Elections 2019

Kanhaiya Kumar Is Forging a New Political Career From His Hometown

In 2016, he became controversy's child with his alleged anti-India slogans. In 2019, this feisty student leader has returned to Begusarai to unofficially begin his election campaign as a Lok Sabha member.

by Zeyad Masroor Khan; photos by Zeyad Masroor Khan
22 February 2019, 10:55am

Kanhaiya Kumar obliges for a selfie outside his house in Masnadpur village, Bihar.

In 2016, days after the alleged anti-India slogans in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the subsequent media trial of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, a mob of over a hundred—comprising members of Bajrang Dal, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and other Hindutva groups—assembled at the Zero Mile Chowk in Bihar’s Begusarai. This was a few kilometres from Kumar’s home in Masnadpur village. “They began marching towards our village, shouting slogans of ‘Traitor’,” says Rajinder Singh, Kumar’s eldest uncle, who sits with a few village elders while his controversial nephew sits with the younger ones in another corner of their home.

“Our whole village united to defend our home. Men and women came out with their sickles and knives. The mob eventually dispersed,” Singh recounts. As party workers from Communist Party of India (CPI) and its student wing All India Students Federation (AISF) continue to assemble outside Kumar’s home, I look around the house. It is comparatively smaller than other houses in the locality, and has a bamboo roof and sparsely painted walls and pillars. Plastic chairs, farm tools and heaps of blankets dot the verandah. The adjacent field of mustard flowers glows in the morning sun. “My home is just like most others in Bihar, which surprises many visitors. However, I don’t think my family’s struggle is unique,” says Kumar, as he politely accepts selfie requests from a fan.

On January 1, 2019, the former president of JNU Students' Union arrived at his hometown to unofficially kickstart his election campaign as the CPI’s Lok Sabha candidate from Begusarai. Begusarai is an industrial town also known as ‘Bihar’s Leningrad’ for its history of communist politics. It is known for its oil refinery, a thriving theatre scene, being the birthplace of socialist leaders like Chandrashekhar Singh and poets like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, and, often, the site of political and class violence between the right- and left-wing activists.

However, nowadays, people know it as the hometown of Kanhaiya Kumar: the boy who was charged with sedition in 2016 for his alleged role in raising ‘anti-national’ slogans in JNU.

Begusarai is known for its ingrained socialist politics.

From the Top

Begusarai, says Kumar, has had an old connection with India’s sedition laws. “In 1952, a local communist leader referred to the Congress leaders as goondas (goons) and cops as dogs, leading to a case of sedition against him,” says Kumar. The resultant Kedarnath Vs State of Bihar case became a landmark judgment in India’s legal history, in which the Supreme Court decided that criticism of the government and the ruling party can’t be classified as sedition. “Pehle woh case popular hua tha. Dusra humara hua hai. (His was the first case that got popular. The second is mine),” he says.

However, the 2016 case and following controversy did take a toll on him and his family. After he was beaten up by a group of lawyers in Delhi in 2017, followed up by posters announcing a Rs 11 lakh bounty on his head by a regional party, his relatives were under duress. “They were worried for my safety, of course, even fearing that I’d be killed in prison. But I knew they are strong enough to withstand the phase,” says Kumar. A few months after the JNU controversy, his father passed away.

One of his uncles, Ram Udgar Singh, was shocked to find out what his nephew was being accused by the media. “I was in Kerala, watching TV at a tea shop and I see his face being encircled in a red mark with text saying ‘deshdrohi chaatr’ (traitor student). But never for a moment did I lose faith that my nephew is a patriot,” says Singh.

(From left) Kanhaiya Kumar's uncles Ram Udgar Singh and Rajinder Singh, and a neighbour.

“Most of our family members are in the Indian Armed Forces and government jobs,” says Prince Kumar, Kanhaiya’s younger brother. He recalls growing up playing bagicha (a game of hide-and-seek where players climb up trees) with their eight cousins at this home. His childhood friend, Randhir Kumar ‘Tony’, remembers Kumar as a studious, focused boy, who avoided petty village fights. “Bahut seedha ladka tha ye (This boy was very decent),” he says. However, Kumar's uncle Rajinder Singh says he used to get into fights when someone bullied boys from the Dalit community. “We were proud when he won a prize for his role in a village plays,” he adds. Kumar, on the contrary, says his school life was spent finding excuses to bunk classes. “If there was any wedding, I’d work for it like it was my sister’s to find excuses to bunk schools.”

