“For “academics” I have here substituted “up lifters”, i.e., believers in law-abiding progress without a political struggle, progress under the autocracy. Such up lifters are to be found in all sections of Russian society, and everywhere, like the student “academics”, they confine themselves to the narrow range of professional interests, the improvement of their particular branches of the national economy or of state and local administration; everywhere they fearfully shun “politics”, making no distinction (as the academics make none) between the “politically minded” of different trends, and implying by the term politics everything that concerns the form of government.”
- Vladimir Lenin, “The Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth”
We live in difficult times. The class struggle persists, but with preponderant power in the hands of the ruling class. The socialist revolution appears to be postponed indefinitely. The imperial agents of free-markets and economic liberalism have gripped our world and seem to hold power with an iron fist. Trade unions have been made illegal, obsolete or overwhelmingly weak across the world. In India, the country where I live, the old trade unions are struggling to find newer ways to organise and newer ones are finding space to breathe.
In the USA, the AFL-CIO has long abandoned any element of class struggle, with all the socialist and communist factions within it being purged away. In India, the BJP (i.e., the electoral party faction of the fascist outfit RSS) has its own trade union. The fascists have made their way into working-class ghettoes, tea-plantation mills, urban industrial areas and everywhere else the socialists were supposed to have gained strength. They drive a Hindu revivalist agenda, or a Brahmanical agenda, depending on the context of the people and make it increasingly harder for socialist trade unions to organise.
The BJP won its first term in 2014, with the popular consensus being critical of the previously elected neo-liberal elite government of INC. Narendra Modi assured the people that the country will be freed from the corrupt INC rule. He assured the Hindu majority that their pride will be restored. In other words, Make India Great Again. The BJP won. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of the country that prides itself to be the world’s largest democracy.
Modi’s first term as the Prime Minister involved several cases of lynching of Muslims (mostly from the working class) in the name of protecting the holy cow. It involved a prolonged delay in the release of data on farmer suicides, a phenomenon that has been rising since the 90s when the Indian government took the neo-liberal route. Among other atrocious realities, the neo-fascist rule involved a fundamentally McCarthyist attack on intellectualism in general, with fairly liberal historians such as Romila Thapar and economists such as Amartya Sen, being remarked as Marxists and therefore “anti-national”. This manifested in a protracted war on students across the country through cancellation of fellowships that were essential for financially and socially backward students. A legitimising ideology was created by propagating the idea that students are a waste of public money, that students pursue research in topics that are irrelevant to India’s glory and that they are conspiring with terrorists to undermine Indian sovereignty. Corporate media, television, and more crucially, state-sponsored en-masse WhatsApp forwards played a huge role in legitimising this ideology.
Students across the country struck the streets into a protest termed as the Occupy UGC movement (UGC being the University Grants Commission.) (1) Rohit Vemula, a young student from Hyderabad was a part of this movement. He belonged to a marginalised caste. He was witch-hunted by the authorities and compelled to commit suicide. His death followed another media propaganda campaign to wash down the caste angle. His death sparked the fire of revolt and protest across the country. His suicide note has the chilling effect that is bound to radicalise anybody with an iota of humanity. (2)
The protests of the Occupy UGC movement and those demanding justice for Rohit Vemula, caused the surfacing of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, the erstwhile student union president of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a member of AISF, the student-wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Certain allegations were made about anti-national slogans being raised in the university on 9 February, 2016. Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested, along with a few other students. After his release from a brief period in jail, Kanhaiya Kumar found himself declared a traitor in the national ideology. He was vilified, but also popularised. The speech he gave right after his release went viral in the internet and secular liberals as well as leftists saw a hero in him. His excellent oratory skills coupled with leftist rhetoric gained him abundant charm. (3) The CPI leadership saw great potential in Kanhaiya and was quick to promote him into the party’s highest policy-decision board. The quickness of his rise within the party is unimaginable in the history of communist movement in India. His subsequent standing in the elections struck enough fear in the BJP candidate Giriraj Singh who was to stand in the same constituency. Kanhaiya crowd-funded his election campaign. Several liberal celebrities and comedians supported his campaign. Kanhaiya Kumar lost the elections, but became a celebrity championing the cause of dissent. (4)
