Dear Kanhaiya Kumar
(Written for scroll.in on March 16, 2016)
This is first time I am starting a letter with a Post Script instead of ending with one.
Dear Kanhaiya Kumar, I finished this letter to you on Monday night and must confess that not even in my worst-case scenario had I ever imagined that any educational institution would attempt to deprive its students of the sacred task of completing their education.
As I have said time and again, the most sacrosanct space and institution in any country in the world is the university. It is “hallowed” ground because it is the crucible for the finest and the most creative talents in society.
This is where the brand new zeroes, the new Paninis, the Platos and Socrates, the Upanishads, the edge-of-the-universe frontier sciences, sub-atomic particles, the Albert Einsteins, the Jayant Naralikars, the Amartya Sens, the future Nobel Laureates, the Thomas Pikettys, the environmental great souls and saviours, the critical inventions and discoveries of tomorrow are being mulled over, attempted, written, and argued about.
And now I open the newspapers on Tuesday to discover that the most retrograde, stifling and deadly virus has taken over the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a high-level committee has proposed that you along with Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and two others be rusticated. That you will not be allowed to study further, complete your PhDs and, like Rohith Vemula, will be asked to vacate the hostels.
Not just you and your colleagues, 35 students of Film and Television Institute of India are also being chargesheeted. Would we now prefer “Zika” brains to young minds bursting with ideas and hopes and adventures of the mind? Has the governing party at the Centre learnt absolutely nothing from what happened at the Central University in Hyderabad and how much it alienated the young and old of every hue?
I want to ask:
Where are you Ravi Shankar Prasad who had the honesty to say that the JNU had a fine tradition of scholarship?
Dear Piyush Goyal, we both come from the same alma mater, Don Bosco High School, and it was wonderful to hear you sing Our Father who art in Heaven at a school function, will you speak for the future of our varsities and our country?
Suresh Prabhu, LK Advaniji, Arun Shourie, how about you three?
Am I barking up the wrong tree? Are there no leaders in the echelons of the Bharatiya Janata Party who will have the courage and the integrity to stand up for intellectual freedom?
Are you going to permit the provenance of vidya, of knowledge, of Saraswati to become the prisoner of politics?
Is there nobody in the Central Cabinet who can tell Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his “Make in India” will be still-born if the university becomes the site for the persecution of independent ideas? That there is no greater crime than to deprive bright young people of their right to education?
And now, let me append the letter that I had already finished writing.
Dear Kanhaiya Kumar,
My name is Kiran Nagarkar. You don’t know me – and hence my name is irrelevant.
Forgive me for presuming to intrude on your privacy especially since you must be flooded with calls, emails, requests for interviews and so on.
I can offer at least one reason why you should perhaps ignore this letter. I am above the age of 70, closer to 75 actually, and Mr Modi has made it clear to the highly respected elders in his party that they may as well disappear into vanaprastha ashram for they are obsolete and irrelevant.
What I can assure you is that this is not a hate-mail.
On the contrary, I have chosen to write to you because I am deeply concerned about your safety and wish to offer a few perspectives on the peculiar situation you find yourself in.
Needless to say you are more than entitled to ignore my missive.
After this long prelude, let me finally come to the point.
A peculiar situation
What exactly did I mean by your situation being “peculiar”?
Quite simply, you are perhaps the most admired – as well as the most reviled – PhD student in the world. You are the classic example of what appears to be a preconceived plot gone terribly wrong.
For years now, the JNU has been the bête noire of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. And suddenly there seemed to be an opportunity to show it down as the powers that be in the human resource development and home ministries seem to have been informed by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad that the villains in this den of inequity had been caught red-handed while making some “anti-national” speeches.
The home minister later made a highly explosive revelation: apparently none other than the Lashkar-e-Taiba Chief Hafiz Saeed had supported the controversial JNU event on February 9. Simultaneously, a few media channels, representing the governing theology, seem to have gone into overdrive and, lo and behold, with the help of what has been shown to be doctored video footage, they managed to show you committing what they called was sedition – on camera.
By the next day, it was clear that Rajnath Singh had failed to pull wool over the eyes of all but die-hard Hindutva fanatics since he had quoted from a fake Twitter account. But by then you were taken into custody without the mandatory first information report and the super-patriotic, conscientious lawyers were good enough not only to beat you up but also to viciously abuse the most respected elders from their own community appointed by the Supreme Court.
All this while former Delhi Police Commissioner Bhim Sen Bassi claimed to have single-handedly saved the nation from a repeat of the Jalianwala Bagh tragedy. (How can we ever thank him for this great service to the nation?).
But, eventually, the plot began to unravel and the dirty tricks department stood thoroughly exposed.
The only reason I have detailed what is common knowledge is because I wanted to underline the fact that you have on your hands an anaconda that has been humiliated and stung and will not rest till it has swallowed you whole and there’s not a trace of you left.
They’ve already thrown every minister and accusation at you. No less a figure and lawyer than Arun Jaitley, who had earlier described authors returning their Sahitya Akademi awards as “a manufactured crisis” and the prime minister himself have got into the act. Even the honourable judge who gave you six months’ bail had a very problematic view of sedition.
It might be a good idea not to underestimate the fact that the honour and pride of the ruling party are at stake. They are bloodthirsty.
Which is why I feel compelled to highlight the need for you to sit with your highly competent lawyers and formulate a carefully crafted strategy.
