An Indian doctoral student has been charged by the national government for participating in a protest to mark the anniversary of a controversial hanging of a Kashmir activist. Here, students gather on March 12 in his defense. All photos by Barbara Miner.
Across India, students are organizing against an increasingly intolerant, right wing national government. A soft-spoken 28-year-old doctoral student at India’s top public university has unexpectedly become a focal point for the growing protest movement.
Two months ago, Kanhaiya Kumar was focusing on his dissertation on “Social transformation in South Africa.” Today he is charged with sedition and facing a possible life sentence for allegedly shouting “anti-Indian” slogans at a February protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.
The controversy is about far more than freedom of speech. Kumar has become the face of opposition to policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that are seen as furthering Hindu nationalism and religious intolerance, exacerbating caste and class divisions, and undermining India’s commitment to democracy.
Kumar, in person, is soft-spoken and deliberative, far from the media image of a rabble-rousing revolutionary eager to foment the breakup of India. In a recent interview on a quiet Sunday afternoon, in an outdoor courtyard at JNU, Kumar discussed a range of issues, from the crisis of finance capitalism, to his hopes for equality and democracy in India, to the need for international solidarity.
Addressing the sedition charges, Kumar replied, “We are asking for freedom inside India, not from India.”
The charges against Kumar stem from a February 9 protest at JNU, held to mark the anniversary of the still-controversial hanging of a Kashmir activist for participating in an attack on India’s Parliament in 2001. Kumar was arrested three days later for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans, such as supporting self-determination for Kashmir. Subsequent evidence has strongly suggested that the slogans were shouted by agent provocateurs, and that social media videos linking Kumar to the chants were fabricated.
Protests in Mumbai linking the attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University with the suicide of an untouchable student in January.
Kumar grew up in a low-income, leftwing family in Bihar, India’s poorest state but known for its political sophistication. He is a member of the All India Students Federation, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India, and has a decidedly wide range of interests. He is an enthusiastic singer, and in college ran a small film society known for showing movies such as The Bicycle Thief and Schindler’s List.
He is also president of the JNU student union, which has been central to protesting discrimination and planned budget cuts at India’s universities that would disproportionately affect low-income and low-caste students.
“There is a student upsurge here in India, as everywhere in the world,” he said in our interview. “The students are very organized, and the government is finding it difficult to manage the student community. So they are trying to suppress it.”
An international outcry has erupted over the sedition charges against Kumar—including a statement by almost ninety prominent academics that Kumar’s arrest is a disturbing example of the Modi government’s “culture of authoritarian menace.” Signers range from Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
India’s sedition law was enacted by the British in 1860 and used against Indian independence leaders, most famously Mahatma Gandhi. In contemporary times, it has been used to silence dissent and jail activists, thus derailing the political momentum of protest movements. Writer Arundhati Roy is among those charged with sedition, in her case in 2010 for advocating the right to self-determination in Kashmir. The charges subsequently dropped.
In our interview, Kumar stressed the importance of linking seemingly local controversies. Befitting his academic roots, he went into an extended explanation that involved theories of finance capitalism and neoliberalism—the term widely used outside the United States to describe pro-market, austerity and free-trade policies embraced by both conservatives and liberals.
But he ended with a clear and specific message to students in the United States:
“There should be three things. First, peace. And when we are demanding peace, we have to oppose the concept of war, any kind of war. “Second, progress. This financial capitalism is empty progress . . . . When there is economic surplus, it should be put into production of goods and services, not the system of gambling known as finance capitalism. “The third thing: I am not talking about a communist state. But there should be a just society, an equal society . . . . There should be equal education. There should be equal health facilities for all. There should be equal access to every kind of basic service.” “So this is my message to the students of the U.S.A.: Please fight for peace, progress, and equality.”
The protests at JNU are part of a growing student movement across India. They also take place in the context of intolerance fueled by the Modi government. Among other concerns, Modi is close to the rightwing Hindu movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which calls for Hindu supremacy in what is a religious and culturally diverse nation.
Bans on selling and eating beef (cows are sacred in Hinduism) have increased since Modi came to power in 2014 with 31 percent of the popular vote. One of the most disturbing incidents occurred last fall when a Muslim man in northern India was lynched after rumors circulated that his family stored and ate beef.
In October, a number of India’s most famous authors issued a statement deploring “growing intolerance” and returning awards or resigning from Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. “All spaces of liberal values and thought, all locations of dissent and dialogue, all attempts at sanity and mutual trust are under assault almost on a daily basis,” the writers said in a statement.
In November, students started an “Occupy UGC” movement, referring to the University Grants Commission and its attempts to curtail financial aide and potentially make it all but impossible for low-income students to continue their studies, particularly at the graduate level. Kumar’s family, for instance, makes about 3,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of about $50.
Then, in January, protests erupted nationwide after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (untouchable) research scholar, committed suicide. He did so after he was expelled from Hyderabad University following an incident with rightwing students aligned with Modi’s party.
Kumar also spoke of the international context of the rightward drift in India, in line with similar authoritarian movements in Western countries. Emphasizing the importance of unity, he said:
“We have to break the categories—that we are students so we do not support in the trade union movement, or are not in support of the ecology, or we are middle class so we will not fight for the poor class.
“We have to break through the categories. If I am communist, I have to talk to the social democrats, I have to talk to the liberal forces. If we want to establish a powerful movement, first of all we have to unite the opposition.”
As for his vision for India, Kumar speaks clearly and succinctly. “First of all,” he said, “I want to refer to our Indian constitution and our wonderful preamble that India should be a socialist, secular, democratic republic.”
“Second, there is a huge gap between the rich and poor. This should be the primary concern of the government, to resolve this gap. And we can. We can do that.”
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist; she and her husband Bob Peterson spent six weeks in India this February and March.