In February 2016, the Delhi police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, a PhD student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and then the president of its student union. The police had arrested Kumar for allegedly organising an event on campus to observe the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a pharmaceutical equipment trader who was convicted for conspiring to attack the Indian parliament in 2001 and executed on 9 February 2013. Kumar, along with five other students from JNU, was charged with sedition for allegedly raising “anti-India” slogans during the event. He was taken to Tihar Jail, where he was kept in custody until being released on bail on 4 March. Kumar’s arrest spurred on a nationwide debate that was ongoing at the time—regarding issues such as government crackdown on public institutions, nationalism and dissent. Kumar recently wrote a book about his life until the arrest and how political developments, both within JNU and outside, shaped his experience. The book, titled From Bihar to Tihar, published by Juggernaut Books, was released in paperback on 7 November.
On 27 October, Sagar, a web reporter with Vantage, The Caravan, met Kumar. They discussed how the idea for the book evolved, Kumar’s views on government funding for institutes such as JNU, the effect of movements such as Occupy UGC on public discourse, and the relationship between the student politics at JNU and the Central University of Hyderabad.
Sagar: Don’t you think you’re too young to write an autobiography? What was the purpose you had in mind while writing this book?
Kanhaiya Kumar: See, there is only one strong reason for writing this book—the second one is a little weaker than the first. Why am I well-known? Because I am infamous. If I had not been charged with sedition, I would have neither written a book, nor would we be chatting. Does this mean I am a traitor? What is my concept of a nation? How I came from Bihar to JNU and reached JNU—there are many popular narratives to explain that. But they don’t know the facts. One version of this should go from me—of being a culprit, and of being a victim.
S: When did you decide that you should tell your own story? Did it occur to you when you were in jail or did someone ask you to write a book?
KK: The idea evolved. I never thought that I would write a book. But a seemingly common-place event occurred. I reached jail on 17 February. When I reached, I had nothing. I told the jailor, “Sir, please give me some paper and a pen.” I met him again the next day, and I asked him again. He said, okay, “Take this.” Then after a while, he sent a diary. Then I started writing. Nothing special, just some thoughts about the world and some introspection—just like that.
When I got out of jail, a reporter asked me: “What you wrote in this diary, would like to give it the form of a book?” I said, “If I get a chance, sure.” If someone asks you, do you want to visit Bombay, you’d say, sure, I’d like to. Publishers started contacting me. At first, I was just ignoring them. Then, a friend of mine came to me and said, there’s many narratives of your story. Your own narrative should also be out there. Pehli baar ye baat mujhe logical lagi [For the first time, this seemed logical to me.] Then I decided to write it.
What you asked me earlier—whether it’s too early to write a memoir. Sure, how can anyone write a biography at the age of 28-29? So I said, I’m not writing a biography. I just want to write about how I went to jail.
S: Why were you anxious to tell your side of the story?
KK: Were you upset when reporters were beaten up at Patiala House [in February 2016]?
S: Yes. But if I were among those who got beaten up, I would not have liked to write about myself, because I am not significant in the grand scheme of things.
KK: I am. I am a part of that fight, that movement. I am a soldier of a movement that attempts are being made to crush. It is because of me that people have left their families, that families have been split down the middle at the dinner table, that [people opposing the government’s actions] were labeled “anti-national.”
If I were not the president of JNUSU, I would not have been arrested. How did I become a left liberal? What I am saying is not my own concern, it is the concern of lakhs and crores of people in the country. It has to be told, and it has to be told assertively.
S: Do you think you’re making yourself the face of the movement?
KK: Why would I do that? Every movement has a face. We are fighting atrocities against Dalits, but the face of that is Rohith Vemula. Our fight is against the Brahminical system, but the face is that of Rohith’s, because he was victimised. [The struggle] will physically manifest somewhere. If a minority has to be targeted, a man like Akhlaque will have to die [for that to happen]. If a type of ideology has to be killed, then [the movement] has to have a symbol. The government symbolises on its own. It’s not in your hands.
S: Did you think that you were arrested because of Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid, whose names were on the poster for the Afzal Guru event?
KK: No, absolutely not. I know the reason was the government. It’s [their] mindset and ideology because of which this happened. We are ideologically in agreement on this, that this was a government conspiracy. We have differences on other things.
In Modiji’s country, even sloganeering can land you in jail. Think about how illogical that is. This was the government’s plan: take the president into custody, the campus will be engulfed in terror. If there is retaliation, then sine die can be done [the matter can be put on hold indefinitely]—they can shut the university for six months, and then change the admission policy, so people of certain backgrounds stop coming in.
S: Does your organisation, the All India Students’ Federation, and the student movement in JNU have a long-term goal?
KK: Our long-term vision is that we won’t let public-funded institutions get destroyed. You can do privatisation if you want, you can open new colleges—but you can cannot close government schools.
S: What if they remove scholarships?
KK: Let them do that and see. They tried. This government is not scared of the opposition, nor anyone else—if it backtracks, it is because of the questions raised by students. Why did they remove Smriti Irani?
There is only one thing in all of this that gave the movement momentum—that was the move to stop fellowships. The movements that were scattered around the country became a national network. After Rohith Vemula’s case, it started to manifest.
S: You write in your book that the Occupy UGC protests triggered the other protests, that because the government could not stop the protests in Delhi, it began cracking down on other central universities, including the Central University of Hyderabad. Are you trying to take credit for the other movements? Don’t you feel that, in a way, you and your left party appear to be appropriating the Dalit students’ struggle?
KK: Do Dalits not study in JNU? And is the movement in Hyderabad a Dalit movement and nothing else? I don’t agree with you on this. I don’t like pitting things against each other. I have a problem with this perspective.
