Will Kanhiya Kumar win the election?

A contribution by Max Kramer

The student movement at Indian universities has sparked a hurricane of debates and videos on my Facebook page. It began with the All India Student Federation student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi in response to an unauthorized protest in memory of the Kashmiri “martyrs” Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat was arrested on the basis of "sedition". "Sedition" is a colonial term that means incitement to rebellion in German and can be positioned somewhere between sedition and high treason. Originally the related law was used by the British to deter Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi from their political campaigns. After massive international protests about the state of democracy and freedom of speech in India, Kumar was released from prison a few days ago and gave a speech on March 3rd on the JNU campus. This less than an hour long speech in Hindi / Urdu was a rhetorical masterpiece. It began and ended with slogans calling for "Azadi" (freedom) from the most varied forms of oppression: from caste oppression, from capitalist oppression, from gender-based oppression, etc. In doing so, he brought the political movement of co-author of the Indian constitution and Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar with more traditional left approaches under one hat. He used puns in his speech and reported on his "experiences in prison", which he described in a semi-ironic way as an experience of solidarity with the notorious police officers in Delhi. After all, he and she are from the same class and solidarity may only be lacking due to translation difficulties. With this in mind, he calls on the JNU students to rethink their theory-heavy language, as it is poorly understood by the target groups of their politics, the peasants, the poor and the outcasts. Kumar's speech is currently making the rounds on social networks. Some commentators see Kumar as a new star in the sky of social movements in India.

But what is this word "Azadi" and how does it compare to recent events?

Kumar was arrested after a rally by mostly Kashmiri students at the JNU who, as many times before, have publicly called for the region's right to political self-determination. "Political self-determination" is a well-known meaning of Azadi, which leaves open whether it is an affiliation with Pakistan, separatism or, less often, a cooperative solution. Such protests are part of everyday university life at JNU. I myself was present at several of these demonstrations without the police intervening. This time, however, pro-government actors decided to turn it into a media event. This event was perhaps counterproductive from a government perspective, given the new visibility it gained Kumar. The most strongly commented sentence from Kumar's speech takes on the conceptual problems of Azadi. It was “Bharat se nahin, Bharat mem azadi mang rahe hain” (“We are not demanding freedom from India, but in India”). Many of my “Facebook friends” come from the Kashmir Valley and are associated with the JNU. The reception of Kumar's speech therefore often dealt with Hindi postpositions (in Hindi the prepositions are behind the word to which they refer): what about 'mem' (in, within) and what about 'se' (separated , instrumental) meant? In addition to Kumar's speech, reference can also be made to the 'mem' to the series of teach-in lectures on nationalism at the JNU, which was initiated at the same time as a reaction to the events. There, some professors from the university explore the potential of “inclusive national” articulation, mostly in relation to the classic candidates Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. For many students from the Kashmir Valley, however, 'mem' still means inclusion in the Union. After more than 25 years of military occupation, a federal solution does not go far enough for them. Mohamad Junaid, anthropologist and graduate of JNU, recalls that the term azadi had only been linking a whole series of left-wing articulations since the early 2010s. Hence the ambivalence in dealing with 'mem' and 'se'. In the imagination of many nationalist-minded people, Azadi is still exclusively the demand for a “headstrong, terrorist-pervaded” region. For them, the demand represents a constant threat to national integrity. For students like Kanhaiya Kumar and for many feminists in India and Pakistan, however, Azadi has long been a well-known slogan that gives the desire for freedom the right emotional pitch. In relation to Kashmir, this potential of Azadi consists in articulating commonalities in the opposition to an irresponsible political system and sedimented social power relations, which so far have rarely found a common denominator. In the Kashmir Valley, too, the population held a one-day strike as a sign of solidarity with the JNU students. Mohamad Junaid executes the democratic potentials that could result from the new plurality of Azadi demands:
"Our responsibility is not to divest azadi of its plural meanings, but to affirm them all together. The power of azadi chants on JNU’s campus does not lie in watering it down to make it acceptable to the nationalist, upper-caste Indian bourgeoisie. It lies in its plural expressions; however difficult those expressions might appear. It lies in articulating the struggle for Dalit liberation within the Kashmiri Tehreek [movement], the Kashmiri Tehreek within the Dalit struggle (both of which have happened in their own way), and the students ’struggles within the other two. There is no ‘proper’ azadi, or clarification ’azadi. What kind of azadi can a court or a constitution give which can’t bear even a few harmless slogans? In any case, what kind of azadi is it if it does not even commit to causing a little discomfort among the powerful? "
However, some of my Kashmiri friends urge caution, as their demands do not "simply" translate into something larger. They also want to be taken seriously when they say “se”. This finally began the media event in the JNU and only in response to it did Kumar formulate the inclusive 'mem' of his speech. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he hopes this appropriation of Azadi does not lead to the expanded post position of 'se pahle' (before) and 'ke baad' (after), so that the possible transformations of an 'Indian' student movement are open stay. Finally it occurs to me that “se” can ultimately also be used as “instrumental”: only through this transformation of an “Indian” perception of the passionate appeal of Azadi can the “se” dreamed of by many Kashmiris as a form of separation in agreement become possible (and then perhaps no longer be necessary).


Source image: Kamal Singh


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