Coming mostly from impoverished backgrounds and marginalised communities, the implicated JNU students have one other thing in common: passion to uphold the Constitution to build an inclusive society. By AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA and DIVYA TRIVEDI
The Delhi Police and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government claim that the six Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students on whom sedition charges have been slapped for raising “anti-national” slogans may have links with Pakistan-based Islamist groups. However, most of the JNU students dismiss the allegation as baseless saying that the accused students practised Left-democratic politics on the campus. “As leftists, they are atheists. They are theoretically opposed to all types of religious consolidation. How can they be Islamists?” asked Mohit, a JNU student.
The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) supports the accused students unambiguously. “The fact that people from deprived backgrounds are repository and depository of this institution, that they are able to get education and attain a certain level of mobility, is a thorn on the side of a new set of class which is engaging in a malicious smear campaign against JNU,” Prof. Bikramaditya Choudhary, general secretary of the JNUTA, said.
Their deprived background aside, what united these students was their activism on the campus. Be it the Occupy UGC movement or the agitation in January against the death of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University (HCU), they led the protests from the front and were at the receiving end of police lathis. Another thread that binds them is their passion to uphold the Indian Constitution to build an inclusive country that protects the rights of the marginalised and most vulnerable people. Here, the profiles of some of the victimised students.
The 29-year-old Kanhaiya Kumar is a sensitive and powerful orator, an attribute that won him the president’s post in JNU Students Union (JNUSU) elections in 2015. Hailing from a poor but politically vibrant village of Behat in Begusarai district of Bihar, Kanhaiya impresses listeners with his sharp criticism of Hindutva and Brahminism in his speeches. His ideas of Left unity and his deft handling of the government’s anti-poor policies have made him a popular student leader in Delhi. His leadership qualities show that one need not come from an elite or urban background to become a student leader in JNU. He belongs to the Bhumihar caste and has been associated with the Communist Party of India (CPI) ever since he became an activist of its students’ wing, the All India Students Federation. A childhood photograph shows him receiving an award from the late A.B. Bardhan, a CPI veteran. After completing his schooling from Barauni, he moved to Patna for his postgraduation. He is currently pursuing his PhD in African Studies at the School of International Studies in JNU. It has been a long-time position of Kanhaiya and the CPI that Kashmir is an integral part of India. At the same time, he is openly critical of the Sangh Parivar’s sectarian agenda of dividing the country along caste and religious lines. Most of his speeches end with Lal Salaam and Jai Bhim. The middle child among three brothers, Kanhaiya is the son of Meena Devi, an anganwadi worker, and Jaishankar Singh, a marginal farmer, who is paralysed. The house runs on the meagre monthly earning of Rs.3,000 of his mother. The family is proud of the Marxist legacy it has inherited from Begusarai and stands firmly behind Kanhaiya. Several spontaneous demonstrations were held in Begusarai against Kanhaiya’s arrest.
The 28-year-old Umar is a dreamer who believes in challenging any attack on freedom and rights. Deeply sensitive and fearlessly bold about taking a stand on issues considered taboo by the mainstream, Umar invariably finds himself in opposition to authoritarian excesses in various parts of the country or on the campus. He has been an active and visible face of democratic protests in JNU ever since he came to the campus in 2009. A bright student who rejected an offer from Yale University, United States, to pursue Marxist-Leninist politics in India, Umar is a PhD scholar in history. Had the brouhaha over the February 9 incident (an event commemorating the death of Afzal Guru) not been blown out of proportion, he would have presented a research paper at the Young Historians Conference at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU on February 18. His research is on the social history of land alienation among Adivasis in Singbhum, Jharkhand. Faculty members and students, including those affiliated to the Democratic Students Union (DSU), a group he belonged to, and other Left students’ groups with whom he has had sharp differences over various issues, are unanimous in their opinion that he could not have had any terrorist or anti-national connections whatsoever. (Umar resigned from the DSU in November last year along with 10 others over issues concerning gender sensitisation and Dalits.) They pointed to his ridiculous profiling on a television channel, which called him a “mastermind”. “For every programme [on the campus], somebody has to sign the permission form, and so, on the [February] 9th, he signed,” a friend said. Channels repeatedly aired the allegations that seven days before the February 9 event Umar went out of Delhi 14 times and made 800 calls to Kashmir whereas, a week before the February 9 event, he was sitting on a hunger strike along with other students at the administration block and was participating in protests outside Shastri Bhavan. He was even detained at the Parliament Street police station during dharnas in Central Delhi during this time. Contrary to the information put out by a section of the media, Umar is not from Kashmir. He hails from Amravati in Maharashtra. His family moved to Delhi more than three decades ago. His father S.Q.R Ilyas is the president of the Welfare Party of India. He is pained that his membership with the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), an organisation that he left even before it was banned, is being raked up to make Umar culpable in some way. He is on record that his son was being branded because he is a Muslim. Umar is a Marxist-Leninist and a non-believer. His sisters have been getting rape, acid attack and death threats ever since some TV channels launched a smear campaign against him.
