We jailed him, we tortured him, we ostracised him. And yet finally when he spoke, he began by sharing that he held no resentment against anyone.
In his humility, there lay the promise of greatness that was about to be presented to the world in its full glory.
What followed will be remembered for a long time to come as a speech that redeemed India, saved its soul from being consumed by hyper nationalism devoid of any rationality.
The speech will go down in history as one of the best oratory performances by a student leader. The speech was memorable for its form as well as content. The composure, the clear headedness, the seamless flow from wit to profound pondering and again to wit, the stating of complex and confusing intellectual arguments in a simple yet powerful way ensured the speech could appeal to a cross section of population and turned Kanhaiya into a sensation.
It needed a student to be jailed and tortured by a blood thirsty nation to restore us to our senses. The speech could not have come at a better junction. It reminded us that the nation was not just a land but its people, that true nationalism lies in embracing all the people. Its attack on the false binary of nationalists vs anti nationalists couldn’t have come at a better time as well.
His speech gave vent to our collective frustration but still managed to move beyond mere frustration to hope. Through his speech Kanhaiya emerged as the moral lighthouse for a nation whose morality has been consumed by rage and raw emotions.
The speech revealed to us a young student leader pregnant with possiblities. Most other youth faced with such state-sponsored oppression, an ostracated witch hunting and social ostracisation would have been shattered and have given in to the system in bargain for a peaceful life.
Here is a person bestowed with exemplary courage who doesn’t give up even to the most extracting oppression. Instead, it only strengthens his resolve to create a fair and just world.
The exemplary traits that one saw on display is more vividly known through those who know Kanhaiya more intricately.
From them one learns Kanhaiya is that rare personality who can inspire people to support beyond traditional loyalities. He won the JNU student election despite contesting from an organisation (AISF) which had little base on the campus.
He won as people were impressed with his agenda, his skills and his commitment.
The students at JNU describe Kanhaiya as a person with disarming humility, ever ready to help those in need of help and an idealist whose idealism is “infectious.”
It’s, therefore, not hard to see why many believe that nation has discovered a new leader in Kanhaiya.
Before we dwell any further on the possibilities that await knahiya, it’s important we acknowledge that what Kanhaiya has already achieved.
Kanhaiya carried on his shoulder the burden of much more than just restoring his or JNU’s image. JNU was a mere symbol for a larger struggle-the struggle for India’s soul.
The goverment’s targeting of JNU was a calculated bid to attack the idea of a secular India, a land where substantial segment of population will have to constantly keep proving their loyalty.
The current right wing dispensation’s discomfort with secularism is hardly a secret but it was in this whole JNU affair that its design to challange that idea saw its boldest and, dare I say, most frightening manifestation.
By his spirited speech Kanahiya ensured, at least for the time being, that India will not be a nation divided between the so-called nationalists (supporters of present disposition) and anti nationalists (anyone who dares to question the government). It has also temporarily ensured that India will not be a nation, where thought becomes crime and mobs decide who is innocent or who is not.
Youth and politics
Kanhaiya’s arrest has ensured that the famed activism of JNU which had been on a decline till recently has bounced back. With an able face, student politics may witness an upswing and rediscover its lost mojo. In a nation with most of its population young, it is inexplicable that the political representatives are in their fifties and sixties and above.
The rise of student politics with competent leaders can significantly transform our political space. With new blood bringing in new ideas, profile of our political leaders may change even bringing an end to dynasty politics.
The student struggle may also fill the political vacuum and lead to formation of new political entities. Thus if Kanhaiya is able to organise student politics, give it a renewed energy through his example as well as future leadership, then the relation between Indian politics and its youth may change profoundly.
Alternatively, if Kanhaiya concentrates on working for left, with his fame, youthful appeal, ability to communicate complex message in a language understandable to the masses and his underdog background, he is everything that a struggling left needs at this moment.
The Left of desperately needs a popular leader, who can connect with the new generation. Kanhaiya, with his halo of being the David who took on Goliath, can provide the Left that face which can connect with the youth. Kanhaiya can also help address the left’s disconnect with the Ambedkarite movement due to its neglect of reality of caste and overemphasis of class. A glimpse of this possibility was seen when in his viral speech as well as press conference, he drew parallel between the red(communism ) and blue(Ambedkar movement) and when he declared Rohith Vemeula as his hero.
Prove to be Modi’s nemesis
In either of the two possiblities coming true, Kanhaiya may prove to be a big headache for Modi. When pitted against Kanhaiya, Modi becomes the Goliath and the victim card Modi played so effectively against Gandhi and UPA works against Modi in this clash.
The simple narrative of a bright student, from a poor family, from a backward state being jailed by a PM is something which does not require much effort to sell. Already with his viral speech Kanhaiya has got the platform to snipe at Modi’s Chaiwala image, paint him as an agent as an insecure, arrogant, heartless and authoritarian leader in war with the youth.
Already with growing mutinies across campuses Kanhaiya has a stage ready to promote this narrative. So, if the Kanhaiya phenomena proves to be sustainable, historians will note JNU crisis as the event which marked the beginning of the end of the Modi dispensation.
But in the road ahead Kanhaiya must negotiate many hurdles before the above discussed possibilities can come true. Fear of communist rhetorics among aspirational classes, resentment from traditional politicians who may not cheer him when they see him as rival are just some of the challenges he must overcome to shine at national stage.
We need young leaders who can think beyond the immediate and secure interest of next generation (which our greying politicians have very little incentive to care since they won’t be around by then).
We need leaders whose idealism has not been lost to cynicism that growing old instills in us. We desperately need a new idiom of social justice and leaders who shape our society in a more progressive mould. Can Kanhaiya be that youth leader ? Only time will tell.
The author has studied at IIT-Roorkee