Research scholar Kanhaiya Kumar has been in the eye of a storm for several months after events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University spiralled out of control in February.
After his arrest in February, he spent nearly a month in Delhiâ€™s Tihar Central Jail which bestowed on him an unsolicited fame. This celebrity status has now brought him much criticism, as he began to venture out beyond the confines of the university, to speak at events and campaign for candidates of political parties.
More recently, he, along with Left groups and their parent political parties, has come in for criticism from Ambedkarite student groups, both in JNU and beyond.
With the impending release of his book, "From Bihar to Tihar" published by Juggernaut, Kanhaiya spoke to The News Minute about the memoir of a particular time in his life, the Left, the Ambedkarite challenge to the Left, and student politics in universities. Edited excerpts:
Why this book?
I did not plan to write a book. When I went to jail, I started writing a few things about my experiences. When I came out, people asked me in interviews if I had written a jail diary. They asked if I would publish, and I said I would if I got the chance.
There are so many interpretations and narratives about what happened in JNU, why it happened and so on. On all these questions, our version should go out to the people. It was for this purpose that I wrote this book.
This book is not a biography, it is the memoir of a political journey.
Your views often subscribe to the party line in the book. Did the party approve the book?
If I was a part of the party, this book would not be published by Juggernaut, but by PPH â€“ Peopleâ€™s Publishing House. Since I am not a member of the party, the partyâ€™s approval or disapproval was not necessary.
Will you join a political party after you finish your PhD?
No. definitely not. When I went to jail, I did not have plans to write this book. In the same way, at the current time I donâ€™t have plans to join any political party.
There is a significant right-wing mindset in the country today. Do you think that the Left has failed in reaching out to the people?
You need to differentiate between Hindus and Hindutva. We have always attempted to break the political hold over religion. And I agree that we have not been able to do this effectively. If we had, BJP would not have come to power. The BJP has obviously won by defeating someone. But according to data, 69 per cent of people do not like the BJP (election vote share). The countryâ€™s common conscience is religion, for sure, but not a riotous religion. They are Hindus but do not want a Hindu rashtra. They believe in the constitution, secularism, democracy. We need to understand these people and understand their label, and communicate with them in the manner they understand.
You have used the â€˜Jai Bhim, Lal Salamâ€™ slogan. What is your understanding of Ambedkarite politics? During the JNUSU elections earlier this year, BAPSA critiqued the position of the Left alliance which according to them, refused to give only the position of president to a Dalit candidate during the JNUSU elections
I am opposed to any kind of monopoly â€“ whether itâ€™s an economic monopoly or a monopoly claim on a thinkerâ€™s ideas. This is going to be like going towards another kind of establishment. I invoke Gandhi, Vivekananda, Kabir, Guru Nanak... I think that they do not belong to any one community or identity. They are the great thinkers who have talked about the emancipation of all of society. Meaning Ambedkar does not belong only to Dalits. He talks about the problems of Dalits, raises questions of economics, issues of farmers, workers, women... We should not reduce any thinker to any particular movement. I donâ€™t think any ideology can give todayâ€™s youth all the answers. There is a need for a larger ideological unity. Between the Marxist and Ambedkarite perspectives, I clearly see a point of similarity â€“ both talk about equality, are against the establishment and all kinds of structural exploitations, they want to end them all.
Ambedkar took the Marxist concept of â€˜division of labourâ€™ and said that in the Indian context, â€˜it is not just a division of labour, but a division of labourersâ€™. Dalit groups say the Left simply does not understand this, citing the example of what transpired in the recent JNUSU elections.
I think that rather than focusing on what we have not done, what we have not worked out, it is more important to focus on what we are doing and trying to do.
The question of representation is not only for one political party. It is a social cause, a social question. This propaganda that some posts (in Student Union elections) has been reserved or held back for an upper caste person is not true. This is not an effective way to look at this question. Jignesh (Mevani) has given a position on caste: Class comes to India and becomes converted into caste.
It is important to address the question of representation, and tokenism. If BAPSA comes with the alliance, then they can definitely fight for the presidential post. And we do have examples from HCU of two elections when they fought together, and ASA had taken the post of President. Of course, there will be differences. We have to reduce the differences. Based on minimum understanding, how can we build the maximum unity?
You said in your book that you thought it was unfair on principle that representation was given to all communities based on caste.
Tokenism is the biggest critique of the fight for social justice in India. We have reduced the question of social change to electoral politics. Just becoming an MP or leader will not emancipate society. Maybe it will emancipate one leader of a community. Modiji has become the PM, but the chaiwala has not benefitted from it. Their children are still not going to good schools. This (tokenism) is what Brahminism puts forward and operates through that. We need to fight against tokenism, whether it is in the name of Ambedkarite politics, the Left, or the Right.
D Raja talks about Left unity, but you have said that Prakash Karat must go to New York. Is a left unity not possible?
Unity doesnâ€™t come because you or I wish for it. There have to be certain objective conditions. When people are at the receiving end of the state, they automatically call for unity. Within the university campus what is happening? ABVP has state power. And they are targeting people â€“ Dalits, minorities, and (non-political party) liberal people. When there is state repression, their helplessness will form that unity. The way NItish Kumar and Lalu Prasad came together in Bihar, is a big example. Where people arenâ€™t coming together, they are being defeated. â€¦
There are attempts to break the constitutional framework. Unity is not a question of will, but of necessity. You asked about the comrade (Prakash Karat). That comrade simply doesnâ€™t think that fascism is here. For unity, we need a minimum groundâ€¦ This assault on freedom of expression, let them have their political opinions, but if they are pro-constitution, pro-democracy, and feel threatened, that becomes a cause for unity. That becomes a centre-point for unity and people are uniting.
In the case of Najeebâ€™s death, people are taking to the streets together, facing lathicharge together, are agitating together. That is the need of the hour.
Is there self-censorship in the union? Students outside the political groups feel little is being done for them.
Objections will always be there. Democracy should have objections. There is need for diverse opinions. A democracy is strengthened by all these things. It is necessary to question leadership.
Left oriented students too are saying donâ€™t criticise the union.
They will say that. We are defending our position, but despite the differences people are taking to the streets together. That is more important.
Thereâ€™s no mention of any of your peers in the book.
I have left out a lot of things. But what I have written is true. Even in the acknowledgements, I wondered whoâ€™s name to mention and whoâ€™s not. People might think some leader has been mentioned, but not the other.
You can buy "From Bihar to Tihar" here.