Even before the full extent of the mischief with the videos was known, it was fairly clear that nothing that Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid were alleged to have done amounted to sedition in any way. Then why were they targeted?
By now it must be clear to the meanest intelligence that the videos allegedly showing JNU Students’ Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar shouting ‘anti-India’ slogans were fake. Some hidden hands doctored the videos and they were shared not just by anonymous trolls on social media but by responsible BJP spokespersons on national TV channels that accepted their veracity with great alacrity and an astounding lack of journalistic ethics.
What followed could be called surreal, except that the line between the real and the bizarre has long been blurred in contemporary India. The BJP’s senior ministers reacted, the police jumped and Kumar was in custody on charges of sedition. Then desh bhakt lawyers, their sensibilities badly affected, beat him up in court premises while the Delhi police idly stood by.
A few days later, Umar Khalid, another JNU student wanted by the police, surrendered — he too is charged with sedition. Apparently, it is now in vogue to not even consider other, more minor laws, such as disturbing the peace; nothing less than treason will do. Khalid is supposed to have shouted anti-Indian slogans too. Again, there is nothing prima facie that establishes that he did this.
In hindsight, the manner in which the episode unfolded suggests that things worked to a plan. Every component occurred swiftly — from the slogans allegedly raised by the students, to the grainy videos, to the expert doctoring, and the conviction with which the BJP’s spokepersons showed them and the statements by ministers. The Delhi police, which otherwise takes its time filing an FIR, was at its efficient best in effecting the arrest but at its usual sluggishness when it came to stopping the assault on Kumar and journalists. The less said about the shameful role of certain sections of the media, the better.
But we must take a step back and ask — why Kumar and more importantly, why Khalid? Even before the full extent of the mischief with the videos was known, it was fairly clear that nothing the boys were alleged to have done amounted to sedition in any way. There was no incitement to violence and even the videos shown on air did in no way prove conclusively that Kumar or Khalid had shouted the slogans. Then why were they chosen?
On the face of it, there is a simple answer to this question. Kumar, as the JNUSU president, was seen as a rival, if not an enemy, by the ABVP, the BJP’s student wing. The ABVP has traditionally done poorly in JNU, but with a friendly government at the Centre, it is now aggressively pushing for a higher profile in student politics. If it can’t win in the elections, it will find a way to derail those who do, as has also been seen at the University of Allahabad, where Richa Singh became the first female president of the students’ union last year. Such rivalry, however repugnant, is not unknown on campuses and university administrations have learnt to deal with it in their own way.
But it is not just the success of Kumar or Khalid that offends the ABVP and its masters, it is what they stand for. Kumar and Khalid are both problematic because not only they do not conform to simplistic stereotypes that can be understood and therefore dealt with, they confound every narrative that has been peddled so far. Both are dangerous outsiders who must be crushed before they develop into a strain that can mutate and spread.
Consider Kumar. Often, student leaders come from comfortable middle-class, educated backgrounds that are familiar and can thus be tackled in the familiar ways. But Kumar comes from an indigent family that lives in a village in Bihar. His father is partially paralysed. Yet, Kumar made it to JNU and became the leader of its student union. His speeches were sophisticated formulations. He got involved not just in conventional radical politics but also began to build bridges with Dalits — he used to end his talks with the slogans lal salaam and jai Bhim. Clearly he was reshaping his own political understanding and creating a wider coalition between progressive ideologies and Dalit groups.
Khalid’s case is even more interesting and therefore, for the ABVP and its bosses, even more worrying. He is obviously a Muslim but is not concerned with his religious identity. Some reports mention him being an atheist. His politics was not one that spoke of the grievances of Muslims specifically but remained focused on bringing about change in Indian society. The ABVP and the media assumed Umar was Kashmiri (which he is not) — and spread this propaganda far and wide — because dealing with a Kashmiri who comes to JNU and begins raising slogans about the Indian army is relatively easy, but how do you handle a Khalid who is not a Kashmiri or a ‘Muslim’ in the religious sense?
Both students, and their other colleagues, were steering the debate towards wider issues. They understood the need for tackling the major problems faced not just by students or their co-religionists, but by oppressed Indians of all kinds. They looked beyond caste, religion and region. ‘Azadi’ for them meant freedom from want, from capitalist exploitation, from upper caste cruelty and from stifling tradition.
The situation was similar for Rohith Vemula, again a poor scholarship student who, while being a member of the Ambedkar Students Association in far away Hyderabad University, was ready to ask searching questions about the hanging of Yakub Memon; and for Singh, who formed a non-political front to become Allahabad University’s first woman student union leader. All four students were emerging as future leaders, therefore all of them needed to be tackled and nipped at an early stage, by any means possible.
We know about these four students. But there must be others out there, game changers on campuses, who are slowly bringing about a revolution at the grassroots, spreading their message of a more inclusive politics that unites all those who are being left behind by the state. We will probably hear about them soon, when the ABVP, the sword-arm of the right-wing machine in educational institutions, gets down to business.
Yet, the reaction, not just in Hyderabad University or JNU but in campuses all over India and civil society in general, must surely have given the right wing apparatus some pause. There is no question that the propaganda that Kumar and Khalid are ‘anti-national’ has spread far and wide among supporters of the current dispensation, but not everyone has bought it wholesale. The videos have been exposed as fake and even those who think students should not indulge in politics are aghast at the state’s overreaction. No parent wants a college-going child to be picked up at random and thrown into jail. This is just the beginning of the pushback — many other Kumars and Khalids are ready to emerge.
Note: The article has been edited to clarify that Umar Khalid is not Kashmiri.