The phrase “jail episode” slides casually into the conversation, almost as an afterthought, so that for a moment, I thought I’d misheard. Did she say jail?

Between mouthfuls of daal-roti, tells the story,“There was a dharna at the admin building, must have been 1999. The NDA government tried to bring in some new rules. It became a big issue. So the police picked us up.”

For students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), protests were par for the course and arrest meant being held at the police station for a few hours. But that time was different. Krishnan chuckles at the memory: “For the first time, I saw some of the most radical kids who were extra, ultra-Left, in sheer terror of arrest. They were scared of the consequences. It may affect their chances of going abroad. Their passports might be taken away!”

The police gave no warning. “We were told to take off earrings and watches. Then they put us in a vehicle. I asked, ‘Where are we going’? That’s when they grinned evilly and said, Tihar!”

What followed? Being strip-searched, watching undertrials, often the poorest women, getting thrashed, not having a blanket or a place to lie down in, overcrowded cells, and kindness from the unlikeliest quarters. How did this aspiring academic end up in jail? There was nothing in her upbringing to suggest that the girl who liked English novels would end up on the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), and one of the most prominent faces of feminist activism in India.

In Bhilai, where she grew up, friends and neighbours were mostly linked to the steel plant where her father worked. The children of workers went to a Hindi medium school, though, while officers’ children went to English medium schools. Besides class segregation, Tamil Brahmins had their own forms of stratification and tended to stay in a tight social circle. One of the things that set Kavita apart was her mother’s discomfort with that.

“Ever since I can remember, mum made friends across class, language and caste barriers,” she says. “She would teach Hindi-speaking kids English if they wanted to learn. She threw open our library to any kid who wanted books. She made an effort to learn Chhattisgarhi. In TamBram circles, she was the outsider.”

Kavita’s maternal grandfather had been a journalist whose eyesight began to fail relatively early; his wife, daughter or granddaughter read the news aloud for him. Keeping abreast of local and international news may have helped her mother, Lakshmi, develop independent political views. Living in Bhilai, she was drawn to the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, which demanded a separate state to secure Adivasi rights. She was also unusual in that she did not surrender her vote to the party favoured by her father or husband.

In contrast, Kavita’s father, A. S. Krishnan, was apolitical to the extent that he would waste his vote through inaccurate ballot stamping. But he made no secret of his opposition to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). There’s a family joke about it. The Krishnans were visiting a neighbour, an RSS man, when her baby sister recalled the line her father often repeated at home and she began to lisp it out loud: “Aar eth eth ith a bad habit (RSS is a bad habit)”.

He said he’d read a book in which leftists bombed a train station, and he asked me if we did stuff like that. He was reassured to learn that we didn’t!

Despite an orthodox upbringing, Krishnan’s father stopped wearing his poonal (sacred thread). He also cooked and cleaned and didn’t care if he was laughed at. He ignored advice about sending his daughters to hostels that imposed strict rules on women. He had a few misgivings about leftist politics, though. After his older daughter was elected joint secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, he came to visit her.

“He said he’d read a book in which leftists bombed a train station, and he asked me if we did stuff like that. He was reassured to learn that we didn’t!”

Kavita resisted membership of leftist unions for years. She was mainly drawn to English literature, but even as an undergraduate at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai she sat in on sociology lectures when it wasn’t her subject. She also helped distribute pamphlets for leftist friends. At JNU, she “ran from politics”. She wanted to prioritise her studies. But she was eventually persuaded to join the All India Students’ Association (AISA), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

Kavita Krishnan. Illustration by Karthikeyan R

What strengthened her resolve was “a fascist little speech by a Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena (Shiv Sena) candidate in our hostel mess, where he told us that in a Hindu Rashtra there would be many jails for women like us.” That was also the year she witnessed a physical assault by members of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sangathan (ABVP), student wing of the RSS. The next year, 1995, she contested and won her first election to the student council.


here are many stereotypes about JNU, particularly since 2016 when its students’ union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on charges of sedition. Police were looking for other students too, among them Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya who surrendered a few days later. A storm was whipped up on primetime television where journalists made little attempt to unpack claims of “anti-national” activity. Instead, they amplified the voices of BJP politicians like Gyan Dev Ahuja, who made wild claims of 50,000 pieces of bone, 3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette butts being found every day.

