"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.
DS: But do you think the present government, in a sense, has been successful in this saffronisation? Police has entered universities, students have been arrested from JNU, have gone missing...
KK: This is Newton's third law. The more [the government] try to put anyone down, the more they'll react. The more they provoke students, the harder it'll get for them.
It takes time for qualitative change to show in society, it isn't tangible. Quantitative change
slowly becomes qualitative change. When you put water on the stove, it immediately starts heating up, but you'll see that it's boiling only when it lets out steam.
It may seem like we're being pushed down... But they'll have to face it.
DS: Okay, so you've been into student politics, you're seen as a political figure. Isn't political leadership the natural option for Kanhaiya Kumar?
KK: I'm already in the political space. But standing for elections is just one part of politics.
This conversation we're having, it's a complete political discourse. How much a bottle costs and who gets to access a bottle is also a political question. I didn't get polio because of a policy. My mother didn't earn and yet she got vaccinated. This too is governance.
Politics reaches you before you're born and so you'll always remain in it. Question is, how do you operate it?
I feel that my struggle is a struggle of many. It's a collective struggle. And this struggle has to be fought at every level, including elections at some point.
As a student, I objected to the privatisation of education. As a teacher, I'll talk of teachers' rights. In policy, I'll speak against privatisation. Now, in all this, whether I stand for elections or not... I don't know.
DS: So you'll position yourself as a leader when that's needed in the struggle?
DS: What do you think Kanhaiya means to the average Indian? Have you become larger than life?
KK: I just feel one thing... I don't want to be anything, anyone. I just want to live my life. I am not able to do that.
DS: You just said everything is political. I don't think you can wash your hands now...
KK: (Laughs) No, no. Let me tell you something. I don't believe anyone is [born] revolutionised, things happen. When Indians were fighting for independence, some were drinking tea with the British. And they're still in India, amongst us, in good positions.
They didn't lose anything then and they don't lose anything now. Now it's a decision, whether you want to join the privileged or stand up for the voiceless.
DS: Yeah, but opportunities matter. It is a privilege to make that choice as well, right?
KK: See, the society changes with time. You just need to play your role right in that change.
Contribute with whatever means you have, wherever you are. You are a cricketer, take a good catch. You'll contribute to the team.
And this is also why I haven't become larger than life. I've been a student, so as a student, and looking ahead, as a teacher, and in general, as a citizen [I have contributed].
Yeah, but I'm the sort of person who quietly slips out to get some alone time. I can't do that anymore. I do miss that. But I'm doing what I must and I'll continue to do so.
Those who think that they alone can change the world... Well, they're either fooling themselves or the society. Society always changes with collective effort.
DS: You've insisted through your book that all the Left leaning organisations in JNU must unite to defeat ABVP. However, you haven't put in any kind words for AISA. Do you think you've let your biases seep in?
KK: I'll answer this in two parts. The first is that, yes, on principle I believe that you have to identify the common enemy. Or principal opposition, enemy may not be the right word.
See those who fell in the line with the British, spied for them, served them, they are the ones seeking a certificate for deshbhakti today. This is a threat everyone must identify.
It's not just about the unity of Left. There should be larger unity with the progressive, liberals, democratic, those fighting for women, for the environment, all should come together.
Can you accept, that in a democratic nation, there shouldn't be a question of representation? Those who deny reservation, deny representation. If you can't accept these regressive ideas, this sort of fundamentalism, the denial of rights to women, Dalits, OBC, etc... how are we allowing the ideology that opposes it to rule?
That difference of opinion is there within Left and outside of it. I accept it.
As for [biases and] honestly, my mother always says there's one difference between truth and lies. You needn't recall truths.
My book is written simply because the truths that I didn't want to say, I left them out. But I haven't lied in my book. This book is no biography because there's so much that hasn't been said.
DS: Is this [book] a record of events?
KK: It is a process of evolution. Right from a child entering the education system, growing up, facing the society, the contradiction of social problems, going to jail, learning from that reality, and deciding for the future.
So, much hasn't been said. But whatever I've written is honest and true to reality.
DS: I noticed a small anecdote in your book, one you didn't explain. You talk about how you used to introduce your father first when you'd talk of your family, but you deliberately spoke of your mother first in the book. What changed?
KK: This is a long fight. Nowadays, cricketers are wearing their mothers' names on their jerseys. This is a slow realisation in society.
Like I said, at a time, one person doesn't change. When change happens, a large number of people change, adapt. When a huge player [like a cricketer] starts thinking for change, the market economy starts working in that direction. Then the TV channel gets interested and they start showing [such progressive ideas].
The feminist discourse has taken over the world. We used to say man is a social animal. Par ab, hum kehte hai, manushya ek samajik praani hai. Manushya includes both man and woman.
In a patriarchal society, we've always been taught to follow our fathers. We're always asked our fathers' names, never mothers'. When we're asked our mothers' name, it is to slight, to humiliate, insult.
There's no guarantee that the father is indeed the father. The mother gave birth to you, there's no disputing that. So the first claim should be the mother's.
The reason women have been restricted by patriarchy is to ensure that the ward belongs to the husband, to eliminate doubts. The men then live vicariously through their children, because they know for sure.
When I realised this, I incorporated it in my writing...
DS: You've spoken about Dalits, Muslims, women, backward classes throughout your book. What measures have you taken to represent them right?
KK: The core question in my politics has always been this. To represent everyone right.
DS: You've been quite blunt in this book. Do you think there will be retaliation from the government, for what you have written?
KK: No matter what I say, they feel uncomfortable. I gave a speech on 11 February, I was arrested on the 12th. I gave another speech on 3 March, and on 8 March a video was circulated that suggested I'm anti-army.
Even if I don't say anything, I'll get photoshopped and framed. It is obvious that they will take my book and perform an operation.
I say that I respect the Indian Army, but I also acknowledge that some army personnel have exploited women in Kashmir. And this isn't something I'm making up. There are reports, documents, cases that prove it. But they'll choose to cut out the bit where I say I respect the army, and run the rest.
So it doesn't really matter.
Video by Shamita Harsh