts of Delhi. The grime doesn't show in grey and even less, in black.

One student has brought the Indian flag and he waves it about in delicious irony. Kanhaiya will later speak, for nearly 51 minutes, for this gathering and for JNU and for students elsewhere in India, and he will answer the charge of being anti-national and unpatriotic, and indeed, seditious. He will respond to comments by RSS/BJP ideologue Subramaniam Swamy ("Swamyji") to shut down JNU, he will poke fun at "aadarniya" or Respected Modiji, he will talk about his mother and his brother who serves in the Army and how "they" are striving to create false divides between nationalists and patriots, both students in JNU and farmers like his father who send students like him to JNU and his brother to the armed forces.

He will laugh at those journalists who have judged him and declared him anti-national and therefore not good enough for India, and he will talk about his interactions with the policeman who watched over him in jail and with whom he discussed the idea of building an unnamed big temple to an important Hindu god. And how the policeman responded by saying that it was a "mahaburbak idea," a really stupid thought…

Over 51 or so minutes, with a passion that is rarely seen and hardly ever heard and almost never felt in these days of manufactured beliefs that political parties own - and disown through that beautiful tool called "pragmatism" - Kanhaiya will speak up for the idea of an alternative to the straitjacket that is being spawned by the RSS.

And he will stitch together the leitmotif that has brought him and indeed, several thousand students in JNU and Hyderabad and Chennai and Jadavpur universities, to this pass over the last several days and weeks and month - the forging of the ideas of Dalit rights and the Left's struggle against oppression.

All through Kanhaiya's 51-odd minutes speech, the tricolour flutters in the dark. We want freedom in India, not from India, he says, freedom from those who have looted India and kept its people poor and oppressed and unlettered and uneducated. JNU, 60 per cent of whose student population is female, the only university that teaches its students the difference between being lettered ("saakshar") and educated ("shikshit"), and they want to shut it down.

Inquilab, Inquilab, Inquilab!

(We shall fight, we shall win!)

And then the invocation that this will forever remain the Republic of JNU.

JNU ko lal salaam,

Aawaz do - hum ek hain.

But Kanhaiya isn't finished yet. Just like the other day when he was falsely picked up for demanding "azadi," he will now return to that war cry.

Hum kya chahtaein - Azadi!

Zara jor se bolo - Azadi!

Ooncha bolo - Azadi!

Zara mujhse bolo - Azadi!

Main bhi boloon - Azadi!

Tum bhi bolo - Azadi!

Aagey se bolo - Azadi!

Peechey se bolo - Azadi!

Milkar bolo - Azadi!

Hauley bolo - Azadi!

Dheeray bolo - Azadi!

Zor se bolo - Azadi!

Aatankvaad se - Azadi!

Jaativaad se - Azadi!

Brahminvaad se - Azadi!

Manuvaad se - Azadi!

Hum lad ke lenge - Azadi!

Tum kuch bhi kar lo - Azadi!

Hum lad ke rahenge - Azadi!

Woh haq hamaari - Azadi!

Yeh jaan se pyaari - Azadi!

Hai pyaari pyaari - Azadi!

Jo main bhi maangoon - Azadi!

Jo tum bhi maango - Azadi!

Jo JNU maange - Azadi!

Jo DU maange - Azadi!

Jo Jamia maange - Azadi!

Woh poorna roop se - Azadi!

Jo bhookmari se - Azadi!

Woh haq hamaari - Azadi!

Woh tod-phod se - Azadi!

Woh toot-phoot se - Azadi!

Woh suit-boot se - Azadi!

Hum lad ke rahenge - Azadi!

Last night, JNU must have gone to sleep much later than the rest of the India… Actually, India was watching, live, Kanhaiya Kumar's speech on TV, knowing that something has shifted.

We are changed, hearing Kanhaiya Kumar, back home in JNU. For a few hours more, we can dare to believe that we have dared to participate in that change.

Writer

Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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