The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president and All India Students’ Federation leader Kanhaiya Kumar was released from jail on conditional bail on March 2. After a rousing welcome by the academic community, Kanhaiya, in his speech at JNU’s administrative block, mounted a scathing attack on the Sangh Parivar and what he perceives as its divisive tactics to polarise the academic community. He spoke to Frontline on the issues of students’ movements across the country and why he thought the attack on JNU was a way to deflect public attention from the real issues of the people. Speaking in Hindi, he said the branding of JNU as “anti-national” was a smear campaign by the Sangh Parivar to contain the opposition the government had had to face in the last one and a half years. Excerpts from the interview:
In one speech, you categorised the JNU struggle as not one of nationalists versus anti-nationals but as one of democracy versus authoritarianism. Could you elaborate?
It is not as if the nationalists versus anti-national debate started from JNU. I want to take a trip down memory lane. The Film and Television Institute of India [FTII] was attacked on the same premise when students were protesting against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairman. In a systematic campaign, FTII students were maligned. They were called drug addicts, naxalites and many other names. Then in IIT Madras, when the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was banned, the organisation’s members were called casteist and [it was stated] that they wanted to break society. They were characterised as divisive forces.
Then come to Hyderabad Central University. [Members of] Rohith Vemula’s organisation, the Ambedkar Students Association, were called supporters of Yakub Memon. The ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad] raised slogans like “Jo Yakub ka Yaar hai, woh Desh ka Gaddar hai [Whoever is Yakub’s supporter, he is a traitor].” This was at a time when Rohith was not dead. And then, when he was forced to kill himself, the ABVP started to talk about his “suspicious caste identity”.
The ABVP has been trying to rake up the nationalists versus anti-nationals debate on various campuses for a long time. In JNU, the ABVP found some success in taking this debate further. It has been trying viciously to bring this nationalism versus anti-national debate into the foreground. It used the issue of sloganeering as the immediate trigger, but its efforts to brand JNU as anti-national has been going on for the last six months. Subramanian Swamy, in September 2015, called JNU students and teachers naxalites. Then the RSS’ mouthpiece, Panchajanya , did a cover story on JNU in which it claimed that the university was a hub of anti-national activities.
The government has consistently attacked all Central universities. First, the government appointed poorly qualified BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] supporters as heads of many research institutes. Many historians, including the eminent Romila Thapar, had to resign from the Indian Council of Historical Research’s advisory panel. Now you cannot say that Romila Thapar is a Congress supporter.
The problem is that the government is crushing the culture of debate and discussion. India has a long tradition of debate and discussion. Romila Thapar in her protest lecture recently told us that India has always had many cultural trends and all have coexisted despite differences. The Brahmanic-Sramanic traditions or Vaishnavite-Saivite trends are all part of this. Different people and cultures have stayed together without infringing on each other’s space. This is the concept of Indian tolerance. The beauty of India and its social fabric is this tolerance. The Sangh Parivar is attacking all these traditions. So I believe that the main debate is not about nationalists versus anti-nationals but about one ideology versus all other ideologies. It is not for nothing that the opposition has united against the government despite strong ideological differences. For instance, if both Rahul Gandhi and [Arvind] Kejriwal have come together to support JNU, we must understand the problem is above political gains. This movement is to save this country’s syncretic culture and tradition of democracy.
Why do you think this government is authoritarian?
Because this government borrows its ideology from Mussolini’s and Hitler’s fascism. It is trained in ideas like one nation, one party, one leader and one culture.
Why do you think that the government has been clamping down on those who raise their voice against police and state excesses? At one level, the government has entered into a political alliance with parties like the People’s Democratic Party, which has been raising these concerns, and at another level it has branded all those who talk about these issues as anti-national.
The RSS has acted very tactically. Tactically in the sense that it has never participated or led any people’s movement. It has always mounted its politics by highlighting the weaknesses of others. It did not participate either in the freedom struggle or in any movement after that. Even in the J.P. movement, it had a counterproductive role to play. Even in this nationalist versus anti-nationalist political debate, the RSS is not leading from the front. Instead, it has spread false and malicious rumours through various fringe organisations. Give me one example in which the RSS is leading from the front. It always floats different outfits and uses them to further its agenda of Hindu Rashtra. It calls itself a cultural organisation but has always used this privilege to further divisive politics.
The attack on JNU is very serious because we know that the RSS has used society’s contradictions to its advantage. In Haryana, for example, it is dividing people in the name of Jats versus non-Jats. In various places, it uses society’s contradictions to polarise people. Sometimes, it is OBCs [Other Backward Classes] versus Dalits, or Scheduled Castes versus economically backward classes or most backward classes.
Likewise, this government has developed a strategy to enter into opportunistic political alliances. First, get into an alliance, form the government, and then gradually sideline the ally. This government is on an offensive electoral strategy. It will go on dividing people on communal lines to win elections. The attack on JNU and the resultant debate on nationalism has to be seen in the context of the Uttar Pradesh elections next year.
All those people who believe in democracy and think about the real issues of people will have to unite and defeat the false campaign of the government. We have to talk about the budget, drought, price rise, agrarian crisis, and so on. The government has not talked anything concrete about people’s issues. Take, for example, the crop insurance scheme. You are cutting farmer subsidies to give insurance. This means you snatch Rs.1,000 from the farmer and return Rs.200 as insurance as a sop.
University students have been raising these issues. That is why the government has cracked down on them aggressively. After JNU, the attack is now on Allahabad University, IIMC [Indian Institute of Mass Communication]. They know we will mount an informed campaign against them. They are polarising students too. This government has taken from us the meagre fellowship we were getting. Imagine, the ABVP did not campaign with us for an issue like fellowship.
Many Ministers of the government, including M. Venkaiah Naidu, who was himself very active in politics as a student, have said that students should not participate in politics.
That is why I said the RSS’ political ground is based on spaces created by its innumerable outfits. They use opportunistic alliances, social media campaigns, PR campaigns and various other things to destroy a genuine people’s movement. Now it uses money and muscle power and relies extensively on false PR campaigns. It knows that the genuine students’ movement does not need money and muscle power. Look at the JNU struggle. Did we need any money or a PR agency to launch such a nationwide movement? It feels threatened by our idealism and patriotism. And in this course, it has turned a small person like me into a big man. The real patriot will always side with us. Students, teachers, workers and all democratic citizens have come out in support of JNU.
It is a fight to save democracy. When you talk of democracy, we will have to talk about rights. When we talk about rights, it has to be anti-establishment. But this government is so authoritarian that it will never tolerate anything against itself. The threat that we perceive is symbolic of an attack on the Constitution. Today, if we become silent and let it saffronise and privatise education, never speak against widespread hunger and poverty, then the government will have no problem with us. Our fight is not against Narendra Modi ji and Smriti Irani ji but against the ideology that the RSS represents.
What are the immediate demands of the JNUSU?
After I got out of jail, I have tried to unite the JNU struggle within a constitutional framework. We have decided in the JNUSU council meeting that we will intensify the struggle against this anti-constitutional attack on JNU. Women students of JNU are being called prostitutes by the goons of the RSS. JNU students are being threatened, abused and beaten up. Some of the JNU students who live on rent outside the campus are being forced out of their rooms. It is as if a war has been declared against the university. We have to address these issues.
The immediate demands are the following: First, we want to file a defamation suit against the ABVP and some people in the JNU administration who ran a smear campaign against us. Secondly, the inquiry committee on the February 9 incident should be democratised and the suspension of all the eight students should be revoked. Thirdly, the legal case aside, our political demand is that the two students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, who are in jail should be released immediately.