The current general secretary of the JNUSU and a member of All India Students Association (AISA), Rama Naga, 24, comes from Ramgiri village in Koraput district of Odisha. His father sells bangles and owns around 2 acres (0.8 hectare) of land, which has been lying fallow for many years. A Dalit belonging to the Ghasi community, he has struggled through the feudal exploitation by the dominant Paik community in his village to finish his graduation. “If a Ghasi showed interest in studies, he would be either ridiculed or ragged by the Paiks. My grandfather cleaned spaces for vegetable vendors in the village’s weekly market. In return, he got vegetables and rice from the vendors. I always was treated like a cleaner,” Naga said. “My father wanted us to study but we hardly had any money. Without any assured income, my elder brother had to quit his education. But my father encouraged me as I showed interest in studies. The self-help groups in our village helped us with loans for my studies. But constant burden of debt and a family of five members meant that we had to live with very little facilities,” Naga said.
In order to pursue higher education he needed merit scholarship, for which he had to be one of the toppers in the entrance examinations. “My lecturers in Vikramdev College in Jeypore, Odisha, from where I finished my graduation, helped me a lot with studies. Two professors sometimes paid my tuition fees and mess dues, too. They also told me that I should apply to JNU,” Naga said. He had to borrow money from his professors to buy a train ticket to Delhi once he got through the JNU entrance examination. JNU’s subsidised education and scholarship has finally allowed him not to ask his parents for money. “Had it not been for JNU, I wouldn’t have managed to study after graduation. JNU provided an environment, where people like me find a voice. For the first time, I was treated like an equal citizen. I gained confidence in this university, felt dignified. The vibrant campus politics drew me to leftist politics. Where else can a Dalit from such a poor background be elected as the union secretary? We have fought against money and muscle politics and will continue to do so. Because I dream of a nation which is as equal as our university space,” Naga said.
ANANT PRAKASH NARAYAN
Son of a tehsil office attendant in the Uttar Pradesh administration, Anant Prakash Narayan, 30, is a member of the AISA and former vice-president of JNUSU. His father has been his role model. “My father is a well-educated person. Despite having an M.A. and B.Ed degrees from Banaras Hindu University (BHU), he ran around for a job for almost half his life. Only when I was in the higher secondary school that my father got a job as a Grade III employee. Before that he was a tractor driver. He always stressed that I and my three sisters should study as much as possible even if we had to live without comfort,” Narayan said.
A resident of Arghi Kalan village in Chandoli district, Narayan belongs to the Kharwar caste, an extremely underprivileged Dalit community. Through sheer hard work in understaffed government schools, he qualified for admission to BHU, did is B.A. in History, and went on to complete his Masters in Law. “I had to cycle 12 kilometres to go to the high school. My father would give me Rs.2 every day for contingencies like tyre puncture. When I got into BHU, I thought the struggle would end. But the kind of discrimination that we faced in the village continued in BHU. The practice of separate seating arrangements at lunch and dinner tables continued even in BHU. It is here that I was drawn to Left politics. Only leftist groups talked about issues that affected a large section of underprivileged students in BHU,” Narayan said.
