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