The Azadi chronicles
Let me now move to a word that occurred time and again in your most famous speech: azadi or freedom. You spoke nobly of fighting for a variety of freedoms. Freedom from poverty, freedom of speech, freedom from unemployment; freedom to survive droughts, famines, bankruptcy and feed this nation by taking care of the beleaguered farmers; freedom that ensures the empowerment of women and rights of Dalits, tribals and minorities.
And yet you took for granted the one freedom which is the first freedom, the freedom from colonial rule and the winning of independence. This is why I need to offer a historical perspective. Does anyone from your or your parents’ generation recall our utterly unique national narrative? That we are the only country in the world to win our independence through a non-violent civil disobedience movement against the mightiest empire in the world? And that we owe our first freedom to Mahatama Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad and all the great leaders of the Congress, not to mention hundreds of thousands of our countrymen who stood by the doctrine of non-violence in the face of draconian laws and measures taken by the coloniser?
Let’s never forget that the Indian Marxists, RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha or the various incarnations of the BJP were never present or involved in the country’s struggle for independence. Then, as now, the only agenda that the RSS and its various affiliates, including the BJP, have is its rabid fanaticism and pure hatred for the Muslims. One has merely to read the incredibly provocative statements of the BJP leaders like Kundanika Sharma, Yogi Adityanath or Union Minister of State for HRD Ram Shankar Katheria egging their members to dire violence against the Muslims, and even the Christians.
The BJP rank and file have nothing but contempt for Dalits as was underlined once again when Rohith Vemula committed suicide and they vociferously fell back on endless lies to defend their despicable role in his death.
As for the Communists, even as late as 1962, Jyoti Basu and others of the same ideology were justifying the Chinese invasion of the country.
As a PhD student at JNU, I hope you never forget that it was the Congress cadres at all levels which fought for and won our first freedom. And that the first betrayal and the appalling corruption of the Congress ideals came, as is so often the case in world history, from its own ranks.
Uniting the divided
While I don’t want to forget that Lenin, Stalin and Mao amongst the three of them committed genocides amounting to millions of their own people, it is not my intention to keep harping on the so-called Communist past in India.
While the RSS and the BJP are stuck in their deadly, divisive Hindutva agenda and their obsession with unbridled crony-capitalism, the communists hopefully will get down to fighting the good fight once again – that is if they can get their act and élan together – for the poor whether they be Dalits, farmers or labourers, the utterly marginalised tribals, or the millions of jobless in the cities and towns of our country. This is where perhaps your biggest contribution could be.
First of all, it is extremely important that these different groups coalesce and can thus no longer be ignored. Our political parties have learnt their lesson from our colonial masters: Divide and rule. They play one group against the other and wake up only during election time to exploit that feckless institution called the vote bank.
You and your colleagues must put an end to this practice to start off with. But much more important than this is the urgent need to replace old and moribund strategies with new and highly effective ones.
For instance, how long are we going to let successive governments butcher the so-called Naxalites or maltreat the Dalits? While the grievances of the tribals and others are very real, their responses have become hidebound and so is the public reaction to them. Not only is there a need to present their case in a far more engaging way but there is need to think of an effective process by which the depressed and the damned can assert their rights. Needless to say, this should all be strictly and scrupulously within the ambit of the law so that when push comes to shove, the wretched of the earth will never be caught on the wrong side of the law and suffer for it.
If you have the time I would like you to read at least the first act of my play, Bedtime Story which deals with the tribal Prince Eklavya. Never forget that Ekalavya was a self-made man and yet was a better archer than Arjun. But even more to the point, the first act will show you how Eklavya squares matters with the wily Dronacharya.
Education is key but so is information technology and other smart modern technologies. Where would you have been if what you actually said was not caught on camera for the world to see? Likewise, let the roving cameras of young men and women be employed in bringing the truth forward and exposing the falsehoods.
Again, if you are fighting for a good cause you need to know how to use the media to your advantage.
You have to make sure that over a period of time you develop a whole phalanx of superb and dedicated lawyers as part of a dedicated team, so that the best possible legal defence is available in case of any foul play – or even to challenge flawed and unfavourable judicial verdicts in higher courts of appeal.
Don’t burn out
All this in good time. But first focus on the subject not only of your physical safety – but also in terms of your frame of mind. I want to underline how you are at risk from yourself. And to do that I would like you to watch the documentary film called Amy. Perhaps you’ve already seen it. Perhaps jazz leaves you cold. Never mind. Watch it. Amy Winehouse was a brilliant singer. She wrote her own songs. By the time she was 17 or 18, she was a phenomenally successful artist. The camera loved her and so did her millions of fans. She broke many a record, but at what cost? She was gone from this world before she was 28. The phenomenon is called burn-out.
You have been in the glare of publicity. The demands made on you are colossal. The BJP and their RSS colleagues hate you, just as your fans across the country adore you. It’s a bad mix – nay, it’s a deadly mix. Never underestimate the stresses and strains of being in your shoes. There’s absolutely no shame in getting some psychological help to keep your focus on sanity while keeping the burn-out syndrome at bay.
You and all the younger generations of today are crucial to this venture called India. Its success or failure depends on what all of you bring to the table, as long as you keep the flame of integrity and openness alive.
For our own sake, I wish you all the very best.