“The people in power are concentrating and centralising all the powers in their hands to control every bit of information from one centre. What we as the fighting forces need to do is to decentralise the same power.” Kanhaiya Kumar talks to Bishwadeep Mitra on his book ‘Bihar to Tihar’, and how it is a memoir comprising people from different realms of the society coming together in the journey of a single person.
Since 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar has become the face of #StandWithJNU movement after he was arrested on the charges of sedition and committing ‘anti-nationalist’ activities. A student activist hailing from the Begusarai district in Bihar, the former President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union has written a political memoir ‘From Bihar to Tihar’ detailing on the many lives he led before coming to JNU and after his arrest.
That is why the book, which I have written has been named ‘From Bihar to Tihar’ and it is not a political biography but a political memoir. It is not a story of a person but the entire gamut of people connected to that particular person; a political journey not of a single person but a memoir comprising people from different realms of the society coming together in the journey of a single person.
To begin with, tell us about your journey till you came to JNU. How did the Communist Party’s ideology attract you? And what has your father’s influence been on your political trajectory?
Ever since I was charged for ‘anti-national’ activities, I have taken this question very seriously. The Kanhaiya, who went to jail is known to everyone but not many are aware of the Kanhaiya from before the tumultuous times of JNU. That is why the book, which I have written has been named ‘From Bihar to Tihar’ and it is not a political biography but a political memoir. It is not a story of a person but the entire gamut of people connected to that particular person; a political journey not of a single person but a memoir comprising people from different realms of the society coming together in the journey of a single person.
I belong to Begusarai district in Bihar. Begusarai is known as the Leningrad of Bihar. For the last fifty years, in our constituency, the Communist Party of India has been in power. Thus, it is known as mini-Moscow. I have grown up within the leftist jargon and words like ‘revolution’, ‘comrade’, ‘Lal Selaam’, ‘bourgeoisie’ were in common use with the local dialect. Such phrases, terms became acclimatised with my local dialect. Apart from that, my father had for some time aligned with the Radical Left parties before IPF (Indian Peoples’ Force) was formed. My maternal grandfather supported the Congress while my paternal grandfather was a member of the AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress). So, from the very beginning I have been exposed to a culture of mixed political backgrounds.
My father always wanted me to study, as I was inclined towards literature since my childhood. No farmer wants his child to continue farming; he wants him to study, then get a job and start life afresh. I have two brothers and a sister. Due to lack of financial resources, my father could only afford to teach me. After completing my schooling in my village, I came to Patna. It was there that I came in touch with AISF (All India Students’ Front). In my college AISF was not a political organisation but a union which fights for the basic rights of students like electricity and water in hostels, books in the college library and so on. Eventually I joined AISF, as their activities impressed me. Thus, along with my academic journey started my political journey and from there incidentally I reached JNU.
Let’s start by saying this: without any cultural movement there cannot be any social movement and without any social movement there cannot be any cultural movement. Both are inextricably linked. There is an inter-dependence of these two forces of resistance.
In your book, you mentioned participating in cultural movements of IPTA. Can you elaborate on them? What are the various forms of cultural resistance against the onslaught of right-wing cultural fascism? And what do you think is the significance of such protests?
Let’s start by saying this: without any cultural movement there cannot be any social movement and without any social movement there cannot be any cultural movement. Both are inextricably linked. There is an inter-dependence of these two forces of resistance. We also need to understand the social topography of India keeping in mind its diversity. Here, connecting with the masses culturally is much easier than connecting with them politically or economically. For instance, the Communist Party in Begusarai fought for the rights of the downtrodden, the Dalits, their lands against the existing feudal regime and the hegemony of the landlords. It was the social counterpart of the movement. Along with it, IPTA staged protest plays against the same hegemony and conflation of feudalism and capitalism, the exploitation of the masses by the zamindars and landlords. An extremely popular play from those times was Samrat Ko Nahi Dosh Gusai (Those powerful, there is nothing against them). Poster was another popular play by IPTA on the trade union movements in the factories. Migration has haunted our country from the times before independence as well. Amli was another popular play based on migration. It was in Bhojpuri. It was a heart-rending tale of a farmer who loses his lands to fill the coffers of the landlord and he migrates to Calcutta in search of work leaving his wife behind. The upper caste and the rich take advantage of the woman… a very familiar tale of the claws of feudalism and capitalism plaguing every hapless human of this independent country. Amli had a deep effect on the political consciousness of the people. Poster showed how a landless farmer transforms to a labourer and how the people of power of different modes of production are linked in the perpetration of this exploitation. IPTA fused socio-economic issues with folk songs, which attracted people from all fringes of the society. Utilising the fertile cultural fabric of the country, the cultural protests had a huge impact on the psyche of the population, thus mobilising and politicising them.
Did the British introduce education in India so that the toiling masses could read, write and educate themselves so that they could organise and agitate against the British themselves?
