The Gun That Killed JNU's Chandrashekhar 20 Years Ago Was 'Secular'

The student leader played a key role in establishing the way JNU students actively organise movements across the country addressing issues of Dalits, women, labourers and students.


Chandrashekhar Prasad. Credit: YouTube

The feet that crushed innocent dreams
The bullets that ripped apart promising possibilities
The cruel hands that muffled honest voices
Were all ‘secular’

On March 31, 1997, Jawaharlal Nehru University received news that Chandrashekhar Prasad, twice-elected president of its students’ union, had been brutally shot dead in broad daylight in Siwan, Bihar. Prasad, lovingly known as Chandu among his friends, used to say to fellow JNU students, “The future generations will hold us accountable for our role when new social forces were coming to power, when people were fighting every day for their rights, when the oppressed were raising their voices. They will hold all of us accountable.”

When Prasad was murdered, the proponent of secularism, social justice and the messiah of the backward castes, Lalu Prasad Yadav was in power in Bihar. Chandu’s murder sparked massive outrage among JNU students who marched to Delhi’s Bihar Niwas and demanded Yadav come out and speak to them. They were, however, greeted by police bullets. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Mohammad Shahabuddin was the prime accused in the killing, while Sadhu Yadav, another RJD leader, ordered the police to open fire at the student protesters.

Denial of justice is not a new trend that we have witnessed only in the cases of Rohith Vemula or Najeeb Ahmed. Though Chandrashekhar’s shooters were sentenced, prime accused Shahabuddin, who has been involved in several other murders, was instead rewarded. He was elected MP four times and twice as MLA in Siwan. Recently, journalist Rajdeo Ranjan was murdered and Shahabuddin, though imprisoned at the time, was accused of being complicit in the murder. Currently, he is lodged in Tihar jail and is also a member of RJD’s working committee.

Prasad was murdered at a time when the biggest haven of leftist forces, the Soviet Union, collapsed and the global economy was quickly pacing towards capitalism. India opened up to liberalisation. Many on the left were speaking of the end of Marxism. At such a time, this student leader told his fellow students, “Wherever we go, we will carry with us the power of stifled voices which are being raised on the streets. If anyone has a personal ambition, it should be the ambition that Bhagat Singh had, and not the ambition of winning or losing elections in a university.”

When the young man, who had stoked a fire and raised a voice for the oppressed, was removed as president of the student union of JNU, he chose to move to Siwan and start a similar movement. In Siwan, Prasad opened a front against Shahabuddin in his own stronghold. He primarily raised issues of crime, corruption and scandals in Bihar’s politics and got a positive response from the people.

Prasad had a dream that he would change the political scenario of India and had even taken a few steps towards it. On April 2, 1997, a bandh had been called to protest against mass murders and scandals in Bihar. On March 31, while addressing a nukkad sabha at JP Road, Prasad and his comrade Shyam Narayan were gunned down. A hawker, Bhutele Miyan, was also killed in the shootout.

Though Prasad did not die fighting British imperialism like Bhagat Singh did, his wish to die fighting the political forces responsible for corruption and violence was fulfilled. Prasad was one of the few young men and women who have the courage to take on the system, who dream of changing a corrupt system and speak to the poor, the labourers, the Dalit and women. But unfortunately, the politics of our country does not approve of such young people and so they meet such a fate.

Prasad had emerged on the scene as a hope to the poor masses of Bihar. But in the guise of democracy, secularism and social justice, the politics of power and strongmen took its toll on him.

Born on September 20, 1964, in Siwan, Prasad was merely eight-years-old when his father passed away. After passing intermediate from the Army School in Tilaiya, he was selected for NDA training. However, he did not like the program and left it two years later. Later, he joined leftist politics and went on to become the state vice president of the All India Students Federation.

Upon reaching JNU, he started his political career by joining the All India Students’ Association (AISA), the student wing of Communist Party of India (Liberation). He quickly emerged as a strong and popular student leader. In 1993-94, he was elected the vice president and, later, twice the president of JNU’s student union. With the intention of working on the ground, he headed back to his native district of Siwan.

Shahabuddin. Credit: PTI

File photo of Shahabuddin. Credit: PTI

After Prasad’s murder, the CPI (ML) alleged, “Several of our leaders and party workers have been murdered so far. Shahabuddin is the architect of the murder of Shyam Narayan and Chandrashekhar. Our party workers, who were present at the site of the murder, have identified the killers. They were Shahabuddin’s men. The cause of murder is political. Our party had given a tough challenge to Shahabuddin in the last election. The agenda of our political campaign was against crime. But Shahabuddin’s criminal mafia is selectively targeting our workers because of our anti-criminal agenda.”

CPI (ML) leader Ramesh S. Kushwaha had commented, “Shahabuddin is a professional criminal. Earlier none of the intellectuals in Bihar dared to speak a word against Shahabuddin. Journalists were afraid to write a word against him. We made crime our agenda for the first time and spoke up against him.”

The CPI (ML)’s allegation is not completely unfounded. Today, Shahabuddin, while still lodged in jail, is accused of the murder of journalist Ranjan. He has been moved to Delhi’s Tihar on a petition filed by Ranjan’s wife.

Prasad was killed at a time when murders during elections in Bihar were a common phenomenon. Several leftist leaders had been murdered before Prasad. To stop people from voting for the opposition, goons sent by criminal politicians fired rounds of bullets in polling booths.