Kanhaiya Kumar, in his radical speeches made as a student leader in the campus, made serious criticism of the INC, which he correctly identified as a representative of the ruling class. This was pre-2016. Recently, Kanhaiya Kumar has addressed the media and confirmed that he has joined the INC. In his announcement, he stated a bunch of reasons, which boil down to the idea that INC is the oldest national party in India that upholds secularism and democracy, and thus the only way to battle the influence of BJP would be to align with the INC. CPIML-L politburo member Kavita Krishnan has written an article pointing out the fallacies in Kanhaiya’s argument, and exposing his opportunism. (5) The liberals that upheld him, had a gleeful reaction to see him dissociate from the communist movement. D Raja, the General Secretary of CPI, made a statement condemning him. “It shows that he has no ideological and political commitment other than his personal ambitions,” read the official statement by the party. Shubham Banerjee, another important member of the CPI and a leader of its student wing said that he had observed opportunistic tendencies in Kanhaiya for quite some time, but didn’t have any reason to think that he would join a bourgeois electoral party. (6) It is certainly true that Kanhaiya’s speeches criticised the style of governance that Modi pursued, condemning the communalism and intolerance. However, these were at best liberal. The speeches never mentioned communism or even the communist party he was representing. Kanhaiya’s campaigns in his home district of Begusarai, were done under the banner of ‘Team Kanhaiya’, and not that of his party, CPI. His radicalism from student days has long dried out. He is now a steadfast politician, who knows the rules of the game.
This article is not about Kanhaiya Kumar, or any individual for that matter. However, this case of opportunism strikes me personally because the initial arrest of young Kanhaiya Kumar and the spectacle that was made of it, played a huge role in my turn towards radical politics. I am aware that this was the case for many young people across the country, at least those from a petty-bourgeois class background. When I was still in junior-high, I binge-watched every Kanhaiya Kumar speech and conference that I could get my hands on. I had also read his PhD thesis on African decolonisation and his personal memoir called “From Bihar to Tihar”. Kanhaiya pursuing opportunism did not surprise me one bit, the turn he was to take had become fairly obvious. There was an expectation in the CPI that Kanhaiya would translate his massive popularity into mass mobilisation and energy for class struggle. That expectation was let down.
A couple of decades ago, in the same campus of JNU stood another young communist leader: Chandrashekhar Prasad, endearingly called ‘Chandu’. Chandu was a member of AISA, the student-wing of the Communist Party of India Marxist Leninist Liberation (CPIML-L). Chandu had begun his tryst with student politics in AISF (the same organisation that Kanhaiya was a part of). However, soon he made his shift to AISA, having become disillusioned by the revisionist tendencies of his previous organisation. AISA was then in its formative years, since its parent party (CPIML-L) had only began to make its shift from underground politics to broad mass-based organising. (7) Chandu is known to have been a charismatic leader and a brilliant student, who could present his arguments pertinently in the intellectual arena, as well as connect mirthfully with the working-class. He was pursuing his post-doctoral research thesis on forms of popular folk theatre of Bihar, the state where he was from. He wished to return to Bihar right after the completion of his education and struggle to improve the political scenario of the state, which was then dominated by government cronies and goons.
In 1997, while planning a general strike in Bihar, Chandu was shot dead, along with one of his comrades, Shyam Narayan Yadav. This was nothing new in the Laloo Yadav-led Bihar state, where political assassinations and cronyism was manifold. Chandu’s death sparked protests across the country, especially among students. The protests were faced with violent police repression but succeeded to gain so much ground that a dialogue had to be arranged between the students and the nation’s then Prime Minister I.K Gujral. Gujral dismissed the students demands for justice as “impractical”. The protests did succeed in forcing a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation, however, the crony parliamentarian Shahabuddin, who had ordered the political assassination, was not arrested due to lack of evidence. (8) Chandu’s inspiration leads forwards young revolutionaries across the country, and his efforts at organising the initial years of AISA, bloom flowers today, with thousands of members across the country – the author of this article included.
What is to be done?
I do not intend to present a hagiography of Chandu, there is quite an amount of that available: the corporate Hindi film industry even displayed the desire to produce a commercial biopic of him, but was met with strong opposition from the party which Chandu had been loyal to in his life. Neither do I wish to present a contrast between two student leaders who grew out of similar circumstances and conditions of repression, but went in radically different directions. That contrast should be fairly obvious and not much is to be made of it. What is important for us, is to recognise the concrete elements of Chandu’s politics that could lead young student radicals closer to the revolutionary cause, and away from petty opportunism.
