It’s been a week since activist Umar Khalid was arrested in connection with the Delhi riots after that infamous midnight knock. Many have rallied in support while others have questioned Khalid’s actions. But there is one person whose silence has been conspicuous. People are asking, where is Kanhaiya Kumar and why is he silent? Khalid’s former JNU comrade-in-arms and one who went to Tihar jail earlier with him belatedly posted about the arrest on Facebook, but even that did not quell these questions.
But it’s just politics, stupid.
When the likes of Kanhaiya Kumars are not seen standing next to the Umar Khalids, a message goes out to the silent majority. That there must be something ‘right’ about the Delhi riots investigation — there must be something right about the Delhi Police or what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says.
Such silences enable the majority to push ahead with its narrative against any Muslim who lands in the crosshairs of the Narendra Modi government. If Umar Khalid is right, why is his ‘friend’ Kanhaiya Kumar silent?
However, it is not just now. Kanhaiya Kumar has been slowly drifting away from the politics of Umar Khalid. Although he lost the Begusarai seat in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Kanhaiya still wants to be a politician, and that just means one thing — having an Umar Khalid by your side is way too inconvenient in Narendra Modi’s India today. And the dates for the Bihar assembly election could be announced any day now.
A press conference was held in New Delhi on 16 September to protest against the arrest of Umar Khalid under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The invites went out with Kanhaiya Kumar’s picture — but guess who didn’t show up?
Kanhaiya was one of the six speakers scheduled to talk about the Delhi Police’s “flawed investigation” into the February violence. The media was told he was running late — but the former student leader was ultimately a no-show.
Kanhaiya is merely signalling that he is part of the same cabal of upper-caste Hindu liberals who pick and choose their battles as per convenience — it’s just that in Kanhaiya’s case, the intent is also political.
This isn’t the first time Kanhaiya Kumar has kept conspicuously quiet. After the first set of arrests of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters in February, Kumar was silent for almost two months. He then spoke out in May about how the arrests were being made “to teach a lesson to those who raised their voice against CAA”. He blamed the lockdown for his delay in speaking up.
“I haven’t been able to speak up as actively due to the lockdown. We are bound to respect the lockdown and cannot violate it,” Kumar explained.
In an interview to The Telegraph Thursday, after questions were raised over his absence from the press conference, Kanhaiya asked, “Why am I being personally held accountable for not attending a press conference? Are such questions asked of members of other Opposition parties?”
Being an Umar in Modi’s India
The 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case thrust both Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid into public spotlight. And there was little that separated the two in terms of their revolutionary thoughts, their fearlessness, and their activism. Except for one thing — their identities.
Today, Kanhaiya Kumar, a prized leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Bihar, enjoys the freedom to build upon his political career that he kicked off by contesting from Begusarai against BJP heavyweight Giriraj Singh in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Umar Khalid stares at a long period in jail, with no certainty when the trial in his case could begin and no idea about where the case might end up.
The difference is stark. And both Umar and Kanhaiya realise that. And yet, Kanhaiya is keeping a distance from his ‘ally’.
This shows how, politically speaking, the Muslim identity in India has become ‘untouchable’. You steer clear from being vocal for a ‘Muslim’ because you fear being labelled an ‘Islamist supporter’. This enables the RSS-BJP narrative, one that Kanhaiya vociferously claims to be fighting against, of making India’s political class, and by extension the Indian society, distance itself from the many Umar Khalids, who are vocal, articulate, and unflinching in their fight for the rights of India’s Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis.
Kanhaiya Kumar knows very well what being an Umar Khalid means under the Modi government. He often speaks about the government targeting students and young activists because it fears their freedom of thought. So, when Kanhaiya chooses to place his politics in the galleries of the Congress or Arvind Kejriwal, he is saying that the door is open for the Modi government to come and knock down voices of dissent. He will stand by and watch, and later lament the rubble of crushed hopes.
There is another thing Kanhaiya knows well — his own privilege, which comes from being an upper-caste Hindu, more so in this saffronised Bharat. Kanhaiya can choose to direct his privilege in the service of the country’s marginalised, and fight the good fight. He must know Umar would do the same.
By promising to hold the mirror to Indian politics and then breaking it for political compulsions, Kanhaiya Kumar no longer speaks for those disillusioned by the direction India has taken. In any case, by staying quiet on Umar, Kanhaiya’s politics play into the hands of the RSS-BJP.
Why Kanhaiya matters
It’s not enough to say, ‘Of course Kanhaiya Kumar is with Umar Khalid’ — he must be seen to be standing by him. Both due to his political position and his personal ties with him, Kanhaiya is an important person in Umar’s life. He knows him well. And he commands power. He can tell Indians — those who care to listen — who Umar Khalid is, and why they should look beyond WhatsApp conspiracies.
But India has put even a Kanhaiya Kumar on the back foot.
The reason Kanhaiya is questioned over his silence is that he is a result of the student movement. He gained many allies and so much prominence because students rallied for his release in the sedition case night and day. So, there will inevitably be an expectation that he stands by those students now that he has gone on to do better and bigger things.
By not speaking up unequivocally in Umar’s defence, Kanhaiya is breaking his promise of providing alternative politics. In Modi’s India, it’s easy to speak up in support of a Hindu than a Muslim or a Dalit, much easier to show solidarity with the community rather than an individual.
India has enough political parties and leaders to play the softer version of the BJP — besides its allies, there is the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to name a few. And that’s just on the political front. What people need today is a leader who can publicly support a Muslim whom the government all but wants to prosecute as a ‘terrorist’. For all his eloquence and clarity, Kanhaiya Kumar looks right now as one who can very well turn around and say ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’.
As David Roediger writes in The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History, “Social movements will have to look for their poetry, and their clarity, beyond the social analysis offered by electoral politics.”
Views are personal.