The Audacity of Azadi:Tracking Kanhaiya Kumar’s return to JNU

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“Ladenge,” said Kanhaiya Kumar, drawing out each syllable so that the word became a cry. We will fight.The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president, who has been charged with sedition, was back on campus after more than a fortnight and addressing students after being released from Tihar Jail on Thursday. No half-jokes or preamble for Kumar. He plunged in.“Ladke lenge,” he shouted, grinning at the crowd gathered at the JNU administrative block.

“Azadi,” they cried. Freedom.

“Hum leke rahenge,” he shouted. Once more the crowd replied, “Azadi.” The whole fortnight had led up to this moment of audacity.

A long fortnight

Kumar was arrested on February 12 after the authorities claimed that he had chanted anti-national slogans at an event to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri man convicted for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament. As hyper-ventilating television anchors aired video clips for several nights in a row purporting to prove Kumar’s guilt, two other students were also arrested on similar charges.

The case quickly seized the national imagination. When Kumar was produced in court on February 16, a group of lawyers assaulted him, and also beat up journalists, professors and students on the premises, even as the police stood by. Outside the court, a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA was caught on camera punching a bystander to the ground, under the noses of the police. Despite the outrage, the violence was repeated for a second time when Kumar was appeared in court the next day.

As the fortnight dragged on, forensic experts concluded that some of the video clips aired on television had actually been doctored. Across the country, protestors took to the streets to express their support for the young man from Bihar. One of his speeches even got used as the basis for a madly infectious dubstep track.

The case became the subject of a great thrust and parry in Parliament. On February 24, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani made an energetic defence of the government’s actions in Parliament, only to have several commentators point out that her speech contained several inaccuracies.

At Ganga dhaba

So a great deal of anticipation hung in the air over the JNU campus on Thursday evening, when it was announced that there would be a march from Ganga dhaba, a well-known landmark on the campus of the seething university in the capital, to the administrative block, starting at 9.30 pm. Students had gathered there early, and Ganga dhaba as well as the neighbouring eatery did brisk business. Some groups polished off plates of chicken tikkas, while others smoked in dark corners, talking intently. Sitting at the curb, a woman thumped on a drum and sang We Shall Overcome in three languages ? English, Hindi, Bengali.

Slowly, the crowd around her began to swell, and the singing turned to chanting. Posters were passed around: a picture of Ambedkar and written below it, “From HCU to JNU, Save Constitution! Save Democracy! Save University! JNUSU.” The reported ban on photocopying pamphlets and posters on campus has clearly not limited their circulation yet. There were other handwritten posters asking for the release of “Comrade Umar, Comrade Ban, Comrade Geelani”.

Council members of the JNUSU addressed the gathering, advising caution. “In the movement ahead, we have to be careful about the slogans we raise,” said Rama Naga, general secretary of the JNUSU and one of the students accused of sedition. “Two of our comrades are still in jail and we won’t chant slogans that will raise more questions for them. We know what our slogans mean but they are misinterpreted outside.”

But this crowd was in the mood for revolution. “Sangharsh hamaara naara hai,” they shouted. The old classics of the Left were brought out: “The people united shall always be victorious,” “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,/ We shall fight, we shall win,” and, of course, “Lal Salaam” for all the comrades. These were twinned with the Dalit slogan, “Jai Bhim.”

If there was celebration that Kumar had returned, there was also anger most of it directed at the government. “Sedition ki yeh sarkaar, nahi chalenge ab ki baar,” the crowd chanted. “Narendra Modi murdabaad, home minister murdabaad, Delhi police murdabaad. Hum apna adhikaar mangte, nahi kisi se bheek mangte.”

And then that last, thrilling slogan, “Hum kya chahte? Azadi.” What do we want? Freedom.

The challenge

Through his speech on Thursday night, Kumar articulated the components of this azadi. He spoke, once again, of his faith in the Constitution. The #StandWithJNU movement, he said, believed in the principles it enshrined: socialism, secularism, equality.

They were demanding azadi in India and not from India, Kumar said. “Is it wrong to ask for freedom from the problems that the country faces?” he demanded. Azadi meant freedom from “jaativad (casteism)” and “Manuvad (the doctrine of Manu)”. It meant freedom for a coalition of the oppressed ? Dalits, women, farmers and minorities. It also seemed to mean freedom from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the “programme set by Nagpur”, where the Hindutva organisation has its headquarters.

Kumar’s speech on Thursday was an open challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. “We don’t hate anybody and we certainly don’t hate the ABVP,” he said, pointedly calling them “the opposition” and not “the enemy”.

To the government. Kumar was gratuitously polite. “I particularly want to thank the great personages sitting in Parliament and deciding what is right and what is wrong,” he said at the start of his speech. “I want to thank their police, their media.” A few minutes later, he started an anecdote with the words, “Our dear, esteemed prime minister”. He explained, “One has to say it, or else they will doctor the tape and call it sedition.”

To the human resources development minister, Kumar had this to say: “Smriti Irani will not decide what is sedition because we are not her children… Most respected, extremely respected Smriti Irani, we are not your children.”

If he was adversarial towards government, Kumar tried to reach across other institutional faultlines to build a broader coalition of sympathy. He claimed to have spoken to his jailers, explaining to them what “Lal salaam” (the red salute) and “kranti” (revolution) meant, and to a soldier, discussing what religion meant.

Sympathy stemmed from points of identification. The soldiers who died in war and the lower echelons of the constabulary came from rural, agricultural backgrounds, just like him. “What about the thousands of farmers who are committing suicide?” Kumar demanded, referring to the recent debate of soldiers versus “anti-nationals”. “Do not create a false debate with this binary. People are dying at the frontiers and people are dying in the interiors. But who is making the soldiers fight?”

Sympathy

The Kanhaiya Kumar who spoke on Thursday was radical and defiant. He wore his rural origins proudly and used it to reach out to others. He told anecdotes about magic tricks in his village to make a political point. He even took on jokes made about village people and their pronunciation of English words. And he had a story about his mother, an assistant in an anganwadi, to match Modi’s story about his mother.

In a speech that lasted over 40 minutes, Kumar took his audiences from anger to grief to laughter. It ended with the same slogans ? Jai Bheem, Lal Salaam, Azadi ? and a euphoria that rose gently into the cool night air. As students started making their way back home, one group stood around a pavement discussing what they had just heard.

“What a speech,” one of them said. “I’ve never heard a speech like this in JNU.”

“What JNU?” said her companion. “I’ve never heard a speech like this anywhere.”  

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