Kanhaiya Speaks…: An Interview with Kanhaiya Kumar
By Vani Mecheril
(Translated from Malayalam by Malavika Binny)
Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student’s Union President, has, in many ways, become the face of student politics in India today, mainly owing to his pivotal role in the JNU students’ movement, spurred by the slapping of sedition charges on some students at JNU, including the Students’ Union office bearers. From an anti-national to a national leader – this might be the shortest way to describe Kanhaiya. Among others, he was labelled as an anti-national using an event against capital punishment on JNU campus as an excuse. The media and the right-wing parties spewed out doctored videos, splitting public opinion on the binaries of nationalism and anti-nationalism and tried to gag the voice of a resurgent students’ movement, reinvigorated by Rohith Vemula’s martyrdom. Through his Red Salute-Blue Salute slogans, Kanhaiya, who embraces the plurality of the idea of India and the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, is winning the hearts of millions not only across the nation but across the world. Kanhaiya has also been instrumental in making the term ‘freedom’ or aazadi resonate all over the nation once again.
In this interview, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNUSU, speaks to Vani Mecheril, research scholar at the School of International Studies, JNU:
Vani Mecheril: Comrade, let me offer you my revolutionary greetings as a JNU student, who is the daughter of a farmer in Kerala. Under the present circumstances, when the state is undemocratically pursuing horrifying anti-people campaigns both inside and outside universities campuses, could you comment on the necessity of a larger Left solidarity? How would you rate the chances of the same in the next JNUSU elections? You had called for such a unity in your speech at the last Presidential Debate in 2015.
Kanhaiya Kumar: At the outset, let me sincerely thank, in my capacity as the JNUSU President, all those who stood with the truth, especially all those who supported the protest against the malicious campaign unleashed against the university. The ‘first past the post’ principle on which the Indian elections are fought is a major drawback of the Indian electoral system.The Indian Left has been demanding for proportional representation for quite a long time. Under the present condition, there is an immediate need for the Left parties to consolidate and put up a strong front against the RSS and other fascist forces.We should be able to put forth a strong challenge not only in terms of electoral politics but also in raising an ideological challenge against them. Today’s need is not for a Left-Left division leading to separation and weakening of Left politics in general and the strengthening of right-wing parties, but a strengthening of Left unity through the resolution of divisive problems, leading to a revitalised and broad–based Left unity. The history of Indian parliamentary government is itself a testimony of this. I do not want to indulge in a discussion on ‘what happened to the Communists who were the opposition to the Congress in later times or who is responsible for this phenomenon’, but the Left needs to resist fascism as a united front while acknowledging party-based and ideological differences internally.
In order to defeat the threat posed by the Sangh Parivar, such a united effort has to emerge in JNU as well. Such a unity must be to protect JNU, to protect the idea that is JNU – the idea of a socially just democratic society. It is a very significant responsibility. As the JNUSU President, I shall indeed stand for such a unity.
VM: After the 9 February event, there has been an attempt to create a sort of mass hysteria through false propaganda against JNU. This led to a situation where those who live around the campus like the auto-rickshaw drivers, small shopkeepers, photocopy shop owners and so on started looking at JNU with a certain sort of anxiety. Mohammed Hannefa, a PhD scholar from JNU, has posed an interesting question. There is a small district in Kerala called Malappuram, where people are quite crazy about football. In the football season, the streets of Malappuram resound with the chants of Vamoz Argentina and such like. Should all these people be also regarded as anti-national?
KK: There is a small section of people within JNU who thought that they themselves can become famous through spreading such rumours about JNU. They tried to drive home their false claims through their friends in some of the media channels. There were also some television channels who tried to influence public mentality by running the doctored videos again and again. It was an attempt to create an environment of ‘mob-lynching’. It was a pre-planned attempt to turn the common people against JNU through false propaganda.
VM: The first woman President of Allahabad University, Richa Singh, who has been a strong supporter of JNU, is the latest student leader to have come under the attack of the administration, which is trying to rusticate her. Do you think there is some sort of conspiracy behind all that has happened in several educational institutes of higher learning such as Pondicherry University, HCU, FTII, BHU and IIMC among several other places?
KK: In the wake of protests, these are campuses which have exhibited a strong solidarity – be it FTII or IIMC or the Ambedkar-Periyar circle. The government has taken an approach of attacking its own citizens. These are institutions which play an important role in forming progressive critical thinking in this country.To resist the attacks that has been emerging against these institutions is my responsibility as JNUSU President. In fact, it is the responsibility of every progressive citizen. These oppressions are carried forward by the government under the guise of ‘development’. The common man has no place in the ‘development agenda’ of the government. The laws of sedition are also utilised as a political tool to silence the people. All the above mentioned issues are inherently linked with each other. Rather than fighting for any particular institution, we need a collective effort and a collective resistance. It is the struggle for democratic values. It is the struggle for all of us.
VM: While the news of you having received interim bail has given the JNU community a huge relief, certain images related to the court proceedings were indeed quite unsettling. The fact that you had to wear a helmet and a bullet proof vest to appear in court, almost as if you were in disguise, the references to ‘diseased limb’, ‘epidemic’, ‘treatment’, ‘antibiotic’, ‘amputation’ – all of these refer to an extremely militant expression of the state. Do you agree?
KK: We are under a system which has a lot of exploitative tendencies. When the weight of the oppression increases, the intensity of the struggle against them will also increase. The RSS and BJP presented me and my friends Umar, Anirban, Rama Naga and Anand as the biggest threats against the nation. I am not commenting on the verdict as the case is sub-judice, neither am I a legal expert to comment on it. Also, several expert lawyers such as Ganguly have commented on it.
VM: How do you critically assess the ways in which the Left has been handling the question of caste?
KK: There have been in-depth debates on the caste system in India. Today, we are standing at a historical juncture in the political history of our nation. Rather than looking at issues comprehensively, there is a tendency to isolate certain issues and analyse them. We are not in a position to define or prioritize issues as of primary importance or secondary importance; we are almost in a state of emergency. If we are to dream of a society based on social justice, we need to start a strong campaign by which we can address the issues of anti-secularism, casteism, gender discrimination, labour rights violations and problems faced by transgenders and so on.
VM: You constantly raise the slogan of ‘Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam’. What do you think is the current relevance of such a slogan?
KK: My political stand and observation is that all those who are oppressed should unite with mutual understanding and respect. Dalits, women, transgender, marginalised and backward communities, Adivasis, tribals, the poor – all of these groups face exploitation and oppression by power structures. It should primarily be a comprehensive unity for resistance. The unity forged for such a resistance during protests will also reflect in times of election. Both Ambedkarite groups and Left parties are fundamentally concerned with oppression. This makes them natural allies and complementary to each other.
*The interview was published in Navamalayali, a blog magazine in Malayalam, on 7 March, 2016.
Vani Mecheril is a PhD scholar at the Centre for English Studies, JNU, and is also a student political activist. She has been published in several online and print journals and magazines.
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