Listening to Kanhaiya, Then Looking Back in Anger

When threats are made to kill Kanhaiya, we can't help but recall the killings of other activists over the years

I typed “Kanhaiya speech” on Google and that fetched 1,310,000 results.

There is exuberance in the return on those numbers, but why isn’t there a more ominous sense of doom in the questions being asked about the speech? Of course there have been threats, more stupid than dangerous, about rewarding anyone who cuts Kanhaiya’s tongue, but what is more insidious and demoralizing is the sense that the might of the State will not brook dissent.

In my case, it is precisely an apprehension of the power of the demagogues holding office that makes me applaud Kanhaiya’s courage. What had moved us during those 40-odd minutes that the young man from Bihar delivered his speech? I had been affected as much by the slogans and the chanting as I was by the audacious display of attitude. He knew the power of the State, he had after all just been released from prison, but wanted to convey to everyone who was listening the sheer elation of breathing the pure air of freedom.

I was also struck by Kanhaiya’s sharp deconstruction of who was a martyr and who wasn’t. The farmers who tilled the fields and grew crops that fed us, which provided food for the soldiers at the border, they were martyrs too. Especially the farmers forced into poverty and suicide. Kanhaiya kept saying that our rulers shouldn’t create a binary where none existed. He was saying that it was his detractors, and the government in power, who with their rhetoric were the ones dividing the country.

Red bowls, blue bowls

The small moment that pierced me was when Kanhaiya mispronounced the word “bowls” and then switched to using the Hindi word “katori.” He had been speaking about having been served food in jail, in red bowls and blue bowls, and how it was an Eureka moment for him, the notion that the Left and the Ambedkarite movements could come together and lead India to a new future. That was an important political point but for me his struggle with English was important too for it signified the enormity of his emergence on the current scene. In India dynasties and family connections have played a prominent role in politics, and it is dominated by moneyed elites; Kanhaiya doesn’t come from a moneyed family, we have all learned that his father is a farmer who is now paralyzed and his mother is an aanganwadi worker. I began to wonder whether the lawyers who had assaulted him thought of Kanhaiya not only as their ideological opponent but also an upstart. It made me think of him with greater tenderness.

The following day, I watched my friend Ravish Kumar interviewing Kanhaiya. Ravish was right to ask Kanhaiya if he was scared, and then Ravish invoked a name that I too had often thought of in the last few days, Chandrashekhar Prasad. Chandrashekhar, or Chandu as he was popularly known, was also a past president of the JNU Students’ Union. He was elected to that office twice. He had earlier been a member of the AISF, the youth wing of the CPI that also has Kanhaiya as a member, but Chandu had then left the organization and set-up at JNU the national youth body of the CPI (ML) called AISA or All India Students’ Association. In March 1997, while engaged in a grassroots election campaign in his native Siwan, Chandu was shot dead. His killers were the associates of the then-RJD MP and a dreaded criminal, Mohammad Shahabuddin. The students at JNU loudly protested the killing but Shahabuddin himself wasn’t convicted; in fact, when the students staged a dharna at Delhi’s Bihar Bhawan, they were beaten and shot at. Shahabuddin was not convicted for Chandu’s murder.

If you watch a documentary film that tells the story of Chandu’s life at JNU and his death, it is impossible not to feel the tremendous sadness of a valuable young life lost. You are compelled to make a connection with Rohith Vemula, and also with Kanhaiya Kumar. It is likely you will also feel anger, like I did, with the bureaucratic apathy or political calculation that lets threats and murderous acts go unpunished. You are likely to also wonder whether today it isn’t the authorities who sanction behavior of the sort displayed by a zealous BJP supporter who has offered 11 lakhs to anyone who kills Kanhaiya.

I ask these questions also because one of the most formative events of my own days in college was the murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi. Nearly three decades have passed since then. Safdar was a creative force in his lifetime, a champion of the oppressed; as a student, I watched him perform in street-plays many times. He was our own Brecht, a man with an easy charm, handsome and very talented. Safdar was performing the play “Halla Bol” in support of a communist candidate for a municipal election in Ghaziabad when the Congress Party-backed candidate and his fellow goons attacked him with iron rods.

I recall these deaths, the loss of these precious lives, because I think it is a mistake to think of the soldiers at the border or even only the farmers as our martyrs. If you want freedom inside India, we have to remember Safdar and Chandu too. And we have to make sure we keep safe from martyrdom the likes of Soni Sori and Kanhaiya Kumar. What we want for them is freedom—azadi—from any fear or threat of attack.

Amitava Kumar is a writer and a journalist. He is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays, Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World.