Before Kanhaiya Came ‘Chandu’: A JNU President Killed 19 Years Ago
(As the Left Unity alliance celebrates sweeping the central panel in JNUSU elections, The Quint is republishing an article about a former JNUSU president. The article first appeared on 14 May 2016.)
If you omitted the ominous ‘was’ from the above statement, this personal testament would fit Kanhaiya Kumar like a glove – the JNUSU President in the eye of the storm. Except, this isn’t about him.
This is a tribute – among many – that JNU students bestowed on slain comrade Chandrashekhar Prasad in 1997.
Late afternoon of March 31, 1997, a young leader was on his way to the JP Chowk roundabout in Siwan, a small town in the Indian state of Bihar. He’d already conducted four street corner meetings and was about to hold another one. He was spotted by three associates of local Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Shahabuddin.
Seconds later, the associates gunned him down, in broad daylight.
Chandrashekhar Prasad, fondly and obviously called ‘Chandu’ by his contemporaries, inspired unprecedented nationwide protests that left a whole student population seething in the wake of his murder.
But why do we speak of him today?
Perhaps it is simply because the story of one indefatigable student leader in 2016 reminds us of another, long before him.
19 years to be precise.
Who was Chandrashekhar Prasad?
Arguably the most popular JNUSU President that there ever has been, Prasad came to Delhi in 1990 to enrol himself for an MPhil. He’d previously studied at Patna University, where he was an active member of AISF, the student wing of the CPI. He gradually became disillusioned with its ideology, which is probably why he almost single-handedly helped build the AISA (All India Students’ Association), the student wing of the CPI(ML), when he came to JNU.
During his time at JNU, he was elected Vice-President of the student union in 1993, and eventually President, for two successive terms.
Prasad’s story might almost read like a roster of any student body politician, were it not for the fact that the erstwhile student leader didn’t stop there. Once he’d returned ‘home’ after college, he campaigned actively against the criminalisation of politics in Laloo Prasad Yadav-ruled Bihar.
Once again, WHY do we speak of him today?
Perhaps it is because Kanhaiya’s popularity almost mirrors that of Chandu’s in the late 90s when thousands and thousands of students braved gunfire, water cannons and an apathetic, sluggish state response to their comrade’s murder.
Perhaps it is because, just like Chandu, Kanhaiya too has managed to coalesce a whole cross-section of the student population in India.
A Poignant Documentary on ‘Chandu’ Pays Tribute to Him
In fact, in a must-watch documentary called ‘Ek Minute ka Maun’ – brought out by the students of JNU and pieced together through various video recordings and personal anecdotes shared by Chandu’s friends in the 90s – are moments that are so uncanny, so eerily mirror-like that your heart stops for a minute. You are forced to remember that the slight sepia-tinted, shaky footage of speeches, tears and pain on screen are not from the last eleven days in 2016 – but from a time long ago.
On the evening of March 31, when the news of Chandu’s death reached JNU, students went berserk. The documentary, in fact, does a brilliant job of showing exactly what it was like when hundreds of angry, anguished young men and women rushed to Bihar Niwas in the heart of the capital and demanded that the then Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav come outside to talk to them.
Many demanded his resignation, many demanded immediate action against the three local goons and the master of their fiefdom, Shahabuddin, who’d carried out the murder.
Actual video recording of that fateful night shows a bizarre kaleidoscope of images, each almost coalescing into the another. There were gunshots fired by the Bihar military police stationed outside the state house. Students screamed and sloganeered, shattering glass and the uneasy calm that had prevailed since the killing of their friend.
But there was no stopping them.
Of Protests and an Undeterred Fight
The country was rent asunder by the voices of thousands of protesting students.
Siwan itself saw a passionate march led by Prasad’s mother, Kaushalya Devi, who can be heard in a video declaring that ‘they’ do not know that “my son isn’t dead. He’s right here, in the form of the thousands of you.”
On March 23, 2012, 15 years after the killing of Chandu, CPI(ML) leader Shyam Narayan Yadav and a cart puller called Bhatti Mian, Dhruv Kumar Jaiswal, Sheikh Munna and Illyas Warsi were sentenced to life imprisonment. RJD MP Shahabuddin was not convicted (much to continued chagrin today) although he languishes in jail for several other murder cases.
The fight for Chandrashekhar Prasad continued for years and years after his death, steady, unabated and unflinching.
Is it really a matter of surprise then that the same hotbed of student politics, is now throwing all of its weight (and more) behind its troubled leader Kanhaiya Kumar?