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Welcoming Back Kanhaiya: An Electric Night And A Milestone For India

06/03/2016 8:42 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Press Trust of India

The air was thick with anticipation all day. Knots of people had gathered under trees, outside the hostels and in the dhabas, discussing the extraordinary events of the last 20 days. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had been under siege for the last 20 days and had been labelled throughout the land as a den of 'anti-national' subversives. The president of the students' union, Kanhaiya Kumar had been arrested by the police. The tribulations he underwent--beaten up by lawyers, having his credentials questioned and being dragged through the mud by sections of the media--seemed to underline the fate of those who dissent.

None of that mattered on Thursday because Kanhaiya was coming back to JNU for the first time after he left the campus in handcuffs!

The mood in the campus was festive, and defiant. We will not be bowed down by your intimidation, they seemed to be telling the State.

The mood in the campus was festive, and defiant. We will not be bowed down by your intimidation, they seemed to be telling the State. Ganga dhaba, a motley collection of eating joints near the main entrance, was a hub of excitement. An elderly gentleman had set up an acoustic guitar and an amplifier on a table in one corner and was strumming "revolutionary" songs. 'Guitar uncle' had come from Rajinder Nagar to welcome Kanhaiya. "Ham Honge Kamyaab, yab, yab" he sang and the group that had gathered around him was overcome. Two or three others took turns playing as the rest recorded with cameras or their mobile phones.

A group of girls were sitting by the roadside and singing 'revolutionary' songs. As the evening wore on the songs became more political. "Lal Salaams" rent the air and chants of "We shall fight, we shall win" were raised. By 8pm a large crowd had gathered. Different groups were expressing defiance in different ways. Camera crews were broadcasting the proceedings live, in the frenzied manner which has become a staple of television news.

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(c) Antariksh

At 9.30pm someone announced that "comrade Kanhaiya" had reached the campus. A frisson of excitement rippled through the large crowd. This was the moment everybody had been waiting for, the cathartic moment. The knowledge that Kanhaiya was back in the campus, where he belonged, was like a release from the vilification and slander of the last 20 days.

The look on Kanhaiya's face was defiant and unbowed. The next 45 minutes will surely go down as a milestone not just for JNU, but for India.

Slogans against "jaatiwaad", "manuwaad", "sanghwaad" and "poonjiwaad" were raised, along with chants of "Azadi" from the evils of caste, capitalism and right wing organizations. Posters of Baba Saheb Ambedkar were held up by people wearing t-shirts with Kanhaiya's profile.

The plan was to march the one kilometre from Ganga dhaba to the academic block, the nerve centre of the resistance efforts in JNU. It seemed like the whole campus was out marching in solidarity. At the head of the human wave were members of the JNU students' union, including the articulate vice-president Shehla Rashid and Rama Naga. Someone was waving a giant Indian flag.

A sea of people had gathered around the steps of the academic block. NDTV India's popular anchor Ravish was there with his crew doing sound bites. I was wondering what kind of speech Kanhaiya would make, given that the judge who gave him interim bail had warned him against making 'anti-national' comments.

Rama Naga started speaking and took pot shots at the ABVP (the wing students' party) and the unpopular police chief (now retired) B S Bassi. Ten minutes into his speech there was a huge roar from the crowd. Kanhaiya Kumar had been spotted.

Dressed in a black shirt and clean shaven--this caused mild surprise because comrades prefer the bearded look--Kanhaiya made his way to the mike, stopping to hug and backslap eager students. The look on his face was defiant and unbowed. The next 45 minutes will surely go down as a milestone not just for JNU, but for India.

In a witty, sarcastic and acerbic speech that touched upon all the holy and unholy cows that have plagued this nation, Kanhaiya Kumar came out swinging.

We are the true believers of the Constitution, he thundered in his endearing Bihari Hindi.

From "Primetime" to the ABVP, cops, Smriti Irani, condoms, doctored videos, his family and even Narendra Modi, they all found mention in his speech. We are the true believers of the Constitution, he thundered in his endearing Bihari Hindi. For a person who'd been behind bars while the drama around free speech and sedition played out, he displayed a remarkable awareness.

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(c) Antariksh

Recounting his experience in jail he mentioned conversations he had with cops about freedom of expression, sloganeering and sedition. He saluted the soldiers guarding the borders and said that cops and jawans tend to be of the same social class as him, the son of an anganwaadi worker.

We want azadi (freedom) not "from India, but in India", from hunger, poverty and oppression, Kumar said. You can tell he's a natural orator. Fake tweets, subsidizing higher education, Rohith Vemula, the Jat agitations, the price of dal were all woven into his speech.

Taking a mild swipe at JNU he said that students tend to use "heavy terminology" in political conversations. This should be avoided if one needs to communicate ideas outside JNU.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi found a mention. Speaking about Modi's speech in Parliament where he invoked Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Kanhaiya cheekily said he wanted to ask the PM if he would also invoke Hitler and Mussolini!

You can tell he's a natural orator. Fake tweets, subsidizing higher education, Rohith Vemula, the Jat agitations, the price of dal were all woven into his speech.

Surprisingly, Kumar also spoke about his Hindu origins, though stressing that he was from an economically deprived family from an economically backward state, thus trying to create class solidarity with other such groups, whether they serve in the armed forces or are farmers and labourers. I interpret this as an attempt by JNU to engage with its critics and formulate positions that have traditionally been avoided by the Left.

He stressed the importance of having discussion and debate in a rational and civil way. "If the critics convince me rationally that JNU should be shut I will agree with them," he said, the key here being rational, and not hate mongering.

However, JNU is a university that allows students from deprived backgrounds to access quality education. And this is what they--meaning the old men at RSS headquarters in Nagpur-- don't want, Kumar said with great rhetorical flourish. They want India to remain a hierarchical and stratified country rather than a democratic and equal nation as is envisaged by the Constitution, he added. We will not keep rising up as much as you put us down.

When we walked out of JNU late in the night we couldn't help feeling that we were walking out into a better, a changed, India.

The people I spoke to after the speech all agreed that they had witnessed something historic. The atmosphere was electric. Street parties were breaking out throughout the campus. We went to the 24/7 dhaba to get a bite and people were dancing on the road to "Azadi", which has become a YouTube sensation. In a corner in Ganga dhaba a group of students had assembled with a guitar and a dhol and were singing folk numbers.

When we walked out of JNU late in the night we couldn't help feeling that we were walking out into a better, a changed, India.

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