He came to JNU to pursue research and is now doing his M.Phil in the Centre for Law and Governance. In his four years at JNU, Narayan has been a part of various student agitations to demand a more equitable university space. “We have raised issues against discrimination on the campus, have been resisting the government’s efforts to saffronise and privatise higher education. By branding us as anti-national, the government wants to stop people like me. We will protect the culture of debates and discussion in JNU until our last breath,” he said.
ASHUTOSH KUMAR YADAV
Ashutosh, former JNUSU president and an AISA member, has been a rebel since his childhood. Ashutosh’s grandfather was a renowned Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak. “I have lived in a joint family. Hindutva values were practised in my family. I remember my cousins and I playing with saffron flags and reading the Sangh mouthpiece, Panchjanya, as children.” Ashutosh finished his school in the RSS-backed Saraswati Sishu Mandir in Barh, a small town near Patna, Bihar. “In Barh, my grandfather Saryu Prasad Yadav was a prominent political figure. He contested the Assembly elections but lost. He even went to Ayodhya with a brick to break the Babri Masjid in 1992. But my childhood was not privileged. My father, a lawyer, was the only earning member in our 25-member family. As a child I saw fierce debates between my father and grandfather over our family’s meagre earnings,” Ashutosh said.
A second-year PhD student in Russian Studies, Ashutosh said it was at BHU, where he did his graduation, that his mental horizon widened. “Since we belong to the Other Backward Classes [OBCs], my grandfather always had a problem with the dominance of upper-caste groups in the Sangh. But I could see the ferocity of upper-caste dominance only in BHU. The teacher-student relationship at BHU was extremely feudal. A Sangh supporter would openly ask you about your caste,” he said.
“Exposure to progressive Hindi literature opened my mental horizons. I started reading more. Hari Shankar Parsai’s satirical writings especially influenced me. Slowly, I felt claustrophobic in the false world of Hindutva. The RSS’ teachings started to make me angry. Some Sangh-backed teachers at the BHU openly propagated the teachings of Manusmriti. The idea of Hindu Rashtra felt inhumane and hateful suddenly. The more I read about the Sangh’s history, the more I moved away from it,” Ashutosh said.
JNU became an eye-opener for Ashutosh and drew him away from the Sangh Parivar. “For the first time in JNU, I found that no political leader forced his thoughts on you. They argued, debated and discussed. I felt dignified. JNU leaders had better connection with students. In JNU, I got to learn about broader policy debates. I realised here that a world based on religious divisions is fake. Here teachers gave you a patient hearing instead of ridiculing you. That the Left groups went about campaigning rationally attracted me towards them,” he said.
Anirban, a student of the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, would have finished his PhD this year had he not been branded as an anti-national. He had recently quit the DSU on the grounds that it did not address and fully understand gender discrimination in revolutionary politics. “We are being termed as masterminds of anti-national activities. All I want to tell them is that we are master of our minds,” the 29-year-old Anirban said.
A graduate from St. Stephens College in New Delhi, Anirban found his true calling in Marxist revolutionary politics at JNU. A constant campaigner against state repression in Chhattisgarh, Kashmir, and north-eastern India, he has been extremely critical of the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda, which he thinks is a divisive and a hateful agenda. A romantic at heart, he is pained at the fact that the nation stands divided on communal and caste lines, something which he sees as principally anti-democratic. He wonders how an elected government stands against the very population, which has chosen it. As a history student, he is interested in topics like people’s movements, colonialism and neo-imperialism and is researching on Bengal’s tea garden workers under the colonial regime. He topped the Indian Council for Historical Research examination for scholarship. Known as “Ban” among his friends, Anirban is a good photographer and a poster-maker.
Son of a retired professor of genetics in Kolkata’s Kalyani University, Anirban said: “The media trial is not against us. It is against all the democratic values of this country.” He was drawn to Marxist politics when his father talked about student politics in his youth. “We have had heated discussions at home about Anirban’s beliefs and thoughts on caste, class, education and Marxism. I never thought his beliefs would one day land him in trouble,” his father N.M. Bhattacharya told a national daily.