NEW DELHI: Kanhaiya Kumar, before the police stormed Jawaharlal Nehru University and arrested him for sedition, was just a popular, bright, very intelligent, highly political president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. 21 days later he walked out of jail on bail, a leader.

It is not often that one is witness to what is clearly the making of history. But so it was on March 3, 2016 when he came before the thousands of students, karamcharis, faculty and supporters from the other Universities in Delhi with all fists flying. The harrowing experience of the arrest, the violence at Patiala courts where he was attacked, the uncertainty of bail had clearly not fazed the young man, who infused the campus with electrifying courage, in a nearly one hour speech laced with humour, taunts and fire; with idealism; with nationalism and a challenge: “you cannot suppress this struggle for justice and rights for the poor and the marginalised and oppressed, the more you try to do so the more strength it will gather.”

On a day that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in Parliament, he was completely overshadowed by a young Kanhaiya Kumar who was trending on social media world wide within minutes. His arguments were clear, his vision straight, and his courage beyond par. And he was embraced by hundreds, perhaps thousands of young people on Twitter as India’s own Che Guevara.

Kanhaiya spoke with the idealism and the confidence of a leader; he spoke with humility and humour; he spoke to the youth; and in the process brought together and gave shape to what is bursting through as a huge youth movement for the first time in living memory. He set the tone, as leaders do, for the struggle ahead in a Hindi that cannot be easily translated into English without losing the colloquial flavour that made his words so distinct and powerful.

He showed the way to the youth, and clearly the young people across the world as his speech became iconic on social media.

And this is the road map that the JNUSU president set in words that seemed simple, but were highly political and courageous in the environment today:

  1. India is a democratic, socialist, secular country. It has a powerful Constitution, and a rule of law that makes her powerful and strong and we will not allow anyone to tamper with this;
  2. We do not want azadi (freedom) from India, that azadi was taken from the British by our forefathers like Ambedkar. We want azadi in India, from oppression, from corruption, from Manuvad, from discrimination, from fascism, from the RSS. (here he set the record straight as those not familiar with the old Left slogan first read it as azadi from India, and shouted ‘sedition’ in their ignorance).
  3. Do not create false divisions amongst us. The farmer who commits suicide because of acute agrarian distress and the soldier being killed are both from the same stock, they are the sons of farmers, they come from rural households. (this was a reference to the BJPs loud claims that the ‘anti-nationals’ are not bothered about the soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the country). Kanhaiya reversed the argument, asking the BJP and its government why while mourning the soldiers they do not mourn the farmers pointing out that both are from the same households. He pointed out that while in police custody he also realised that the average policeman ---”I am talking of up to head constable, inspector level, I have not had any association with the IPS officers”---was also from a poor home; faced exploitation; worked for low pay. Poverty, exploitation should build bridges not divide.
  4. The lie cannot become the truth no matter how often you repeat it. JNU and all those outside who have understood the gravity of the struggle, and the power of the assault on Indian democracy, know how to say the truth as it is, and define the lie by calling it a lie.
  5. That the attack was not just on JNU but was to stifle dissent, to crush democracy by taking away freedoms and rights. That the new challenges have to be understood.
  6. The importance of language, to communicate the messages simply. “We in JNU use heavy terminology that people outside don’t understand, we need to simplify our words, to communicate”...he said amidst applause. And from here the need to spread the message so that it is understood by the common person.
  7. That the struggle will be long and intense. He spoke of revolution, of inquilab. He spoke of authoritarianism, of fascism as the challenges. He spoke of youth power, of unity across India. He spoke of the coming together of different movements and forces through simple analogies---”In jail I was given two bowls, one blue and the other red. I looked at these and I knew something good was going to happen”----and he spoke of not turning back, but marching ahead to victory.

Kanhaiya showed no fear as he smiled about PM Modi, as he referred to the Home Ministers reliance on a fake tweet, laughed at the RSS, mocked the ABVP, fiery and yet not aggressive. And said mischievously at the end that we should raise “our Azadi” slogan now with the campus reverberating with the freedom of a new beginning. This, he demonstrated, was free speech in democracy, without being offensive, abusive, threatening---just politically hard hitting.

‘Awaaz do, hum ek hain’ echoed across JNU, through the television screens, across social media as Kanhaiya emerged from the embers of the BJP offensive to lead the way.