I confess to my privileged upbringing of having been raised in a relatively well-off family. Considering my habits (watching movies in multiplexes, buying branded accessories and good clothes) and typical urban middle-class lifestyle of living in an AC drawing room, working in a corporate office and holidaying across hill-stations in India, it would be fair to say I have enjoyed certain privileges by virtue of my birth.
This accident of birth and the subsequent educational opportunities it brought along (which I took advantage of) would suffice to put me in the bracket of the “bourgeois Indian middle-class” in the eyes of a “leftist”. As an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) – a poor cousin of the much maligned JNU – and a sympathiser of left-leaning politics, I could be labelled an “urban naxal” by sympathisers of RSS/BJP.
While I did my bit by casting my vote for the best-placed candidate who can defeat the Shiv Sena-BJP nominee in my constituency, my heart and soul really were in Begusarai.
Importance of being Kanhaiya Kumar
The emergence of Kanhaiya Kumar and his fellow comrades - Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in the aftermath of the JNU episode captured the imagination of a significant section of society which believes in the idea of secularism, pluralism, social justice and social harmony.
Comrade Kanhaiya's biggest strength lies in his brilliant oratory and ability to clearly explain the inherent inequality in the hierarchical social structures of Indian society. He has a natural connect with the masses which goes beyond the barriers of caste, religion, gender and class. A natural orator, Kanhaiya has the ability to sway popular public opinion and the mood of the electorate with his insightful analysis on core issues of unemployment, brazen polarization and tactful retorts to the largely baseless and unfounded allegations of the RSS-BJP combine.
In today's privatisation and profit driven media-blitzkrieg, a left-leaning opinion on economic issues rarely gets any space. The alliance between the Sangh Parivar’s hardline-Hindutva politics and the corporate houses which have backed Modi since his tenure as Gujarat CM has only made things worse. Espousing a secular, liberal and socialist opinion is now considered pseudo-sickular, anti-national (according to Hindutva narrative) and anti-development (as it goes against the corporate narrative).
At a time when almost every opposition party was demolished at the hustings by the BJP, the emergence of a new generation of student leaders at JNU, ideologically opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda gave much needed ballast to the fight against brazen polarization.
Notwithstanding the propaganda spread by WhatsApp University and a vast section of the corporate media about JNU being a “den of anti-national” activity, this wasn’t the first time JNU had stood up against authoritarianism. The university has a long-standing history of standing up to power and fighting for the cause of the deprived classes. JNU and its student leadership comprising of the CPI(M)’s current general secretary – Sitaram Yechury and many other political leaders across the spectrum were also part of the student protests against Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule.
It was no surprise therefore that the Modi government and the RSS faced steadfast opposition from this very university and its current generation of student leaders. At a time when career politicians across the political spectrum were willing to cross-over to the BJP for crumbs of power, the RSS - BJP were aware of the resistance they would face from student leaders espousing the cause of secularism, equity, social harmony and economic justice.
Importance of JNU in India today
Unlike other B-school or engineering universities, JNU does not train its students to aspire for fancy salary packages and cushy corporate jobs. Instead, the university trains its students to study the history of evolution of society, social movements, the impact of economic policies on the lives of citizens, the implications of technology on the lives of people and other people-centric issues.
All of this of course would sound silly, old-fashioned and “anti-development” to most B-School or IIT educated career professionals whose idea of nationalism is generally restricted to the notion of “honestly paying their taxes” (not that the salaried class exercises the option of doing it voluntarily!) or doing “their bit” by way of charity or donating to social causes.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong in undertaking charitable causes or donating for a just cause, the notion of social justice and civil rights goes much beyond charity. This unfortunately is never taught in private universities which are primarily geared to produce “trained and employment ready” workforce for the MNCs to help them earn greater profits.
The Modi government had willing allies in the corporate media houses which were more than happy to paint the left-leaning student leaders as “anti-nationals”. Attacking JNU’s core ideology of opposition to Hindutva politics and opposition to the blatant privatization and sale of public resources suits the malicious nexus of Hindutva and market forces.