After he went to Patna University for his graduation in 2004, Kumar began to gravitate towards student politics and communist ideology. He joined AISF. “He used to visit the party office to read English newspapers to strengthen his hold over the language. Moreover, he had seen a political atmosphere while growing up. His father was associated with the Congress, while his uncle was an influential trade union leader,” says Rajinder Singh. However, it was only when he went to JNU for his PhD that he contested elections for the first time. In 2015, he became the president of the students’ union at one of the most prestigious universities in India’s national capital.

Neighbours and party workers outside Kanhaiya Kumar's house.

A New Beginning

Kumar credits Begusarai’s ingrained socialist politics for educating the villagers about their rights. “The communist leaders motivated the factory workers to fight for better wages and landless farmers to reclaim land from the erstwhile feudal lords. It is only because of the left movement that a discourse against casteism, class inequalities and communal politics emerged here. Dalits and Muslims have never been afraid here,” says Kumar. He also credits the left movement for setting up village libraries, propagating gender equality and arranging mass remarriages of widows. “In our villages, you will see boys and girls playing football and kabbadi with each other, which is a novelty in Bihar,” he adds.

The friends and party workers gathered at his home are sure he’d restore the town’s lost legacy and social fabric by becoming the next Member of Parliament. On plans to take his message to the voters, Kumar remarks in a thick Bihari accent: “Bakri ko mimiyana aur sher ko gurrana, koi sikhata hai kya (Nobody teaches a goat to bleat and a lion to roar).” He believes most Biharis have good oratory skills and engage with politics at tea shops, on buses and trains, and in farms. “Talk to anyone in any village. They’d would give you hour-long lectures on every topic. Even Begusarai’s wind is political,” he says. He also thanks his stint in theatre with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to teach him public speaking.

Another advantage he has over his opponents, he adds, is an army of young boys who have returned to Begusarai to do something for their hometown. One of them is Shahnawaz Khan from Maithani village, doing his research from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university. “Politics is a good thing, if your intention is to uplift the oppressed,” says Khan. Jayant Kumar, a party worker, thinks people are tired of strongmen, while Rohit Kumar, a local resident, says “fake” sedition charges have a polarised local opinion towards him. “Kanhaiya has become a symbol, an icon for the local youth and oppressed sections. Even if Modi himself come here to campaign, it won’t be affected,” adds Ishu Vatsa, a young supporter.

Shahnawaz Khan (middle) has returned to Begusarai to help Kanhaiya Kumar in his campaign.

The elders are more circumspect and feel that the opponents—the BJP—are working hard to lure people through caste and religious equations, and money. “If he becomes an MP, it would be a moral defeat for those calling him a traitor, so they’d ensure it’s not a one-sided battle. His best bet is if there is a coalition against the BJP,” says an old man sitting with Kumar’s uncles.

Kumar says he is saddened by the gradual rise of casteism and communal hatred in Begusarai. He feels his own community, Bhumihar Brahmins, who are traditionally socialists, are now slowly asserting their old feudal identity. “Vote kijiyega jaat dharam ke naam par, toh jhelyiga bhi jaat dharam (If you vote on caste or religious lines, you will also have to bear with [the consequences of] caste and religion),” says Kumar. He says he’d counter it with his message of unity, employment, education and economic equality. “If you put a floodlight above one wealthy home while rest of the houses remain dark, your village won’t be called as lit. If there is plague in one poor house, others will also fall ill.”

As I bid him goodbye, Kumar tells me he has returned to Begusarai for good. “Don’t look for me in JNU now. You’d now only find me here, in Begusarai, my home,” he says, as senior communist leaders trickle in to meet the newly emerging politician. As young supporters raise party slogans, Kumar caves in for more selfie requests.

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