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Meet Kanhaiya; the student icon in jail for the next 14 days

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:42 IST

The case

  • Kanhaiya Kumar will be in judicial custody the next fortnight
  • The JNUSU President faces sedition charges

The protagonist

  • He hails from a poor family in Bihar
  • The story is similar to that of Rohith Vemula

More in the story

  • How is Kumar as a person?
  • How Kumar & Vemula differ but are yet similar?

On Wednesday, a Delhi court ordered JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar to be sent for a fortnight-long judicial custody.

For those joining in late: JNUSU is the students' union of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where last week there was a big controversy over an event commemorating the hanging of Afzal Guru. Allegedly, anti-India slogans were raised by some participants. The Union has claimed its members intervened to stop such sloganeering.

Read: Umar Khalid is no jihadi. BJP is pushing him the Rohith way

The issue snowballed out of the campus when Home Minister Rajnath Singh read 'sedition' between the lines and Delhi Police arrested Kumar and charged him with sedition. Ever since, the university has been under right-wing attack, even physical. There have even been calls for the National Investigation Agency to step in. He, other students and media personnel were even beaten up a mob of lawyers.

As the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University plans a solidarity march in Delhi on Thursday, let us look at who really is Kanhaiya Kumar?

Well, he is in the third year of his PhD in African Studies in JNU's School of International Studies. Before that he completed his post-graduation in Sociology from Patna University and graduation from Magadh University. His schooling was in RKC High School, Barauni.

He achieved all this while fighting abject poverty. His parents still struggle to make ends meet at a small house in a village called Bihat in Bihar's Begusrai district.

His father has been bedridden after a paralytic attack in 2013. His mother earns a paltry Rs 3,000 as an Anganwaadi worker. While his elder brother has a small job, the younger one is a student.

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The poverty didn't impede political consciousness though. The family has supported the Communist Party of India for three generations. Kumar has been an activist since high school.

The parallel

The story of Kanhaiya Kumar brings back to mind the name of Rohith Vemula - another product of student activism from a different part of the country. Vemula's death showed how institutional suppression and brutal social systems push someone to an extreme step.

The stories unfolded differently, but their similarities are clear.

Vemula had a violent childhood and was raised on a paltry income by an equally iron-willed mother, like Kumar's. In his last days, his fellowship was the only income for the family. And that was blocked by the government. Remember, he had two siblings to support.

The Ambedkarite scholar found expression, solace and empowerment in the open corridors of a liberal university. Corridors that the right-wing won't like to remain liberal.

Also read- #JNUCrackdown: politics of paranoia around sedition can singe Rajnath

Vemula and Kumar, both reached the top tiers of higher education. Both were tormented by identities. Both rejected cushy comforts of a bright academic career to try making things better for others.

They good do that as well as hold out hope for their families only because of the opportunities created by the liberal public university space.

The caste question

"This time we arrested a Bhumihaar. Now shut up on your Dalit-non-Dalit issue," a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mocked a day after Kumar's arrest.

In the caste hierarchy, the Bhumihars are pretty high up. So, true that Kumar isn't from an oppressed caste. But, he developed a consciousness about social class early on, thanks to his upbringing in a political family and his surrounding. Begusarai - the 'Leningrad of Bihar' - has a long history of struggle between the landless and landlords.

The identity of the land-owning Bhumihar caste, too, has been strange. In several parts of Bihar there have been bloody confrontation between the community and those landless, mostly Dalits. At the same time, the CPI - the strongest votary of land reforms - was led by Bhumihars, too.

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In Kumar's constituency, Tegra, individual Bhumihar farmers now hold small parcels of land, not large estates, as a fallout of the the Zamindari Abolition Act. The caste, now, is one of the biggest vote banks of the BJP.

In a way, Kumar and Vemula can be placed on two ends of the caste prism; what unites them is class and the fight related to it. And for both, education was the biggest, perhaps the only weapon.

The campus leader

Kumar has been accused of anti-national politics. Here's a glimpse of what he stood for - a clip of the pitch he made for JNUSU's presidential election:

He criticises a 'communal' BJP-RSS, a 'neo-liberal' Congress and the 'sectarian' Left in the same breath, and stresses the need for Left unity to check Hindutva politics: "The people of this country will decide where and how Left unity will take place. I feel Left unity will be shown on the streets."

His speech drew wild applause and Kumar made history by becoming the first JNUSU president from AISF. The students' wing of CPI doesn't have a strong cadre base on the campus and Kumar managed his single-handedly.

Those who claim to know him, vouch for his humility and generosity. He is known to be a brilliant orator who extends a helping hand to students across party lines, often seen running around the campus for examination, admission and accommodation-related issues.

Read: Wondering why some JNU students protested for Afzal Guru? Here's your answer

"While fulfilling his academic requirements, Kanhaiya managed his activism as well as party work. It's possible only when you are highly mobile, accessible and approachable," pointed out Prakash K Ray, a former leader of SFI, the CPI(M)'s students' organ.

"He is mild-mannered , unassuming, simple and never loses his cool. There's a certain affinity you feel - he's genuine, ever smiling and hard working," Ray added.

Rubbishing the sedition charges against him, Fauzan Abrar, who teaches Persian in the School of Languages said: "Their political stand is left leaning and mild, they believe in democratic politics and not the overthrow of the state. Nobody can claim Kanhaiya is anti-national."

The backfire

The RSS perhaps didn't anticipate that its plan to douse the Vemula fire by arresting an upper-caste student would boomerang. Kumar's arrest has united several Opposition parties and now it is uniting public universities across the country, who have to cope with the dictates of HRD minister Smriti Irani on the one hand and the Hindutva brigade on the other.

Students and teachers of the Film and Television Institute of India, Jadavpur University, Delhi University, Hyderabad Central University, Aligarh Muslim University etc have already come out in support. If the resentment grows, it may even cost the government the next Parliament session.

Edited by Joyjeet Das

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First published: 18 February 2016, 9:39 IST
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

An ex Correspondent with Catch, Soumya writes on politics and social issues. She lives in New York and swears undying allegiance to New Delhi.