In the wake of Prasad’s murder, several protests were organised across the country. Thousands of students reached his native village Bindusar and took out a march led by his mother, Kaushalya Devi. Addressing the rally, she had said, “Despite being murdered, my son will never die. Don’t take my tiny hut for a hut. It is invaluable. My son isn’t dead. He’s right here, in the form of the thousands of you.”

Thousands of young men and women participated in a march held from his village to the JP roundabout in Siwan where the murder had taken place. It is said that Siwan had never before witnessed a procession this huge. In Delhi, a strong protest rally was held by students and scholars. Other such protests took place across the country demanding punishment to Shahabuddin and Sadhu Yadav.

The then prime minister, I.K. Gujral, offered a compensation of one lakh rupees to Prasad’s mother, but she turned down the offer saying, “It will be an insult to accept money in exchange for my son. I curse those who have put a cost on my son’s life. The only compensation for a mother, whose adult son has been murdered, and who knows the murderer, is punishment to her son’s killers. Only then can my heart find peace, sir. If there is a price, it is this. Let Shahabuddin out of the political fortress and either hang him or let the masses shoot him.”

Demands were made for Shahabuddin’s dismissal as a member of parliament and for the arrest of Sadhu who was involved in the shooting of protesters at Bihar Niwas. Gujral termed these demands unnatural. Shahabuddin was arrested but in the absence of concrete proof or witnesses, he was released on bail.

After 15 years of court hearings, three shooters who had links with political strongmen were sentenced to life. Shahabuddin was sent to prison in relation to several other cases. But in the case of Chandrashekhar’s murder, witnesses were pressurised so they either turned hostile or went into hiding. It was at a time when Shahabuddin was Bihar’s criminal overlord.

When Prasad was the vice president of JNUSU, Pranay Krishna was the president. Krishna says, “In a world full of copies, Chandu insisted on being an original. He was a rare man, our friend Prathma used to say. We were a trio in JNU during 1991-92. We had similar interests in politics, poetry, music and life in general. Our slogan was, ‘Poetry, Passion and Politics’.”

“Chandu was the closest to this slogan. Time, circumstances and death changed the course of our lives but we existed in each other. Chandu’s life became a touchstone for us. Self-respect, faith, courage, originality and imagination – all that we lose in the course of our lives, Chandu insisted on bringing them back into our lives.”

CPI (ML) leader Kavita Krishnan says, “A young leader like Chandrashekhar shows the role of JNU. He was a product of the university and sought to fight for the rights of the poor. It was not the first murder. Several people had been murdered before him. Chandrashekhar knew about the danger but he chose to return to Siwan because it was his native place. That’s where the RJD got him murdered.”

Commenting on Prasad’s personality, Krishnan says, “Those who knew Chandrashekhar found him extraordinary. He was not a miraculous leader. What made him special was the fact that he was dedicated to people round the clock. Any student could go to him and he was always ready to help. He had genuine love for the people. His dedication made him special. In Siwan, his opponents knew that he was rising as a popular leader. He was murdered because he posed a threat.”

Pranay Krishna has several stories to share about his former comrade. He recalls, “He had a profound relationship with intellectuals, teachers, students and journalists. He could talk of his politics with equal ease with the biggest intellectuals and rickshawallahs, DTC workers or slum dwellers. He was extremely popular among women. Wherever he went he cooked, cleaned and mixed with them easily. He spoke to children simply and deeply.”

He adds, “Chandu’s room in the hostel, was a haven for various protesting students, and people with rare sensibilities who could not adjust anywhere else. When the mess bill could not be paid, the authorities sealed his room despite being the JNUSU president. All rooms in JNU were open for him, but he was always worried about those seeking his protection. Once Rs 1,600 was collected to pay the mess bill. When his room remained sealed the next day, Chandu innocently told us that he had given away Rs 800 to another student who needed it more.”

Prasad played a key role in establishing the way JNU students today actively organise movements across the country addressing issues of Dalits, women, labourers and students. He fought a decisive battle on the issues of fee hike, reservations and privatisation of the university.

Pranay says, “He linked JNUSU to democratic movements across the country as well as outside the country. Chandrashekhar was an integral part of movements like Burma’s pro-democracy movement, the peace committees formed in the Northeast against violence against tribal people, or the Tehri movement. He travelled to interior parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Northeast. No other leader in independent India has worked so extensively towards bringing together all democratic movements. It is not an exaggeration.”

Former AISA president V. Shankar says, “Chandu was a mass leader. Had he been alive, he would be a popular leader. He was a comrade indispensable to us. He preferred to return to his village to do his work even after being elected JNUSU president, and managed to get support from various quarters. The Siwan rally held in the wake of his murder was historic. He was a well-read, intelligent leader who understood public ambition well. But they murdered him.”

Chandrashekhar was a hope for all those who have faith in young leadership. But the country could not handle him.

During the 1993 student union elections, someone had asked Chandrashekhar, “Are you contesting the elections out of personal ambition?” To which he had replied, “Yes, I have a personal ambition – a life like Bhagat Singh’s and a death like Che Guevara’s.” His friends proudly say that he fulfilled his promise.

This article was originally published on The Wire Hindi and was translated by Naushin Rehman.