Universities saffronised as that's where revolutions begin: Kanhaiya Kumar
"Mic testing 1...2... Chal raha hai?" asks Kanhaiya Kumar.
"Thoda sa zor se boliye," requests Catch videographer Shamita Harsh.
"Koshish karenge," he says quietly.
This is the same Kanhaiya Kumar known for delivering powerful speeches during the time he served as JNU President. The same student political leader who was arrested earlier this year on charges of sedition. On being asked why he's so quiet all of a sudden, Kanhaiya smiles and says, "Arre woh energy crowd se aati hai."
Kanhaiya breathes politics. He believes that politics ascertains a person's journey, even before they are born. It comes as no surprise then, that in his newly released book, From Bihar to Tihar published by Juggernaut Books, Kanhaiya goes as far back as his childhood in his village in Begusarai, Bihar, to record the journey that brought him to JNU, and, eventually, Tihar Jail.
In this interview to Catch, Kanhaiya Kumar talks about the students' struggle, the Modi government, and what he has chosen to document in his book.
DS: Education seems to be the running theme in your book, right from childhood to student politics. Is education the only way for a person to grow?
KK: I'm currently researching on the social transformation in South Africa. So first, there's a Nelson Mandela quote that comes to me - "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
Secondly, when I speak of society, it's from an Ambedkarite perspective. Ambedkar also speaks of education first.
Bhagat Singh, who is my idol, said, "Bomb or pistol kranti nahi late. Kranti ki dhar vicharon se tez hoti hai." Again, this is about education.
Education has been central to our thought process, and talking about education is what has made me political as well. Shiksha ki apni ek rajneeti hoti hai. (Education has its own politics.)
Education exists to identify structures, to justify them. The English needed people who could understand English and that's why they introduced the modern education system. We know that.
When India was gaining independence, Bihar's Darbanga Maharaj argued in the Parliament that not everyone should be provided with education. His argument was that if everyone started studying, who'd work in our farms?
Within education there's always a political ideology. You'll observe this every time a new government comes to power. Each time the educational heads are the first to change, books are changed, that's how they set narratives.
I believe that if we were to improve society, we must improve [the standard of] education.
DS: And this is the very education that is coming under threat with our present government, as your book suggests. But that must happen with every government?
KK: Agitation has been there for a long time. It has just penetrated a lot more in recent times. And that's because the state's 'retaliation' (a word they like to use, not I), their repression has penetrated [different educational institutions].
It's a lot more harsh. To the point of imprisoning a student. (smiles)
During the Emergency period, there of a sort of repression from the government and students did protest against it. However, this sort of targeting didn't happen [back then.]
People are dying, disappearing... People are being thrown in jails for just speaking up.
I mean, think about me. It's so strange. The case against me is that a program happened in my university and I was the president. Gaon mein chori ho gayi toh mukhiya ko jail jaana padhraha hai.
What I stand for is that public funded institutions shouldn't be privatised. Open new private schools and colleges but if you finish off public funded institutes, you'll see the consequences. We can already see some in the health sector.
Without education how can we have [sound] citizens? How will we maintain the integrity of this country? How will we guide this nation towards development?
DS: But why is the government 'retaliation' so strong?
KK: That's because education was our fundamental right. Now it'll become our purchasing right. It's a question of policy.
Educating you is the state's responsibility. Educating you is also the state's burden. And so they're applying a market based logic in the education sector.
First there was that debate about 3-year vs 4-year graduation [the FYUP programme], and now they're saying that take a graduation diploma in a year and leave.
So the entire focus is on making the student a customer and the education system a commodity. And so they're urging institutes to adopt a self-financing model.
Now the student who spends everything he/she has got to get an education wouldn't worry about the country. They would worry about the package they can get. And if this job package is available in America, they will go there. And then we'll complain about brain drain.
The government needs to realise that the expenditure on education is not an 'expense', it's an investment.
DS: But even in the most privatised nations free education is an option. That is an alternate development model that exists. Why's there such a push back in India?
KK: That development model is highly suspect. First they'll spend money and stuff their faces with pizza and then they'll spend money on gymming. Why should we go that way? Why shouldn't we question overproduction?
