Since the events at Jawaharlal Nehru University of February 2016, research scholar Kanhaiya Kumar has found himself as one of the most recognisable faces of Leftist student politics in the country. Kanhaiya was recently in Kerala to receive the first Honorary Award instituted by the K Madhavan Foundation in the memory of the late freedom fighter.
The student leader spoke to TNM after the ceremony on the current political climate in the country, the need for the Opposition to apologise and introspect, and the reports of him diving into the political fray.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
There are reports that you might contest in the 2019 elections? Is that true?
That’s not true. There are more deserving candidates in Kerala who have been a part of the Left government here. They should contest, not an outsider. Having said that, I will definitely be a part of the campaign, if required. I have done that before for my friend Muhammed Muhassin, a CPI candidate, during the 2016 Kerala Assembly elections.
You are in Kerala – the only major state in which the Left parties maintain a stronghold – to receive an honorary award in the name of a veteran freedom fighter K Madhavan, who called himself a Gandhian Communist. How would you respond to that?
I am grateful that I have been chosen for this award. To receive this kind of acceptance at a young age is very encouraging. It is important to remember comrades such as K Madhavan because it is the necessity of the time to revisit concepts such as Gandhism, Marxism and their synthesis. India faces the threat of extreme polarisation from the so-called nationalists, who were not seen when our country inched towards freedom. They, in fact, aligned with the British and are now busy spreading hatred and communalism. This is the time to invoke personalities like Gandhi, Kabir, Guru Nanak and other social reformists like Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. We should save our Constitution and democratic rights through the idea of rationality and logical reasoning.
How would you decode the emergence of BJP RSS to the mainstream politics? What according to you is the winning point of BJP and the challenge for the Opposition?
In the global scenario, when real bipolarity ended with the disintegration of the USSR, the West created Islamophobia. As Samuel Huntington said in his book – if there is no enemy, there is no unity. To create an enemy, the West had to polarise the world, which they did with terrorism. They funded ISIS and Osama bin Laden.
Now, back in India, a population of 25 crore Muslims, was also branded as terrorists. The RSS demolished Babri Masjid to polarise the society, invoking a certain insecurity among the minorities. A series of bomb blasts followed. The advent of neo-liberalism worsened the situation. In the midst of all the chaos, the right wing forces were successfully crafting an internal enemy that would polarise society, but unite the country in their favor. The rise of the BJP-RSS is not person-centric, it is to be understood as a long-planned cultural-political movement. This makes them a two-faced party, with a hard and soft version of right reactionary forces with a flavor of development.
The Opposition parties have now lost legitimacy among the people, for they have ruled for a long time and they couldn’t deliver accordingly. They can only challenge the present situation if they apologise to the public and collectively decide to change their narrative. Until and unless that happens, there can be no principled opposition to BJP.
You spoke about a synthesis of Marxism and Gandhism. How will this translate to the current context?
It is difficult to internalise the actual reality of Indian society on the basis of a European understanding of class struggle or class formation. When we analyse the evolution of Indian society on the basis of culture, economy or religion, we have different kind of instinct. We are a diverse country, therefore any kind of polarisation will not work. It is difficult to imagine all Indians in one picture because of our cultural diversity. In Europe nationalism emerged with the influence of language. This is not possible in India.
The key here is to understand unity and struggle as two equally important facets of the society. When we talk about religion, we should understand the human face of religion and the political face of religion. Hindu, Hinduism and Hindutva are not the same. We fail to locate and conceive the actual problem, for we are trained to see things in dichotomy. It is important to understand India through Indian thought processes. Synthesis of Marxism and Gandhism is therefore bringing unity and struggle together.
You have said, “We don’t need freedom from India but we need freedom within India.” What does that mean in the present Indian political climate?
We have adopted secularism in the Constitution, but not in the society. Hence the word Azadi, given by our very own Constitution, is termed anti-national. When we claim Azadi, we are not asking for freedom from India, but freedom within India. When we claim Azadi, we are neither anti-nationals nor separatists. We are not here to break the country, we are here to unite the country. Politics and culture are two equally important facets of a unified society. When we raise political slogans without culturally unifying a society, we fail to bring a heterogeneous society under one political umbrella.
The media is facing attack, even physically with the killings of some journalists like Gauri Lankesh. What are your thoughts on media and freedom of speech at this moment?
Unlike the opposition parties which have lost legitimacy, media is still seen as a legitimate platform by the people. Rational journalists speak truth to power; they are not the card holders of any political party. That is why they are threatened so much while politicians are not.
We have made the transition from the age of production to the age of information. Information in itself has become a mode of production, making communication the most powerful tool. This explains why BJP as a political party has worked effectively on building a strong team of trollers and internet meme-makers. A lot of our youth are unemployed, but they are equipped with smart phones, which means there is a never ending supply of information in the form of memes and trolls. Instead of using this energy to build the nation, BJP has banked on it to divert the attention from the basic issues.
You have said on various occasions that you prefer to keep your political ambitions to one side…
I don’t want to project myself as a political leader. A political career cannot be a personal choice, it has to be only based on the people’s will. Problems arise when politics is considered a career option. Today is the age of multiple professions. I believe all politicians and activists should consider a parallel profession to pay their bills.