Certain words from Lenin form the epigraph of this article. What one needs to understand is that students (and I mean students pursuing higher-education) do not automatically constitute an inherently progressive strata. A very tiny minority of a country’s population even comes close to higher education, and an even tinier portion of that minority comes from marginalised backgrounds. Higher-education spaces are an arena of the elite. Even those that enter universities are often victims of the dominant ideology, which leads them to be negligent to politics – let alone working-class politics. For these reasons, various communist party documents go ahead with the implicit assumption that students are generally petty-bourgeois. Thus, even when the liberal intelligentsia leads us to see an amount of glory in student protests and dissent, we must recognise its limitations. Lenin’s words echo this sentiment.
That being said, no sensible person will deny that students form an important part of society and have a role to play in political transformation. From the young Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the hundreds of déclassé students in Naxalbari uprising in India, there is no denying of the role students play. The catch being that: in these uprisings and others, students were required to uproot themselves from the elite setting of the academia and form new roots in the ghettoes, slums, villages and dwellings of the workers and peasants. They were required to engage with the exploited classes and understand their needs, and fight alongside them for revolutionary change. They were required to transform their abstract political understanding into materially feasible programs, by engaging with the exploited class.
In our times, the Chandus are less in number and the Kanhaiyas are ever expanding. In the context of the U.S, the same has been pointed out by many including the Marxist sociologist Vivek Chibber. The individuals are shaped and designed by the political domains of their time. In our domain of performative woke politics and postmodernist identity-politics, the broader left has lost touch with the working-class. Leftist students, being a subset, have met the same fate. There has been a broad acceptance of theories of intersectionality that focus on upward mobility and individualise the collective experiences of oppression. At its extreme, this shift causes the working-class to be incorrectly portrayed as a regressive reactionary class that isn’t well versed with politically correct diction and hence needs to be rebuild after the sanctimonious images of these woke students and the intelligentsia. (9)
To bring alive the struggle against fascism, neoliberalism and the bourgeois-landlord alliance, to lead the struggle for revolutionary change, the left will have to relocate itself along the lines of Naxalbari, along the lines of the Cultural Revolution, along the lines of Chandu. The student left will have to stop obsessing over its own self and stand in alliance with the workers and peasants who have little to lose but their chains.
1. Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah. What Lies Behind the 'Occupy UGC' Protest. The Wire, India. [Online] November 24, 2015. https://thewire.in/education/what-lies-behind-the-occupy-ugc-protest.
2. The Wire Staff. My Birth is My Fatal Accident: Rohith Vemula's Searing Letter. The Wire, India. [Online] January 17, 2019. https://thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices.
3. HT Correspondant. Kanhaiya Kumar released from jail, says will write his story now. Hindustan Times. [Online] March 3, 2016. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/jnu-students-union-leader-kanhaiya-kumar-released-from-jail/story-EMqrXflBIlkyhat12crKUP.html.
4. Kumar, Manish. Elections 2019: Why Giriraj Singh Won't Take His Rival Kanhaiya Kumar's Name. NDTV. [Online] April 24, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/lok-sabha-elections-2019-why-giriraj-singh-wont-take-his-rival-kanhaiya-kumars-name-2028063.
5. Krishnan, Kavita. How To Not Fight Fascism. Liberation. [Online] November 2021. https://liberation.org.in/liberation-2021-november/how-not-fight-fascism.
6. Host, Swarup Katha Channel. CPI & AISF Leader Shuvam Banerjee on Kanhaiya Kumar. YouTube. [Online] September 29, 2021. https://youtu.be/JqxWuTfQh7s.
7. Banerjee, Sumanta. In the Wake of Naxalbari. Kolkara : A. P. Printers, 2014. 978-81-7955-116-5.
8. Kant, Krishna. The Gun That Killed JNU's Chandrashekhar 20 Years Ago Was 'Secular'. The Wire, India. [Online] April 1, 2017. https://thewire.in/politics/gun-killed-jnus-chandrashekhar-secular.
9. Chibber, Vivek. Whatever Happened To Class? Himal South Asian. [Online] November 21, 2017. https://www.himalmag.com/whatever-happened-to-class/.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an undergrad from India, majoring in media studies and English literature. He takes interest in cultural and literary criticism and wishes to contribute to the glorious lineage of third-world Marxism.