Kanhaiya Kumar Stands in a Tradition Beyond the Nation-State

Against the mythical saffronised ‘nation’, Kanhaiya Kumar had called forth from historical muteness the resonant voices of solidarity and compassion.

JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: Facebook

JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: Facebook

When an old friend called from Delhi with the news that Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the student union of my alma mater, JNU, had been arrested and charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, what struck me was that he was in excellent company — in terms of his past and his present.

The past as precedent

It is noteworthy how the Indian state, under both the Congress and the BJP, has been particularly liberal in handing out sedition charges.

Kumar now joins, amongst others, novelist Arundhati Roy and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen, both charged in 2010, and political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who was charged in 2012.

He also has some other, rather unrepentant, predecessors. One of them charged under the Act said,

“Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”

The year was 1922 and the man’s name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The law, unchanged since colonial times, states:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

To the question of ‘exciting disaffection’, in his 1922 trial, Gandhi said that affection could not be “manufactured or regulated by law”. If one had “no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection”, as long as such expression was nonviolent. Indeed, he considered it “a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section”.

The present as inspiration

Debate and discussion have never known tidy, neat pathways in JNU. I am never sure where I learnt my Marxism and feminism: whether it was in the methodological scrutiny of the JNU classroom or in the after-dinner debates such as one with then BJP leader Sikander Bakht who wanted to put ‘defiant women’ in prison.

Yet JNU has always borne the commentariat’s disparaging stamp as an ‘elite institution.’ I wonder how many other leading scholarly institutions in India, or anywhere for that matter, have such a high percentage of first generation learners, students from depressed socio-economic backgrounds and students from minority communities.

JNU’s robust affirmative action policy (one that we as students helped defend in the early 1990s) has ensured that young men and women from non-elite social backgrounds fill its classrooms, talk over tea at Ganga dhaba and meet at heated political debates in smoky meeting rooms. Contrary to JNU’s image, JNU’s reality is filled with ordinary young women and men, from modest backgrounds who, nurtured in an atmosphere of open debate, critical thought and a spirit of enquiry, go on to do extraordinary things.

Such as Kumar.

This is not the first time in recent years that we have seen thousands of students and young people pouring out onto Indian streets against regimes of dispossession and violence.  In 2012, it was this generation who took to the streets, all over India, following the brutal rape and murder of the 23-year-old Jyoti Singh. In 2014, 100,000 people marched in Kolkata against a draconian university administration and a corrupt state government. In Hyderabad and elsewhere, student leaders such as Rohith Vemula have been working tirelessly to draw attention to the silencing of Dalit voices in history.

In his speech, Kumar said he did not need a “patriotism certificate from the RSS…a nationalist certificate from the RSS. We belong to this country and we love the soil.”

He had defied the narrow, jealously guarded ‘nation’ — as it stood forever stained with the violence against Muslims, Dalits, women and the poor. Against this mythical saffronised ‘nation’, Kumar had called forth from historical muteness the resonant voices of solidarity and compassion.

When he spoke that night for his sisters and brothers in Kashmir, for Vemula, against institutional violence towards women, Muslims and minorities, he was, once again, in excellent company. He spoke as a Black Lives Matter activist would while protesting police brutality in a major US city, he spoke as a Palestinian would against an apartheid state, he spoke as a young person of Algerian descent would against Islamophobia and empire in Francois Hollande’s France.

Kumar is not anti-national.  He stands in a tradition beyond the nation-state. He stands steeped in internationalism.

It is now our job to stand with him and others like him.

Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University, USA.  She received her MA from JNU in 1995. 

  • Radha Rajan

    Mythical saffronised nation? From the days of standing on the left of the French President, centuries later the Left, even in India is an Abrahamic derivative – of both capitalism and communism. Denying the truth of something is classic Abrahamic intellectual lack of integrity. As my Guru used to say, truth does not exist because you say it exists; and it dies not disappear because you disown it. This is the Hindu nation but not a Hindu state yet. We will get there.

    • johnson raju

      Clearly you don’t know much about Gandhiji. Nationalism is when Bapu said that to follow him you must first accept Muslims as your brothers and sisters and vice versa. This Hindu nationalism that you dream of achieving is your myopic nationalism and a reflection of your intellectual bankruptcy.. People who stigmatise open debate don’t understand nationalism. Democracy, diversity and development for the last person..that’s nationalism.. That’s what you must strive towards.

  • Hiranmoy Goswami

    In last sixty years of Congress rule in India with left backing, the ruling class – the left and congress possessed ruling ideas . While congress was ruling the material force of India, the left were given the task to rule the intellectual force of the country. Many years ago Karl Marx analysed these ruling class and its idea and opined “it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.” Marx also warned them by saying that “Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.”
    Today, when the “ordinary shopkeepers” exposed the
    idea of few left ideologue and their disciples belonging to an university ( by the name of first prime minister of ruling class of India) ostensibly established to promote and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of Congress led and left backing rule for last sixty years, the opportunity to impose and promote the “new idea” of the newly elected ruling class has begun. The poor ‘shopkeepers’ would have to wait for another few years if not sixty odd years to embrace a new idea if they choose to replace the present ruling class and their ‘intellectual force’.

  • dilip

    A piece truly to be appreciated. I am glad the author has cited Mahatma Gandhi at this dark hour, a man vilified by all quarters in his own country, whose monumental love and compassion for humanity was a shining light in the darkness of our descent into madness. I hope the younger generation will yet have the courage to cut through hateful ideologies and stand with the students of JNU.

  • johnson raju

    There is no clear evidence as to kanhaiya saying them..please take the effort of informing yourself duly. There is no evidence of kanhaiya making afzal a martyr..there may be others who’ve done it..please bring them to justice..why lock up an innocent man of seditious charges? It’s been well proven that the footage doing the rounds of various news channels was indeed doctored. No one defends the use of anti national slogans or the like..but clear contempt of court..twisting the law as per convenience.. Thugs running free while cops watch..is that the ‘nation’ you want to dearly protect? What nation do you want to keep? Where the law is non existent? Ajmal kasab was for God’s sake given a fair trial..don’t you feel the man deserves it too before he’s branded an anti national by the media, cops, lawyers and even ministers?? And again..the same government who is in alliance with the PDP in Kashmir who openly advocate the ‘miscarriage of justice’ when afzal was hanged?? Really? Afzal was given a fair trial and he was hanged..no dispute.. Why would we? One is open to his views..but to brand him an anti national? To say he’ll be killed?? This country has enough goons who are ready to kill at the drop of a hat when their ‘Hindu nationalism’ is disturbed.

  • Common Man

    Freedom of speech can go to any extent provided the statements do not incite VIOLENCE !!!! But if you want to label any speech as provocative and seditious then ANY speech can be DOCTORED to be provocative as in the case of Kanhaiya