The battle of cultures, the battle of philosophy brings us to a pertinent question – that of the writing of history. History has always been written except its historiography wasn’t ever verified. Can you elaborate on the politics of writing history?
We need to understand that education itself is a very important and powerful political tool. Whenever power and its owners (in this case capitalists) provide education they do it to serve their own class interests, sustain their class dominance and retain their monopoly over production. Did the British introduce education in India so that the toiling masses could read, write and educate themselves so that they could organise and agitate against the British themselves? The approach to observe education must be dialectical. One thing must be kept in mind: while inclining to preserve indigenous cultures, people tend to become anti-technology. If this confusion is cleared in the minds of the people, the other contradictions, be it methodology of approaching history, the content of history to focus on etc. are relatively easy to overcome and they can actually be used in favour of transformation of the system. If people today argue that with arrival of technology workers are losing their jobs, their dignity, we must ask ourselves when technology had not yet reached all corners of the society did workers have jobs? Or did their labour have any dignity? If we are talking about developing a counter-culture we need to use technology in our favour rather than rebuking it. For instance, had there been no YouTube, I would not have heard the song ‘Tomar ghor e bosot kore koye zona’. The question is not whether to use technology or not, but how to use it. Ownership of technology and use of technology are very different entities. Here there is a contradiction between the kinetics of science and the philosophy of science. Kinetics of science is objective. The objective rules of nature will work the same everywhere. The philosophy determines who uses technology and how. I would say that the indigenous culture needs to be preserved and updated with the help of technology. They need not oppose but should complement each other.
Their strategy is to bombard the population with wrong information so that people either get confused or start believing in the wrong information disseminated via largely available networks throughout the globe. It is this phenomenon of distortion, which has led to the prevalence, and relevance of a term in contemporary academia called ‘Post Truth’. It is happening because it is completely based on propaganda.
Within three months of the release of your book, its parody was released by the party which is in power – it’s your voice versus that of the State, in the most perverted sense possible. How do you map this battle of perception in your personal life to that of the populations on whom wars is declared every day like that of Kashmir? I mean you are a citizen of this country and the State is trying its hardest to stifle your voice. How do you relate this with the war going on in Kashmir?
What they have been facing, what they have faced throughout history, its degree is incomparable to what I faced in the past year. I mean if we protest police lathi-charges us, locks us up for some hours and then leave us with warnings. If they protest, the State either uses pellet guns or throws them behind bars after accusing them of Naxalism or Islamic terrorism.
But if you talk about distortion of facts, events and people by the State, you will observe a typical pattern. The British State called Bhagat Singh a terrorist. While the legacy continues to this day, its intensity has increased manifold. Its intensity has not increased because the people seated in power have become more potent but because there has been a communication revolution in the past thirty years. The only revolution that has happened in our era seems to be communication revolution (laughs)! The total concentration of power today rests on information as the echelons of power sit on a digital world. There is this huge access and exchange of information among the common people, which the ruling class has to control and distort. Instances like buying off the mainstream media, doctoring videos, monopolising the main sources and centres of information are evident of how the ruling class concentrates their entire energy on controlling the available information flowing across the entire web. Their strategy is to bombard the population with wrong information so that people either get confused or start believing in the wrong information disseminated via largely available networks throughout the globe. It is this phenomenon of distortion, which has led to the prevalence, and relevance of a term in contemporary academia called ‘Post Truth’. It is happening because it is completely based on propaganda.
The only way to counter this is establishing a counter or alternative channel to disseminate the truth. There is no other way. The people in power are concentrating and centralising all the powers in their hands to control every bit of information from one centre. What we as the fighting forces need to do is to decentralise the same power. If they have trollers to misinform people and make jokers out of activists, we need to organise to open up various channels of correct and authentic information in various parts of the country. Only information can counter information.
Is it the first time people have been killed in Kashmir or women have been raped there or is it the first time democracy has failed there? What has happened for the first time? The only thing which has happened for the first time is people from mainstream India has put forth the discourse of Kashmir in political forums, in debates, in discussions, in seminars.
Is it at all feasible to fight against such a mammoth organised media structure?
But I must tell you this: State repression on Kashmir is not new. What is new is people from what we call ‘Mainland India’ standing in support of Kashmir and its people. Whenever I say this to people they say I am very optimistic. My optimism is not without facts. Is it the first time people have been killed in Kashmir or women have been raped there or is it the first time democracy has failed there? What has happened for the first time? The only thing which has happened for the first time is people from mainstream India has put forth the discourse of Kashmir in political forums, in debates, in discussions, in seminars. This has been possible only because authentic information has also reached people overcoming the perception management of the State. I am not saying this is enough. I am saying this is the beginning.
Disappearances and fascism are intricately linked and it has started with the disappearance of Najeeb keeping in mind his minority identity. Such disappearances will be normalised in a dictatorial rule.
