Former JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar on Sunday used the platform of the 6th National Convention on the Right to Food and Work in Ranchi on Sunday, convened by the right to food campaign, to take a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said the issue needed to be seen in the context of the present political situation in the country, in which people who speak out are sent to jail.
Kumar, who in February this year was booked on the charges of sedition by the Delhi police after an event on Kashmir on campus, also referred to how in the aftermath of the Uri attack on an army camp war cries were being raised. But, he demanded, “we should not be fighting Pakistan, we should be fighting hunger and poverty. But when we talk like this, we are told to go to Pakistan. ‘Sab ki baat‘ (talking about everyone) is more important than ‘mann ki baat‘ (speaking from the mind),” he said, referring to the title of Modi’s radio programme.
The student leader said the widespread hunger across the country is a reflection on how the fruits of labour are not reaching the working class. “But now people are resisting and the streets are reverberating with slogans. Those who resist, however, are being harassed. If they raise Dalit issues, they are told that they are traitors, if they raise women’s issues, they are told that they are Naxalites, if they raise workers’ issues, they are told that they are Pakistan supporters. Jail aapki hai, lekin samaj hamari hai (The jails are yours, but society is ours),” he added.
Referring to some UN data, he went on to add that a population equivalent to five villages dies of hunger every day in India. Again hitting out at the prime minister, he said, “Yet Modi talks about bullet trains and such. In Kashmir, innocent citizens are being killed with pellet guns. Jab aap goli ki baat karte hain, ham roti ki baat karte hain. (When you talk of bullets, we talk of bread).”
Carrying on in his trademark style, Kumar, whose protests have even led to musical renditions of azadi, ended his speech by expressing his solidarity with the right to food campaign and calling for unity among all those who struggle for people’s rights.
Later, in his follow-up remarks, he also spoke about the need for unity among the oppressed. “Daliton ko pita jar aha, Adivasiyon ko pita jar aha hai, Moolvasiyon ko pita jar aha hai, patrakaron ko pita jar aha hai (Dalits are being beaten, Adivasis are being beaten, the natives are being beaten, journalists are being beaten) – so there is a natural unity among them.”
Calling for building on this oppression by forging “minimum unity”, or unity around a “minimum ideological understanding”, he said the challenge will then come from the established political parties and went on to suggest the way out, saying, “We need to free mass social organisations from the dictatorship of political parties”.
The session also witnessed a youth plenary in which the young members of the campaign participated and which ended with the adoption of a plan of action and concluding resolution.
Apart from Kumar, a number of other youth activists spoke at this session.
Damodar Turi of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Sangathan referred to how millions of people, especially Adivasis, continue to be victims of forced displacement under the prevailing corporate-sponsored development model. “Those who resist are accused of being Maoists and face endless harassment. The real purpose of Operation Greenhunt and related operations is to suppress their resistance,” he said, adding that even if the freedom of speech is suppressed on university campuses, he would continue to speak out and go to jail if need be.
Shyama Singh of Gram Swaraj Mazdoor Sangh spoke about the struggles of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers, Dalits and Adivasis in the feudal environment of Latehar district in Jharkhand. She claimed that the upper castes were constantly trying to snatch their land, by means fair or foul, and more often than not the government sided with the powerful.
A Kashmiri student, Hafsa Sayed, claimed that the main victims of the conflict in her state were not violent protesters but “innocent civilians”. “People are also affected by the devastating economic consequences of conflict, and the breakdown of public services. Repression and harassment are part of their daily lives. Like people in jail, only hope keeps them alive,” she said.
Dalit writer and thinker Bhanwar Meghvanshi gave an account of how the community was being victimized. Meghvanshi, who is also editor of Diamond India, said Rohith Vemula and many other Dalits, who were subjected to repression and violence, had died for the cause of people’s rights. Stating that whenever Dalits demand their rights they face oppression, he said gruesome acts of violence perpetrated recently against Dalits in Gujarat and elsewhere in the name of cow protection were testimony to this. The right to food, he said, was inseparable from the fight against communalism and caste oppression.
Shabina Mumtaz from Vanangana in Uttar Pradesh spoke about how women in Muzaffarnagar had suffered due to communcal violence. “Many young victims of sexual violence were forced into marriage as a way of hushing up the incidents. Compensation for victims of communal violence was measly and insufficient to enable them to rebuild their homes and lives. The government is constantly abdicating its responsibility for their safety and livelihood,” she said.
A perspective on the northeast was provided by Sangribo Pamai from Nagaland, who spoke about inequality and discrimination faced by people of the region. Referring to the racist comments that were passed at him when he came to Delhi in 2007, Pamai said while initially he wondered, “Am I not an Indian”, he later decided to stand up against it.
Insisting that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) had ruined the lives of people in the northeast, especially in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, he said the fact that violence continued despite it being in force for 16 years raised questions about its purpose.
Dipa Minz from the Jharkhand Bachao Andolan, a youth organisation, pointed out that the right to food is inseparable from rights to land, forest and natural resources. In Jharkhand, this is first and foremost an Adivasi struggle. She denounced the feudal character of the present system and recalled how an old woman at Jharkhand’s premier public hospital (RIMS) had recently been fed rice on the floor for weeks after being refused a plate.