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Kanhaiya Kumar Interview: ‘When Your Dinner Table Is Polarised, Will The Bureaucracy Remain Untouched?

The former JNUSU president on the sedition case, how the BJP has helped him and why he’s not contesting the Bihar assembly election.
CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the ‘Nagrikta Bachao Desh Bachao’ rally against CAA and NRC, at Gandhi Maidan on February 27, 2020 in Patna.
CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the ‘Nagrikta Bachao Desh Bachao’ rally against CAA and NRC, at Gandhi Maidan on February 27, 2020 in Patna.

On Friday, hours after HuffPost India interviewed Kanhaiya Kumar at the CPI office in Patna, news broke that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government had sanctioned the prosecution of the former student activist, along with nine others, in a 2016 sedition case. The move led to outrage against Kejriwal, but Kumar’s response was typically measured. As he outlined on Twitter the same day, and told HuffPost India later, “a fast-track court should take up this case and a speedy trial should happen”.

“It’s already been four years (for the case) and it keeps on popping up as a new issue so that the discussion on basic issues can be diverted… JNU and this case is used for headline management again and again and it should stop now,” he said.

It was that case and the events that led up to it that brought Kumar, then the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president, into national attention for the first time. Since then, he has written an autobiography, contested and lost the 2019 general election and become one of the most recognisable politicians in India.

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Over the past month, the Communist Party of India (CPI) leader addressed 62 rallies across 38 districts in Bihar against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as part of the Jan Gan Man Yatra, concluding with a massive meeting at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on Thursday. While this has created speculation ahead of the state assembly elections later this year, Kumar told HuffPost India that he would not be contesting himself.

“I am absolutely clear about it. The party will contest the election and I will fulfil any responsibility that the party asks me to carry on,” he said.

In a long interview with HuffPost India, Kumar spoke about the possibility of a larger opposition alliance, why Biharis are supporting anti-CAA protests in large numbers and how the BJP actually helped him.

Edited excerpts:

The Arvind Kejriwal government is facing a lot of criticism for its decision to allow your prosecution.

See, everyone has a political interest. Those who are targeting (him), have their own political interest. I don’t want to make any political comments on this entire matter because this entire case is already a political case since the very beginning. The sedition act is being misused again and again politically. I simply want to appeal that the truth should come out as soon as possible through a fast-track court. And I know I did not raise slogans, neither did any other JNU student. This reality should come in front of the people of this country. JNU and this case is used for headline management again and again and it should stop now.

Kanhaiya Kumar waves at the gathering during a protest against CAA, NPR and NRC in front of Gandhi Statue, at Gandhi Maidan, on January 29, 2020 in Patna.
Kanhaiya Kumar waves at the gathering during a protest against CAA, NPR and NRC in front of Gandhi Statue, at Gandhi Maidan, on January 29, 2020 in Patna.

From a students’ leader in 2016 to a rally of over a lakh people in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan in 2020. How do you view your own evolution?

This was my second rally in Bihar. I addressed a CPI rally here before. But that was a political party’s rally. This rally was different in the sense that this was not organized under a party’s flag or banner. People from all sections attended this rally and most of them came on their own initiative. This rally took place with a spirit of the movement. The country’s political situation is such that if you take a correct position within the constitutional and democratic framework and raise people’s issues in their own language, then they are ready to listen and know more about it. Every section is anxious and troubled these days, be it students or farmers. If there is a possibility in you, people accept you but BJP also has a strategy and it is to destroy any emerging mass leader before his emergence.

“They use stigma, rumour-mongering and put such leaders in a particular framework which they call “anti-national” to make sure leaders don’t connect with the larger masses.”

As far as I am concerned, I had some advantages. The BJP had already defamed me. The defamation was first to reach the public but the actual reality behind it is reaching slowly. But, while attempting to defame me, BJP had taken my name to the people. It was there on every mobile WhatsApp group. It needed to be broken and it is happening. This is the time to take up real issues and work at the grassroots among people. Only by being a part of a particular group in a capital city or by organising a particular programme, it can’t happen. One has to work on the ground. For example, this rally was not a one-off rally. Had there been no Jan Gan Man Yatra, this rally would not have happened. It was a build-up.

Why are Biharis turning out in such large numbers to support anti-CAA, NPR, NRC protests? It’s huge here compared with other parts of the country.

There are three reasons behind it. First, there is a political vacuum in Bihar. When political parties don’t address people’s issues, anger and fear increase in the masses, which compels people to come out of their homes. Second, Bihar also had a tradition of social movements. Every decade has seen some kind of social protest in Bihar. You can witness protests by Dalits or students or any other section anytime in Bihar. And third, CAA is beneficial to BJP because it causes polarisation and they have been successful in making it into a Hindu-Muslim issue.

“But as far as NPR is concerned, BJP will have to face huge damage in Bihar. This is the reason BJP has gone silent on the issue of NPR at least in Bihar. Because 50% of Biharis work outside the state and they will have to come back home to make documents (if NPR is implemented).”