As we are discussing university spaces, and JNU, I want to ask you about a person who marks vehement changes in the political landscape of the country: Najeeb. How do you perceive his disappearance? Does this somehow mark the return of the large-scale disappearances of the sixties? Do dictatorships, disappearances and crisis of capitalism link each other into one single narrative?
These three elements are ever-present. In addition to this is, as I mentioned before, distortion of facts. This element has been used against Najeeb since the inception of his disappearance. A rumour was spread that Najeeb attacked the ABVP students first while they were campaigning for their own party. The rumours were completely based on dividing and subtracting Najeeb, a Muslim, from the larger masses. The use of Islamophobia in this case again falls in line with the dominant narrative of mainstream propaganda to stray the masses off the truth. Crisis of capitalism exists everywhere as the neo-liberal economic regime is crumbling. Thus, capitalism has to make use of Islamophobia to manufacture fear among the public. Apart from that, the authoritarian and dictatorial rule is tightening its noose across the country and JNU is no exception. The mob violence perpetrated by students of ABVP was ignored by the arrogant administration while students who pressurised the administration to reduce the marks for viva-voce were immediately suspended. The nature of the State slowly changes from authoritarianism to fascism. The final weapon deployed is that of forced disappearances. Disappearances and fascism are intricately linked and it has started with the disappearance of Najeeb keeping in mind his minority identity. Such disappearances will be normalised in a dictatorial rule. This can be a possibility. But without proper investigation, without the correct fact findings we cannot throw hypotheses like the Right wing does. This is my personal analysis surrounding the entire disappearance incident. It may be wrong and I hope it is.
With each passing day, the administration of JNU is becoming more arrogant than ever, all set to realize the aims of the fascist Hindu state. It is symbolic of the power resting in Delhi. What is your opinion on this and how to continue fighting this repression reaching all levels of the institution?
All the liberal institutions are under threat and not just JNU. Such institutions are always under threat because the ruling class thinks that students, youth and the rational intellectual gamut of the society can challenge the ongoing State repression, the power network of capitalism resulting in a movement against the feudal-corporate state. Thus, wherever they can gauge a possibility of any movement they want to nip it in the bud. Increasing repression on all the liberal spaces is a part of that strategy, all the institutions that have history of student movements have been filled with the ruling party’s hard-core cadres. Starting from the administration to student bodies, their cadres have infiltrated every space of such universities.
The retaliation from our side is at times organised but inconsistent while other times it is completely unorganised. This is the only problem.
The past year has been a year of large scale student protests. From Vemula to Najeeb. But all the protests are not combining into one essential mode of protest unlike the sixties. Why do you think this is happening?
I keep quoting Martin Luther King in every interview, every chance I get. He said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Their attacks, sheer brute force and assaults are organised and structured. The retaliation from our side is at times organised but inconsistent while other times it is completely unorganised. This is the only problem. If we are able to establish a larger student youth front against the regressive ideology of the state to protect rights of every individual and there is consistency in the common minimum understanding of the front, then only can we resist the fascist assault of the state machinery.
All will be required for the joint struggle against rising fascism.
In all your speeches, and your general opinion on fighting the Right, you have talked about consolidation of the Left in the sphere of protests. Last year, the banned CPI (Maoist) party gave a call for left unification which was accepted by CPI. What is your personal take on this?
This is a necessity of the time, right? Not only the left parties but consolidation of all progressive elements of the society is the need of the hour. We really need to shed off our puritan approaches to ideologies. Ideological differences have always existed between the parties, be it between CPI and CPI (M), or between CPI (M) and CPI (Maoist) party. It needs to be kept in mind that the differences and contradictions within and among the Left fraternity are not turned into opposition and used against them. We also need to call upon the various individuals, groups and forums who do not identify directly with the Left but are progressive elements of the society. All will be required for the joint struggle against rising fascism.
Justice is now sought by the ruling class and its cadres in kangaroo courts, media trials, in broad daylight on the streets. Therefore, I can say that it is utmost necessary to fight for the values enshrined in the Constitution of the country.
Throughout your journey of the last year, you were beaten up by lawyers, random goons of the right wing. You were incriminated for upholding the truth while the lawyers did everything with impunity. How did this affect your faith in the constitution? Were there moments when you lost faith in the Constitution and the ideals it upholds?
Not at all. Rather it became even stronger. I realised that the constitution needs to be preserved at any cost. When we do not face any onslaught on our fundamental rights, we do not get to know the rights that we have as citizens. Let alone democracy that we want to establish, the values of bourgeois liberal democracy are under threat as well. There has been many cases where people have not got justice even after going to courts. But in the recent times, we don’t even get to reach the courts to avail justice. Justice is now sought by the ruling class and its cadres in kangaroo courts, media trials, in broad daylight on the streets. Therefore, I can say that it is utmost necessary to fight for the values enshrined in the Constitution of the country.
Image via thewire.in