by Sanjay Kaul
The incarceration and release of Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) in a sedition case, has been greeted with great pomp by a section of the media; enough to warrant exasperation among a vast section of neo-nationalists, who are ruing the spectre of a hero’s welcome being given to a man, they believe to be wholly undeserving of the halo.
There is also the typical commentary on how the BJP created a mountain out of a molehill, turning David to Goliath and giving rise to a firebrand, where no brand earlier existed. I have noticed the consternation of people who said it took talent to convert a Kaun Hai Yeh to Kanhaiya and that the BJP is flat-footed where it has to be fleet-footed. As usual, the finger-pointing is quick and miss-targeted.
It is true that if it weren’t for the assiduous tailing of the issue by the ABVP in JNU, members of which who took umbrage at the content and hate-spewing against the nation by a group of now anonymous people, this matter could have been just canteen banter or at the most a nukkad natak, if left alone. The charge is that taking such over-the-top cognizance, taping the incident on phones and allowing media into the campus and overzealousness of BJP MPs to report the matter to police created the cinema-scope dimensions it finally did. The counter argument is that JNU has always harboured a section of students and faculty that lives on the fossilized ideas of the Left and Extreme-Left and that this time, it had gone too far. What also exacerbated the situation was the attempt at organising a similar anti-India event at the Press Club, which was denounced with much more alacrity and a lot less liberal angst. But this was JNU. So how dare you!
Enough has been said by almost everybody, conspiracies have been floated and punctured; videos uploaded and downloaded; police action called for and then uncalled for and a bail order came for the JNU President, but only after a scathing advisory by the court. Naturally, both sides are exulting: A lesson has been taught.
After his release and triumphant return to the University, cries of azadi have once again rent the air, but a nuanced version not to upset the High Court. Turns out Kanhaiya and his cohorts still want azadi, but within the parameters of the Constitution and borders of the nation. Supporters of an impending revolution thought the Kanhaiya Kumar spin was ingenuous and praised the speech as one of high-caliber laced with poison darts and veiled references against everyone associated with the Indian state, the BJP and the RSS. Critics thought that this new version of azadi was disingenuous and the mark of a man chastised.
Either way, a kaleidoscope of opinions has emerged on both side of the divide. The BJP’s opposition are witnessing the rise of a new hero; the Left a savior in their Bengal and Kerala electoral battles; perennial activists a rising son, Modi baiters a new Modi baiter and at least one cerebral Congress spokesperson, a Che Guevara. The Kashmiris, who has suddenly woken up to the possibility of a remote command centre in the heart of the nation’s intellectual bastion also expressed solidarity with Kanhaiya to the extent that he was sympathetic to their cause of azadi. Naturally, nationalists are equally sanguine that this sort of petulance against the state will no longer be tolerated.
I have been less perturbed than most of my compatriots because I believe that much good has come out of this episode. For one, it has fertilised a debate in areas that were earlier almost no-go in JNUland. The presence and growth of a unit like the ABVP is itself a new and welcome development that offers some much-needed competition to the traditional Left way of life. More importantly, it has bipolarised the debate and the Left’s free run at JNU is finally coming to an end. Even if we were to coarsely insist on positioning ABVP as representative of an illiberal ideology, the fact that this liberal haven is now populated with illiberal voices, a delicious thought and frankly gives a more democratic angle to the intellectual geometry of JNU. Now, who wouldn’t welcome more diversity at JNU?
But I think that the greater determinant of how Kanhaiya and his comrades have shifted the base for the narrative on azadi is yet to be understood by most. For that, you only need to step back and listen to the cries of azadi, 50 times in 15 minutes, as one happy observer seemed to suggest. Here’s the thing: There’s a fresh whiff to this demand for azadi from all kind of ills that the Indian state represents for these young, bright revolutionaries. Note that that is a great deviation from the putrid azadi of the Kashmiris. For a change, we now can aspire for azadi from casteism; which is welcome; from poverty, which is laudable, from oppression which is wonderful and so on and so forth – and all of them charitable ambitions that nobody can disagree with.
My compatriots who lean right on nationalism and particularly on the issue of Kashmir must therefore welcome the return of Kanhaiya Part 2 as a great new act to follow, for who else has been able to democratise the word azadi and free it from the amorous clutches of the Kashmiri separatists with such ease. Even if rhetorical, or disingenuous, this new sanitised version of azadi has deconstructed the word and given it such flexibility of meaning and usage that it has lost almost all its powers as a lodestar or a beacon in the path of the rebel looking for a cause. The word is detoxified and it can now perhaps exhibit passion, but it can no longer offer direction to the revolution seeker. More power to Kanhaiya Kumar! He has democratised azadi to mean something for everyone. Nobody will ever be able to call him anti-national again. And azadi will now forevermore be another impotent war cry in the arsenal of the subsidized Indian revolutionary. Celebrate it, because this is the beginning of freedom from azadi.
Sanjay Kaul is a BJP member and tweets @sanjay_kaul. Views are personal.