Slamming Kanhaiya Kumar For His Caste Is Misguided and Narrow
Mainland liberals and progressives were more than okay with former JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar as long as he was sloganeering with JNU students, getting beaten up by lawyers, and facing jail time as an “anti-national”.
I do not subscribe to the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) position on Kashmir, nor have I endorsed Kanhaiya’s (AISF) political party on the JNU campus. But I support his decision to make a mark in electoral politics. It is perhaps important to understand that campus politics, especially at JNU, has a whole range of left and left-leaning parties to choose from, and AISF is only one of many.
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More importantly, he knows what he is talking about. We have seen his ability to connect with the wider population outside of JNU, and he has not had to convince anyone by supplying lies or selling merch.
Anti-Caste Critique & the Representation Debate
Amidst the excitement of promising erstwhile student leaders like Kanhaiya (JNU), Shehla Rashid (JNU), and Vijay Kumar (HCU) stepping up their political game, there are speculations being made about their claims of speaking truth to power. One particularly vicious, and in my opinion, a misguided criticism of Kanhaiya, is based on his upper-caste identity.
An article published in The Wire blamed Kanhaiya for breaking the chances for coalition between CPI and RJD, which had to be headed by RJD’s Begusarai candidate Tanveer Hassan, and thereby being against the representation of Muslims. A popular Bahujan anti-caste commentator on Facebook, declared in a public post, that since the time Kanhaiya “dissociated himself from the Kashmiri freedom movement,” he knew that the latter was a “fraud”.
I would like to point out that such analyses coming from those who call themselves anti-caste crusaders, are poor and unethical. Moreover, given the fact that Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and ex-RJD candidate and Pashmanda Muslim leader Dr Ejaz Ali have extended their unequivocal support to Kanhaiya, such criticisms based on his caste also seem baseless.
It must also not be taken lightly that the overwhelming success of his crowdfunding campaign is a reflection of a public mandate of sorts. Kanhaiya is contesting for the first time. He does not have the unfettered powers enjoyed by the current leadership. As Kanhaiya has always endorsed his party’s (CPI) line, and has maintained a consistent stance, expecting him to change his position on Kashmir when entering mainstream politics is unfair.
Kashmir Can’t be the Bar to Judge Kanhaiya’s Stance
Kanhaiya’s position on Kashmir has little to do with his caste. Any attempts to give it a caste-based spin now are nothing short of poor judgement, if not outright malice.
Yet, within a certain version of anti-caste discourse, everything Kanhaiya utters is being reduced to his caste. It is perhaps because Kanhaiya represents that very intersectionality that exposes the dangers of unscrupulous identity politics, which serves well on social media debates, but often falls flat when made to face the facts. This version of flattened anti-caste politics is the other side of the same coin where Savarna class analysis fails to account for the lived experiences of oppressed identities and becomes a hollow intellectual exercise.
Here, one wonders if they have ever asked Dalit Bahujan leadership in this country to clarify their stance on the Kashmir issue? What are the odds that everyone will support Kashmir’s ‘azaadi’ even today? Support for Kashmir’s liberation is hardly a popular sentiment among mainland Indians, irrespective of their caste location. Someone’s position on Kashmir has never been the sole indicator of progressive thought/politics in mainland India.
Thus, Kanhaiya's stand on Kashmir is largely irrelevant to any kind of discussion outside of the political and cultural debates on social media. Kanhaiya is not promising a revolution. He is joining Indian politics and entering an inherently oppressive system with hopes and honest aspirations of being able to change things for the better. So what are these belated attacks on him for his caste, and his political views?
This narrow conception of identity politics lacks empathy and depth, displaying casual disregard for the various axes of power that go into producing oppression and inequality of multiple kinds. In the current political climate, the likes of Kanhaiya and Mevani represent the promise of bridging the wide gap that exists between progressive intellectual discourse, and policy.
Benefit of Misguided Identity Politics Goes to Dominant Order
Caste-based criticisms being directed at Kanhaiya on social media reflect the commentators’ personal anxieties relating to the kind of performative politics they engage in online, that relies on a basic formula: cast doubt on a public figure’s credibility, mount flimsy critiques based on even poorer analyses to drag them down.
Many of these popular anti-caste crusaders have a score to settle with anyone who rises to power, unless they are benefiting from direct contact or are able to stake claims to their intellectual positioning or progressive legacy. Kanhaiya, unfortunately for a lot of his critics, has both the lived experience and qualifications needed to make a credible case for himself.
In the spectrum that ranges from Rahul Gandhi to Narendra Modi, Kanhaiya is cut out for this job far better than many others. Whether or not that helps him win an election, is a separate matter.
(Sabina Yasmin Rahman is a Sociology scholar from JNU. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)