But they think this is development. Chamchamati sadak aur timtimate diye. (Squeaky clean roads and twinkling lights.) I say no to this.
When HDI is ascertained, they don't just look at one parameter. Doctors, police, hospitals, schools, roads, employment opportunities, all are taken into account.
Let me tell you about journalism [as a field], for example. Engineers get a journalism diploma and become journalists. But why? Because there aren't jobs. Why aren't there jobs? Because those that are generated in surplus are in the market. They don't go into production units.
If this happens, the standard falls. There's a flaw in the understanding of development at the basic level.
Tell me, does it make sense for one man to have a 25-storey mansion? And people live in slums around his house.
DS: Yeah, you've narrated this story [in your book] about a man building a throne in the sky after he becomes king...
KK: Haan. Janta ki pahuch se door. (Yes. Out of the common person's reach.)
Tell me, would a chaiwala be able to go and meet the PM in 7, Race Course? This despite the] fact that [Modi] positioned himself as a chaiwala and used that sentiment to become the Prime Minister of this country.
If you ask this question, a question that resonates the sentiments of the masses, it becomes vital to shame you in society.
For example, in our villages, when a widow rejects the societal pressures of widowhood, she's immediately rejected by society. Her character is questioned, she's called immoral, a witch. This serves the interests of both - of patriarchy and of economics.
DS: Do you think being tagged 'anti-national' comes out of this sentiment?
KK: I'm always saying anti-Modi. Actually, I'm anti-the idea of Modi. This is the same idea of development that I mentioned.
Now, this 4G connection that's coming to us, why isn't it coming from BSNL? MTNL? And why doesn't the PM advertise MTNL? But he will advertise Reliance Jio.
The moment the PM gave his face to Jio, immediately crores of money came from the market. People lined up to buy Jio. [But the] towers aren't there, structures aren't there, and all the company is enjoying interest from all the money they've amassed from the market.
All these big hospitals like Max, Fortis, run on public money. You work at an office and you getmediclaim from these hospitals. Why can't these tie-ups happen with Safdarjung or any other public sector hospital?
There they will claim they don't have the money. Bhai, aapke paas niyat nahi hai. Niti ka sawalniyat se hota hai. (You don't have the right intentions for governance.)
This is because they think that those who belong to backward communities shouldn't progress, that they should just be left behind. They see them as a burden to society.
Like, how easy was it for [Sports Minister] Vijay Goel sahab to say that Biharis have dirtied Delhi? So these sort of structures of 'minority-majority', of otherisation. If these are the structures they want to adopt, most Indians today would ultimately be outsiders.
They constantly say Muslims came from outside. But so did the Aryans, right. If someone lives somewhere for a while, that place should be rightfully theirs.
I'm in Delhi today. I live in Delhi, I eat here, I earn here, and I pay my taxes here. Delhi ab humari hai.
DS: With every large revolution in history, there has been a common pattern. Student agitation. However, the government is quick to reject them, often projecting them as lawless. Why's that an easy sentiment to establish against students?
KK: See, students by nature are anti-establishment. Right from childhood, we all like to do what we're told not to. What happens in an establishment is that everything is codified. You can do this and you cannot do this.
So what we can do is accepted, but what we cannot, often results in a revolt. And this is something essential for social transformation.
When the Sati system was to be abolished, it was a student who said 'My sister won't be Sati.' It was a student who pushed for widow-remarriage. All these revolutionary struggles essential to bring about social change have been fought by students.
Like Vivekananda said, "Yuva wohi hai jo dhara ke vipreet chale." (Youth always flows against the current.)
In two-and-a-half years, the one solid opposition that's emerged against our government has come from the university. And not this government alone, against every government [in history].
Therefore there's always been an attempt to control, censure, historically.
There's another aspect. In today's world, there's no place with a large concentration of labour, manpower. Now look at this publishing house (Juggernaut), it's a big name but there are 15-odd people working here. Publishing houses used to employ about 2000 people in the past.
This is because production units required more manpower. In times of small production units, do you think anyone will unionise? So where's the concentration [of masses]? In universities.
Lakhs of students [go to universities]. So the possibility of revolution also comes from there. So then it becomes an integral part of [Right-wing agenda] to saffronise universities.