Kanhaiya Kumar holds a placard during a protest against CAA, NPR and NRC in front of Gandhi Statue, at Gandhi Maidan, on January 29, 2020 in Patna.
Kanhaiya Kumar holds a placard during a protest against CAA, NPR and NRC in front of Gandhi Statue, at Gandhi Maidan, on January 29, 2020 in Patna.

A large area of Bihar faces regular floods and people there have no documents because everything gets inundated when a flood comes, including the documents. Apart from out-of-state migration, there is intra-migration. A large number of people come to cities to work or for education or to move away from social conflicts. There are no complete land records, the Bihar government has only about 30-35% land records. So, the non-Muslim crowd is also relating itself to the NPR-NRC. It is true that Muslims are coming out on the streets in large numbers but there is also silent support (to these protests) in the form of not opposing it. Had it not been there, our yatra would not have been successfully concluded. They had to do a lot of hard work to attack our yatra… Had it been only the CAA, they would have created a narrative that the protests are against providing citizenship to Hindus but with NRC and NPR, the people of Bihar can see that even they can lose their citizenship and this conversation has reached deep down in Bihar. So, whenever there is a conversation about it, people come out to listen.

You appear to be the most popular young leader of Bihar, going by the crowd at your rallies. There will be an assembly election in Bihar later this year. Would you like to be a part of an opposition alliance if it is formed in Bihar?

I look at it simultaneously. No party is leading or has been able to lead a movement in Bihar because everyone here has a history. The movement will flourish only outside the party framework and this is the mood I have sensed among people. But the election will be contested by the party (CPI). I am focused on the movement, not the election. But I am a party worker. The party will go into an alliance or negotiations and will contest election the way it does. In Bihar, our party leaders would like to be a part of a larger alliance.

Would you like to be the face of this alliance?

No, I will not be the face of such an alliance. I don’t think that will be tactically correct. This is not good for the movement. People are connecting with me because they see me as someone different from a traditional leader. If I am leading a movement now and after three months I go and ask them for votes, they will say here I have come to ask for reward when the battle is yet to be won.

Will you be contesting the upcoming assembly elections?

No. I won’t be contesting the assembly elections. I am absolutely clear about it. The party will contest the election and I will fulfill any responsibility that the party asks me to carry on.

But some speakers at your rally in Gandhi Maidan had demanded that there should be a larger opposition alliance against the BJP?

All of them were party representatives. In my speech, I categorically stated that this movement is partyless and faceless and that this yatra and the rally had no electoral purpose. Those who want to contest the election will contest. Those who want to form an alliance will do that. As far as the opposition is concerned, the electoral stakeholders are getting anxious. Because in Indian democracy, if there is an election, it is considered to be the torch-bearer of democracy. But what about the democratization of the society and political teaching of the masses? There is no one to craft and design it, which is why there is a political vacuum. Had some opposition leader been doing the same work, it would have been bigger.

But your yatra and rally seem to be having an effect. Bihar’s ruling party came up with a resolution against NRC-NPR and supported the caste-based census.

This is what our purpose is. The BJP wants to set the agenda and we want to snatch it from their hand on their ground. See, Bihar’s issues are different from this. Bihar’s issues are unemployment, migration, poor health and educational system and lack of social security. The situation is bad. But rather than talking about these issues, there is an attempt to make it like the 1990s, when mandir-masjid will go on one side and caste alliances will be made to win the election. This cycle has to stop. Only then will the political question of aspirational youth be addressed. At this moment, no one is talking about him. There is corruption in every recruitment. We are creating a society that is living in dissatisfaction and it is easy to provoke such a society by using identities. This is the biggest challenge. If you don’t want society to go into further conflict and there should be stability, issue-based politics is needed. And it will happen only when the 1990s framework of mandir-masjid or caste will be broken. And electorally, anything can happen under the pressure of the movement.

You seem to have forced the Bihar CM to change his line. Bihar has become the first NDA state to oppose NRC-NPR. Would you like to appeal to Nitish to come out more openly on it?

See, there could be either yes or no on CAA-NRC-NPR. You have to club them and then look at them. You can’t divide them from each other. It has now reached an extreme where we don’t know if the Preamble and the Constitution will be intact or not. You have to take a clear position on it and whether you accept secularism as written in our Constitution.

Are you saying that Nitish is not taking a clear position on it?

It will be clear only after gazette notification that there will be no NPR. He is saying that there should be CAA but not NRC-NPR. Electorally things will be set. Because NPR is not going to affect one community only. It is going to affect a class now. All poor people will face difficulties because of NPR and you will have to send a clear message to them by taking a clear position. Caste census (resolution) is a good thing, people will appreciate it. But people will not accept caste census and NPR together. I said in my rally that it (Bihar assembly resolution on NPR-NRC) is a half victory. It is a big thing considering what is happening in the country today and that an NDA government has passed a resolution. But it is important to stop NPR. If it doesn’t stop, there will be chaos in society, especially in a society like Bihar. Even the people who go to conduct NPR will face difficulties. It’s a big challenge because this issue is circulated to every village and house now that in NPR, people’s land would be snatched over documents, which is true. Because the land issues are really bad here and it will create social conflicts. It will be very difficult in a state like Bihar.

Which explains the crowd during your yatra and rallies.