S: That this is an appropriation of a Dalit struggle?
KK: No, there is no need to appropriate anything. For things to move forward, things have to be assimilated. The government targeted smaller institutions because there was no resistance [earlier]. When movements of resistance began there, there was a spark. How did that movement become a national movement? When central universities became involved. What is the advantage of JNU? It’s in the capital, it’s a premier institute. Its alumni are powerful. When it picks up a question, it becomes a question of national importance.
You can’t call JNU a university of uniform caste. There is an assimilation process. This is not appropriation, it is a bilateral relationship. I didn’t know Rohith [Vemula], but when I gave a speech as the president of the JNUSU, he shared it on his [Facebook] wall. We had never met, had never spoken. Why did he do it? These people who sit outside, who have nothing else to do, who only want to break unity where it is forming—this is a figment of their imagination. This is not appropriation. This is a question of unity in the movement. We fight [the system] together as the Joint Action Committee, but we fight elections separately.
S: But shouldn’t movements have representation as well? The advantage that JNU has, that you mentioned—aren’t some leaders using that to promote themselves?
KK: How can you stop that? If someone is the president of JNUSU, they’re the president. If a movement begins, they will give a speech. Whether we like it or not, the prime minister of this nation is Modiji.
The question of representation is not specific to JNU. It applies to Hyderabad as well. For instance, if we are Dalits, it’s a question in our household as well, or how we behave with women etc. The question of representation is larger. It’s everywhere.
S: In the elections that were held at JNU in September 2016, the left parties formed an alliance against the Bhirsa Puhle Ambedkar Students’ Association, the Ambedkarite party in JNU. You speak of fighting for Dalits, then why is the left fighting against them in the elections?
KK: You are not aware of the reality. There was talk of forming a “StandwithJNU” panel. And BAPSA’s stance is that they won’t form an alliance with the left, that they will form alliances when they’ve established themselves. I had contacted them myself, to ask them to fight the election together. BAPSA members criticise Jignesh [Mevani] also. Why do they do that?
Ideology is always present. You cannot ignore ideology in the questions of identity and representation.
S: Are you saying that ideology supersedes identity?
KK: To address the question of identity within the question of ideology, and to assimilate ideology into the question of identity—that is very important. Otherwise, what will happen is that there will be a movement for Dalit upliftment, and after a point of time, when other castes—because Dalit is an identity—don’t get representation, they’ll go to the BJP. And if they go, they’ll take their whole community with them.
The question of identity is to abolish identity, not to save it. The abolishment of identity—that was Baba Saheb’s [BR Ambedkar’s] ideology. We can’t make the question of representation bigger than the Baba Sahebs’s question of the annihilation of caste. This is key: are you going to have representation only in government jobs or will you talk about total emancipation?
Social democracy cannot be sustained without economic democracy, that’s clear-cut. I firmly believe that to reduce the question of caste into the question of class was the blunder from the left. And to not address the question of class in the question of identity—that will be the most advantageous for the right.
S: What is happening in JNU right now? First, Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student, went missing. Then, the body of a student from Manipur was found. What do you know about what is currently happening?
KK: There have been tragedies in JNU before. In the past, three boys had an accident while on a bike, and a man attacked a woman with an axe.
You always have some sense of what is happening. He [the student from Manipur] is my hostel mate. He was a bit reserved, actually. At most, he would say “hi” or “bye.” He stayed in his room a lot.
S: Did he have any enmity with anyone?
KK: No. He is a really quiet and sober person. There was no question of any fights with anyone.
S: What about what happened to Najeeb?
KK: [The disappearance of] Najeeb has become a really mysterious issue. Even if an ABVP student was involved, they could not have done anything without organised political support. Believe me when I, as an insider, say this. The other thing is that there was this rumour that he was depressed, and he went away of his own accord. How can someone commit suicide and make their own body disappear? It appears that he was taken, that somewhere he is under the control of organised people. But when someone is not around, we can only speculate. But that he was brutally beaten, that is fact.
S: In March, you made a statement saying that the 2002 Godhra riots were “state-sponsored killing,” but that the Sikh riots in 1984 were a result of mob violence. Why do you think the two are different?
KK: I am saying that both riots were different. When some leaders of a party target a community, it is not the political ideology [of that party]. [For instance] there was an MP, a Sikh, in Punjab who was standing in line to pay tribute to Indira Gandhi [after her death], and he was beaten up. But then, in the same party, a Sikh later becomes a prime minister. So that kind of hatred was short-lived, and was not politically internalised. But the Jan Sangh used to have a rule that Muslims can’t be its members—that’s a political ideology of targeting minorities. To target minorities for political gain—that’s where the difference lies.
One had the involvement of state machinery, which was used after months of planning. In the other, a group of people from a particular party influenced the state and the police. To tell the police to not do anything for 48 hours because the prime minister has died, and then to take voter lists and kill Sardars methodically, to rape and to pillage. It is another thing to plan: to decide that first we will set fire to a train, and then commit violence. That arms, the gunpowder, everything is ready, and people have been called from elsewhere—that’s different. The hatred will continue. Tell me, has any Muslim ever been made the chief of army staff?
S: But the BJP fronts Muslim leaders.
KK: That too, they use very cleverly. The way they pit Khatik [caste] against the Jats, they pit Shia Muslims against Sunni Muslims. All Muslim leaders in the BJP are Shia Muslims. They say Shia Muslims are our friends. The RSS always encourages internal contradictions—its entire operation is based on it. The fight for social justice also belongs to OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis and the poor labourers and farmers—but this is how they divide them.
The interview has been translated from Hindi, and has been edited and condensed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect last name for the JNU student Najeeb Ahmed. This has now been corrected. The Caravan regrets the error.