The Modi-Shah duo however may not have anticipated the stiff resistance this onslaught would face. Buying off career politicians may not be difficult for the BJP-RSS combine. Students aligned to JNU’s largely left-leaning students union are a different breed. Deeply rooted to the cause they espouse, the students of JNU also had a charismatic leader in Kanhaiya Kumar. Kanhaiya’s ability to connect with the masses came to the fore in his rousing speech at JNU after his release on conditional bail over charges of alleged anti-national activities.
The call of inquilaab, azaadi and lal salaam reverberated across public university campuses in India which have faced the onslaught of RSS’s fascist agenda. The slogans of garibi se azaadi, bhukmari se aazadi, poonjiwaad se azaadi, jaatiwaad se azaadi struck a chord in the hearts and minds of a widespread section of citizens.
After all what could be anti-national about a call for freedom from hunger, freedom from caste oppression or freedom from inequality? This call for freedom from different forms of oppression gained support across sections of society reeling under the stress of high unemployment, price rise, farmer suicides, corruption and widespread fear and vigilantism unleashed under the present regime.
With the JNU showdown, the fight for justice for Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder finally got the much-needed coverage it deserved. In many ways the hounding of Kanhaiya and his fellow comrades by the central government and media houses also acted as a catalyst for the coming together of opposition forces and sections of civil society to fight the rising tide of authoritarianism and fascist tendencies of the Modi government.
Kanhaiya’s subsequent interactions with university students across the country and on other public platforms aided by widespread use of social media ensured a much needed balance in an otherwise one-sided discourse of supposed anti-national activities carried on at JNU.
During his media interactions with journalists and opponents, Kanhaiya came across as articulate, consistent and well versed on topics ranging from communal polarisation, unemployment, health, education and privatisation. His ability to counter the diversionary tactics of RSS/BJP aligned speakers and his factual analysis of issues enables him to convey his position in a clear and consistent manner.
A campaign that keeps ‘Hope’ alive
The decision of the CPI to give him a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls couldn’t have come at a better time. The failure to tie-up with the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan might possibly be a blessing in disguise. What better platform for a promising leader like Kanhaiya than a three-way contest which stacks the odds against him?
In an electoral polity increasingly driven by money and muscle power, his ability to successfully crowd-source the desired amount of 70 lakhs as part of electoral expenses (despite a cyber attack which led to the payment link being off for a considerable period) is nothing short of a miracle.
It also reflects the success of his campaign in reaching out to a vast section of society. Unless the stranglehold of corporate power over electoral politics is broken, we may never have true freedom and economic justice. Kanhaiya’s campaign provides the hope of regaining control of economic decision-making for the benefit of the general public whose ability to elect a representative of their choice would no longer be curtailed by brute money or muscle power.
His ability to galvanise public opinion cutting across caste, religion and social barriers provides a strong voice to the progressive forces which are fighting to defeat the onslaught of Sangh Parivar’s brazen communal politics.
Kanhaiya’s on-ground campaign appears to have reached every nook and corner of Begusarai. His social media campaign on the other hand has crossed state and national boundaries to make Begusarai a hot-seat with considerable interest of the international media as well.
India badly needs more candidates like Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Jignesh Mevani. For many of us who were born in the mid-80s and grew up in the 90s, Kanhaiya symbolises the hope of an India which remains a secular, liberal and a tolerant society which provides space and voice to every section including the deprived castes.
We were after all the last generation born in Nehru’s socialist India before the Congress party ushered in privatisation and liberalisation in the early 1990s. As a citizen espousing the cause of a secular, progressive and socialist India, I convey my deep gratitude to him and his fellow comrades. This “tukde-tukde gang” – to borrow a falsely attributed media phrase - represents the voice of the deprived and underprivileged masses that have been made invisible in today’s top-down model of development driven by big business alone.
The ideals of Comrade Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid represent a moral compass for a widely disconnected and deeply polarized society. As I cast my vote in a booth in Mumbai today to oust the brazenly majoritarian Modi regime, my heart and soul were in Begusarai praying for a victory for Kanhaiya Kumar.
(The author is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and blogs on www.pranav84blog.wordpress.com)