If there is one name that occupies the attention of the masses in India today it is Kanhaiya Kumar. The president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Students’ Union, Kumar has become a political phenomenon in the country and many see him as a rising star in Indian politics. His arrest on February 10 on the charge of sedition and release 23 days later made him a household name. His fiery words since his release has captured the imagination of many in India who see him as a potential counter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand of right-wing politics. Never before in independent India has a student leader so effectively captured the public attention.
Kumar spoke to The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar five days after his release. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Diplomat: Can you tell me what happened exactly on February 9 on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus that led to your arrest?
Kanhaiya Kumar: The whole matter is pending and it would not be prudent for me to comment on it now. I can only tell you that the new government that has come to power in Delhi almost two years ago has been attacking educational institutions continuously. The JNU is not the first one to be struck and it is not going to be the last either.
If you remember, it all started with the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). After the JNU, they are hitting Allahabad University. This has been going on for some time. Moreover, there is the incident of Rohit Vemula at Hyderabad University, where a Dalit was effectively forced to commit suicide by the government.
What I want to say is that the government has moved away from the promises it made in the elections. I feel this is all being done to divert attention from the main issues facing the country: lack of jobs, hunger, poverty alleviation, minority insecurity. They are creating the debate around the issue of nationalism and anti-nationalism. It is a ploy by the government to mobilize people by raising their emotions and inciting trouble.
What has changed in your life since the incident?
Earlier I did not have a police case. Now I have a case pending in the court. Earlier I had never had the experience of being jailed; now I have passed through that experience. Earlier I used to see the system from a distance; now I have faced the system internally. My life is still the same; I still lead a normal life, but people’s perceptions of me have changed.
People now see you as a new leader on the political horizon, who has emerged to challenge the the ruling establishment.
I don’t think I’d go that far. I am still a student and my main focus remains my studies. However, as a concerned citizen and a leader of student organization, I feel responsible to raise my voice against the injustices and wrongs in our society.
Why do you think the JNU became a target?
The JNU is not only a concrete structure; it is a tradition, a history, it inspires us to raise our voices against injustice and fight for any cause. The premier institute, thus, sparks in you the spirit of questioning and non-conformism. The government has attacked this spirit.
How far will this political battle go?
I can tell you that the government has burned its fingers at the wrong place this time. They have tried to undermine this wonderful institution. The JNU will reassert itself, rebuild itself, and reestablish itself and tell the world that it has a social responsibility. We fight for the marginalized: women, the tribes, and the suppressed masses.
We react not only on national, but also international issues. We express solidarity with their struggle. No matter how much the Modi government tries to portray us as “anti-national” and deploys a section of media to propagate its false propaganda against us, we believe that the progressive people of India will not allow the designs of the Hindu right-wing government to succeed. Our movement will get stronger and we will create a better democracy, putting to an end the fascist tendencies of the current government.
So you are saying that the government has a particular political agenda and the attack on JNU is a part of that?
The radical Hindu organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was established in 1925 and in a few years time is going to celebrate its centenary. They are planning big things for the country. There is an attempt by this group, which patronizes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to hegemonize the diversity that exists in this country through one ideology. This is the conspiracy and they are preparing for that. They are using violence, propaganda, and all other tools at their disposal to achieve their objective. They are forcing people to commit suicide and if that does not work out, they are putting people behind bars. This is a concerted attack on Indian democracy. The only way out when you are being attacked continuously is to intensify your struggle also. We will have to be courageous; we will have to unite.
The left in India is feeling rejuvenated after your rise. Will it be able to expand its base?
This is not the work of one individual. This is a collective struggle. If all the people who are fighting separately unite then for sure we will achieve success. The movement against fascist forces will gain momentum, achieving new heights.
The “left” does not mean only the communists; it means all those who talk about progressive forces, who want change in our society. If you take these parameters, then the peripheries of the left are very wide. The challenge is to unite all progressive forces under one platform. The left front is not at the margins; it is merely divided. Today the fight is between democracy and fascism.
The BJP and the Hindu right-wing groups call you “anti-national.”
Their definition of nationalism is not acceptable to me. They call me anti-national, but I feel I am the real nationalist. They define nationalism as one country, one leader, and one party, which I don’t accept. I believe in the constitution of the country, which says “we the people of India,” meaning we all constitute a nation and no one is excluded.
The government is creating a false binary. The Modi regime is creating a false debate in the country. This is happening not only on the JNU campus, but other campuses as well. There is clear political thinking behind that.
How you assess Modi as prime minister?
Modi calls himself the son of a tea seller, but he wears super expensive suits. He calls himself the leader of a marginalized community, but he acts against Dalits and religious minorities. He fights elections in the name of development, but advances a divisive agenda, which has nothing to do with real life. His government spends too much time on beef bans, meat bans, reconversions, attacks on rationalists, targeting the Muslim minority. Modi hasn’t delivered on what he promised. Therefore, I feel that he is taking the nation for a ride.
In the end, what is your message to India?
The country elected Narendra Modi with lots of expectations. The government’s performance has hurt the youth of the nation; they are discontented. I want the youth not to be despondent. We will have to come together and save the nation and make it a better place.