It also explains why ours was not only a Muslim yatra or rally. We addressed rallies at every district headquarters where people from all sections came. The pressure now is because of the information dissemination. People did not know that in Assam, 15 lakh people out of 19 lakh kept out of NRC are non-Muslims.

RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad, Loktantrik Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav, Former JNU students union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar in a file photo
RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad, Loktantrik Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav, Former JNU students union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar in a file photo

Your yatra was attacked nine times. Did the state administration and police help you?

See, when your home’s dinner table is polarised, will the bureaucracy remain untouched? Our school and office WhatsApp groups are polarised now, won’t a government and the people working for it be polarised as well? Every government has to provide security to any event which is happening after taking all the required permissions. The court’s orders say so. But at some places, security was good and in some places, it was not that good. Wherever the security was weak, the mischief-makers tried to create problems. The aim was to scare us away and impact mobilization and rallies.

But was there support from the administration?

Both. At some places, there was good support but at some places there was hostility. It was a mixed one and the reason is this country is slowly going towards an ideological battle.

Will you plan yatras like Jan Gan Man outside Bihar also?

I have come to Bihar after participating in such yatras outside Bihar.

But the scale of Jan Gan Man Yatra was large. It covered almost all the districts of Bihar. Are you planning to do the same in neighboring states like Uttar Pradesh?

I don’t think I will be able to do it because I believe that a campaign can be run only after being grounded in one place. I will go and address people in other states. But the grounded campaign will be undertaken in Bihar and also by clubbing some more issues with it. Social justice is still a big issue in Bihar, along with unemployment. Along with NPR, there will be a Bihar specific campaign on these three issues, which is why I will be based in Bihar only.

You lost the Lok Sabha election. But had RJD supported you, the outcome might have been different.

Pre-election analysis changes after the election. I don’t see any rationale in pre-election talk and post-election talk now. To talk of ifs and buts now is useless.

But even JD(U) leaders say that Tejashwi Yadav is insecure with your emergence.

It could be both. It is possible that he might not be taking me seriously. Why should I say people are scared of me? People might think that there is no need of me.

The Bihar election is coming up in a few months. Where do you see the state heading to?

There will be an election and someone will form the government but that is not solving Bihar’s problems. Bihar and Bihar’s politics are stuck in one place and it won’t be freed by one election. A larger political awareness is needed for that, along with political action by a political class and a movement on specific issues, to reorganize the state. The election will happen by its pattern and the pattern will remain the same. I have shifted my focus away from this electoral churning. No matter who wins and who becomes the CM, the (state’s) GDP and tax collection and expenditure, the planning won’t change. As long as there are no reforms in this, no acceptance of new realities and the priorities are the same, then how will the situation change? This is the real question and things won’t change in one year or two.

The Nitish Kumar government says it has transformed Bihar in the past 15 years.

It’s all the data work. It’s true that roads were constructed, electricity came so the development was visible. But there are other standards of development also, like health and education and employment generation. Bihar’s condition in all these three important parameters is bad. There is a huge students’ migration outside Bihar for education. People go out of the state in large numbers for work and for treatment. No state can develop overall if you don’t fix these three things. As long as you don’t have good institutions, good hospitals and a strong economy, no state can become a developed state. The BJP has not yet given the status of special state to Bihar and there is no political campaign or political mobilization on it. There are so many issues in Bihar, which is why I don’t counter any political leader. People say I don’t take Nitish Kumar or Tejashwi Yadav’s name despite being a political person or criticize them. But what’s the point? What will come out of it? This state’s problem is political parties more than political leaders. The condition of other states is good, which is why people there are not bothered but in Bihar, every action of the government affects people. The politics of calculation has reached the Panchayat level. There is a sort of oligarchy. If you want to break this structure, electoral strategy and politics should run simultaneously but there is a need to run a movement with a strategy.

“There is nothing in Bihar except human resource and there is no programme to utilize this human resource which is why people are going out of the state. Everywhere a Bihari goes, he has to face conflict even for survival. This is something that people are not able to understand.”

The entire migration-majoritarian debate is basically an anti-poor debate. The majority of people in this country are poor. This debate should not be 85 % versus 15%. This debate should be 99% vs 1 %. This is the challenge. And to do this in a state like Bihar, you have to think differently. I want to work in that direction. I will create a movement here and they won’t be able to stop me because they don’t want to create a movement. You don’t stop a movement by creating hurdles. You have to create a bigger movement to stop another movement which is impossible here. People have lost faith in politicians here. During my yatra, I did not tell people ‘you vote for this party or that’. They are more clever than me. They calculate and vote but that doesn’t solve your problem. At most, there will be a change in dispensation and opposition.

The CPI and the Left overall appear to be stuck in a limited sphere.

See, I can’t give my lifestyle to my father. If I try that, it would be my foolishness. Neither was my father able to give his lifestyle to my grandfather. Society evolves and a party also needs to evolve itself with it. There is no other problem. Everything is fine. The only need is to evolve so that the new people won’t feel alienated. People still have trust in the Left, especially in Bihar, that these people belong to a movement and that they are honest people. This trust is a big thing.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact