The problem with Kanhaiya’s speech that no one is talking about

Merely hours after his release from prison on Thursday, student leader Kanhaiya Kumar addressed students and faculty members at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in a speech that has been lauded by progressives across the globe.

In his speech, the student union president, who was arrested on sedition charges and kept in prison for almost three weeks, gave his thanks to all those who have supported him and the other student protesters at JNU.

He upheld his belief in the Indian constitution, and declared azadi, or freedom, from hunger and poverty, from oppression and exploitation, and for Dalits, tribals and women.

“It is not azadi from India, it is azadi in India [we want]… from the corrupt practices that are going on inside the country,” he said.

The rousing, fiery speech aside, there was something amiss. Kashmir wasn’t mentioned even once during his address.

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Kumar’s speech only reaffirmed what a number of Kashmiri academics and activists have been saying in response to the protests in recent weeks. The movement at JNU has not only sidelined the Kashmiri desire for self-determination, but has also appropriated its symbolic discourse.

It is a rather peculiar affair.

The events at JNU emerged as a result of protests on February 9 commemorating the execution of a Kashmiri, Afzal Guru, for his part in an attack on India’s parliament in 2001. Many have argued that he did not receive a fair trial. At the event, slogans for azadi in Kashmir reverberated, and a number of protesters called for the right to self-determination.

Yes, the RSS have been eyeing the JNU campus for years, and students raising Kashmir was merely a window of opportunity, “an in” for the right-wingers determined to garland JNU with a particular type of nationalism. In the malaise of class, caste, gender and other minority battles, Kumar has a tremendous fight ahead of him, but to avoid the very issue that brought all of this to a head,  the issue of Kashmir, smacks of an incorrigible moral agenda.

There has been a deliberate distancing from the issue of Kashmir, leading many to question the “revolutionary” nature of the movement as a result.

Indeed, one could argue that it was undermined indefinitely when Kanhaiya stated: Has India enslaved anyone? No. That’s why we’re not asking for freedom from Bharat. We are not asking for freedom from India, we are asking for freedom in India. This is a crucial distinction.

This is a distinction that Kashmiris know all too well. For they are asking for freedom from India, or the right to choose their destiny, and in their eyes: Kashmir is enslaved by India.

To sideline the issue of Kashmir on any discussion of Indian nationalism, freedom of expression, and democracy will not lead to any sort of revolutionary consensus on each.

While Kashmir was missing from the speech, its spectre and symbolic discourse certainly wasn’t.

For Kanhaiya used the term “azadi” repeatedly. Azadi is a term that certainly does not belong to Kashmir, but has been widely used in Kashmir in recent decades – in protests against the Indian army, in funerals after the death of civilians and rebels, and in the simple response to the question “Hum Kya Chahte?” (What do we want?).

To use the term so freely in the same breath as one that silences and marginalises Kashmir is ironic, to say the least.

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