Kanhaiya Kumar might not be “India’s most famous student leader”, as has been claimed by the publisher of his recently released memoir, From Bihar to Tihar. But he is certainly one of the few student activists who have in the recent years been able to attract the attention of the youth, even of those from outside Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and of the media and politicians.
This was quite evident at his book launch in Delhi where nearly half of the Multipurpose Hall of the India International Centre was filled with young people, most in their early 20s. What was notable about the young crowd was that it was not the usual JNU janta or those who have been a part of the activist crowd.
One of the prime reasons behind Kumar’s popularity is his public-speaking skill – his extraordinary ability to connect with the audience that he is speaking to. He is known to speak his mind without fearing not just his opponents but also those who can be termed as his supporters and comrades.
One recalls his first widely circulated speech at the presidential debate of the JNUSU elections in September 2015, in which he was critical of not only his opponents – including other Left parties and their students organisations such as the All India Students’ Association and Students’ Federation of India – but also of a senior leader of his own parent party – Atul Kumar Anjan, the secretary of the Communist Party of India.
Kumar’s speech that night was what can be called an instant hit and one which led to his victory despite belonging to an almost cadre-less organisation, the All India Students Federation (AISF). Hence, it is hardly a surprise that Kumar’s speech in March garnered a lot of support and praise from people.
Another young leader who drew our attention last year was Rohith Vemula, a leftist turned Ambedkarite student leader from Hyderabad Central University (HCU) belonging to the Ambedkar Students’ Association.
Vemula was an extraordinary writer and an organic intellectual much before the world came to know about him through his last piece of writing – a suicide note – about which Gopalkrishna Gandhi had rightly said in one of his articles published on the Republic Day of 2016 in The Tribune daily, “If you have not read Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, just stop here. Please find it on the net and read it. And after you have done so, it will not matter if you come back to this column or not.” He further goes on to confess, “I have not read in a long time, if ever, words as searingly honest as Rohith’s.”
It is unfortunate that Vemula became famous at the cost of his life.
To my understanding, in Vemula’s writing, as it is with Kumar’s speeches, there is an extraordinary power to connect with ordinary people with words that are profound in meaning and simple in words. Hence, to me, both Kumar’s From Bihar to Tihar and Vemula’s Caste is Not a Rumour are both complementary as well as contradictory to each other.
One can argue that Vemula is no Kumar and HCU is not JNU. True. Yet, it is almost difficult to ignore the similarities and contrasts between both the individuals and institutions. When read together, these two books clearly demonstrate the facts about the privileges and pitfalls of belonging to certain castes, classes, institutions, locations and politics.
Moreover, the very act of publishing two books in two different formats gives us an idea about how we treat two people of ‘similar’ nature differently. While Kumar’s book was published simultaneously in Hindi and English, in print and electronic format, Vemula’s work was published only as an English e-book. This could very well have been done because of the possible market of the two books, however, it is noteworthy to observe that if one belongs to a certain category, she/he has a higher chance of successfully selling their voice.
As a work of writing, Vemula’s book, even if it’s a mere compilation of his online/Facebook posts, is more powerful in comparison to Kumar’s. It seems that Kumar’s book has been hurriedly written with almost no time for reflection. While one finds occasional commentary along with his life story in the book, it lacks the style and content of Kumar’s speeches.
Perhaps it is too much to expect him to be as good a writer as he is a speaker. Nonetheless, in Kumar’s story, one can certainly read and feel the story of hundreds and thousands of youth born and brought up in the villages and small towns of northern India, especially in Bihar and Jharkhand.
I can say this with utmost confidence because I am one of them. In most parts of Bihar, there is an almost set pattern to life – education, aspiration, career – so much so that it has given rise to stereotypes. A Bihari would generally mean a labourer, doctor/engineer or a civil service aspirant.
Kumar’s comment, “In our country, land is not sold or mortgaged to educate girls, but for their marriage” is telling. This he might have said in the context of his sister’s marriage but it is also a reflection of our socio-educational scenario.
I could not agree more with Kumar when he writes, “I had begun to feel that a person’s merit or ability was unimportant. Given the chances, everyone could sing, act in a play, excel in studies and do well. What mattered was the opportunities you got. I had seen that those who got opportunities moved ahead, and those who didn’t got left behind.” In order to illustrate the above, Kumar tells us the story of his Dalit friend who had always scored good marks in school but who now fixes punctured tyres.
In contrast to Kumar’s story of his personal-political journey, Vemula’s book is about ideas, thoughts and the new language of resistance and struggles. Vemula’s words exhibit a deep and organic understating of the issues, concerns and struggles involved. He and his thoughts are a rare embodiment of the lived experiences and of a profoundly thoughtful mind.
Nikhila Henry, the editor of the book, is absolutely correct in suggesting that Vemula’s “writing is a commentary not just on his life but on the lives of several others for whom caste discrimination is not a ‘thing of the past’ but a lived reality.” His writing is often short, yet it is sharp and to the point.
“Not speaking about caste cannot eradicate caste. It just makes discrimination nameless!!! And our activism is not identity politics, it is a struggle for recognition. This activism is against the imposed and destructive identities given to us through your distorted history.
‘If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!’
Vemula’s writing is as much about setting goals, suggesting solutions, ways of taking forward the struggles as it is about explaining the problem and getting to its root cause. His writing clearly establishes that he was a forward-looking person filled with ideas, thoughts and action as is explained by him in the following post:
“My core intention is to challenge and expose the upper-class hypocritical advocacy of progressiveness which shamelessly maintains its ties with the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender. [I intend] To fight against the symbiosis of cultural chauvinism and communal politics, to popularise subaltern, Dravidian history and to shout out sharply radical realism amidst the euphoria of freedom. With my basic world view conditioned by Marxism, I dream and work for a society which Babasaheb always aspired to see.”
To end by paraphrasing Gandhi, I would like to say that if you have not read a book in a longtime, please find Caste is Not a Rumour and read it, because there cannot be a better way to once again get into the routine of reading.
Mahtab Alam is a writer and activist.