Ten thousand is a gross exaggeration but smoking is common on campus, as are cotton kurtas, cloth bags, chappals and endless talk about politics. Jatin Goraiya, however, doesn’t look like he fits the stereotype. 

It’s a matter of who gets to you first. The people who helped me fill forms were with ABVP. So I joined them.

His family migrated from a village in Haryana about thirty years ago. As much as his father was looking for better ways to make a living, he was also looking to escape the crush of caste. In Delhi, the children attended a Christian missionary school that offered assistance to students who needed it. Growing up, their Dalit identity wasn’t thrown in their faces.

Until he came to JNU, politics had not figured in his life. Jatin walked into campus feeling broadly centrist. Before he knew it, he was steered to the right.

He shrugged when I asked for his ideological antecedents. Between his parents, political conversation was muted. Nor was he looking for a politically vibrant campus. He wanted to study Russian at the undergraduate level rather than enrol in science or humanities at Delhi University. He did know, however, that JNU had a reputation for academic standards and no discrimination.

Full of trees and sprawling over several acres, it was a welcoming space. Volunteers guided newcomers through admissions, helped settle them into hostels, and offered a group to belong to. At 19, Jatin joined the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sangathan.

“It’s a matter of who gets to you first. The people who helped me fill forms were with ABVP. So I joined them,” he says. His new friends warned against leftist groups, saying it would be hard to land government jobs later in life, that he’d be profiled as a Naxal. What was surprising, even to him, was his quick elevation. Less than three years after he joined, he was vice-president of ABVP’s campus unit. He knew this was partly because the ranks were thin but he realised later that rather than his leadership, they needed his Dalit face.

He was being used to project the idea that ABVP wasn’t Brahminical. He noticed that most demonstrations in which he took part were for Hindu rights, often pitched against minorities and Ambedkarite groups.

“I realised only later,” Jatin says, “this was to maintain the status quo for upper caste Hindus. It was subtle, the anti-Dalit, Islamophobic stance. When questioned, they brushed things over with ‘nationalism’. Like, with Rohith Vemula’s suicide.”

Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide in 2016. He and a few other Ambedkarite students were locked in conflict with the ABVP, as a result of which Vemula was expelled from his hostel. His suicide sparked protests on campuses across the country. Jatin says JNU heard about the suicide half an hour after it happened. Many students were aware of the circumstances, but instead of issuing a statement of solidarity or condemnation, his ABVP unit wanted Jatin’s help in countering the protests that followed. They asked him to “face” the media on their behalf. He refused.

Another incident heightened his discomfort. “Some upper caste people beat up Dalits in Punjab. We (me and a couple of friends) said ABVP should issue a statement but they (other ABVP leaders) said, ‘no, we don’t see people like that, through the lens of caste; we are all Indians’, et cetera.”

There were other irritants. “They often made remarks like, this one goes to namaaz, how is he a leftist? They said things about women too; they should not do this, should do this.”

The general elections of 2014 swept to power the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose leaders are associated with the RSS. ABVP membership swelled on several campuses, including JNU. Students saw the group as an extension of the regime and, Jatin says, doing well in campus elections was seen as a quick route to a political career. By now, he was starting to annoy unit leaders. He heard from friends what was said behind his back: “Jatin has begun to talk like ‘them’, like a left group-wala.”

Instead of cowing him, it irritated him further. He announced he would burn copies of Manusmriti, a text that contains decidedly anti-Dalit and anti-women passages and was used to justify discrimination in centuries past. “They tried to dissuade me,” he says. “They said, the book is vidya (knowledge). But I said, if you are against caste, join us in burning Manusmriti.”

Most members didn’t agree. Jatin and another former ABVP member, Pradeep Narwal, went ahead and burnt some pages of the text. Soon after, he quit ABVP.

For a while, he didn’t know where to turn. He wasn’t excited by the major Left parties, but he was also wary of Ambedkarite groups which seemed to spend most of their energy criticising the Left, and doing little to counter rightist tendencies within. Eventually, he was persuaded to join a group that seemed to offer a fresh political vision and wasn’t affiliated to a mainstream political party.

The Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation (BASO) was formed by students who broke away from DSU (Democratic Students’ Union) on the grounds that its approach to gender and caste was feudal-patriarchal, and that the time had come to marry the ideas of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. This faction included students who would soon be accused of sedition, decried as anti-nationals for raising slogans about freedom.


ne of Umar Khalid’s abiding regrets is not having talked back at his Hindi teacher at school in Nagpur. “The teacher would point to a boy, then ask one of the girls: Ye tumhara kaun lagta hai? (What’s your relationship?). The girl would say: Bhai (brother).

Then, he’d point to a girl: Vo? (her?). The student would say: Behen (sister). Then he’d say, ‘This is the only pure relationship. You should be careful of certain people; they marry four times and can marry a fifth time after saying Talaaq, Talaaq, Talaaq.’ I had a feeling he knows I’m here, that’s why he is saying this.”

Umar was the only Muslim kid in class. The private school he’d attended before, in Delhi, was not very diverse either. Besides, his awareness of the baggage associated with his name came early in life. He was a kindergartener when the Babri Masjid was demolished but has vivid memories of the time. His neighbourhood, Jamia Nagar, was strung with black flags in protest.

I had access to libraries and a good university, which other Muslim boys rarely have. I read fiction, Lenin’s biography, other Marxist texts, investigative works on terror, counter-terror ops and prison memoirs of people who were framed.

Growing up between Delhi and Nagpur he struggled with the outlines of what felt like second class citizenship: taunts in school, shock and fear post-9/11 in the US, a ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), news of young Muslim men picked up by cops without evidence after the Parliament (2001) attack, India and Pakistan coming to the brink of war, Gujarat 2002. Through all this, he remained a teenager who wanted to play professional cricket. He enrolled in Kirorimal College with little interest in politics. Then, Batla House happened.

In 2005, two young men allegedly affiliated to the Indian Mujahideen were killed in an encounter at Batla House in Jamianagar. Several Muslim youths were picked up on charges of terrorist activity, which led to protests from residents and activists.

“There were a lot of questions in my head,” says Khalid. “Like, what wrong have I done? Just because I have a Muslim name, why do I have to prove my patriotism?”

His father was active in advocating for minority rights and a spokesperson for the Babri Masjid Defence Committee. But that worldview was too narrow for him. Seeking answers, Umar turned to books. Luckily, he could. “I had access to libraries and a good university, which other Muslim boys rarely have. I read fiction, Lenin’s biography, other Marxist texts, investigative works on terror, counter-terror ops and prison memoirs of people who were framed.”

He watched films like The Reader, Music Box and other works by Costa Gavras, which he says helped develop an international perspective on politics and disenfranchisement.

JNU has a reputation for intense politicking, but Delhi University is the amateur’s political playground, especially if you have money and muscle. Union elections, Khalid recalls, were accompanied by assault, liquor distribution, and appeals to caste loyalty.

“Every year, there’d be a scramble between ABVP and NSUI for the Jat and Gujjar vote, which keeps shifting. To win, you need a third group. In my time, it was the north-eastern lobby. I was a day scholar but some of the hostelers would tell stories: last night, so and so bhaiya came and beat us up. Two days later, we’d hear the bhaiya had been beaten up. I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to attend classes, come back home.”

One of the good things about Delhi University was that Khalid was encouraged to think. “First class in BA, right out of school, a faculty member said: ‘You have come to university not to learn things but to unlearn things.’ That stayed with me. If teachers inculcate a spirit of questioning, that’s enough. That’s what university education is about.”

As an undergraduate, he began to help organise public meetings and discussions. One such was attacked by a group affiliated with the ABVP who “went berserk”.

Khalid recalls, “They spat at a speaker’s face, saying he is a terrorist. Same sort of thing they do to me now.” The aggression shook him but it was also transformative, because another group of students from JNU stood up to the attackers.

Khalid laughs as he admits his fear. “I thought, these JNU people have trounced them and left. I have to live here. One of the ABVP guys had even threatened me: Aap college aaiye, aapko college mein dekhenge (Come to college, we’ll tackle you there).”

Umar Khalid. Illustration by Karthikeyan R

Batla House had led to scholars visiting his neighbourhood on fact-finding missions. Talking to them, witnessing students stand up to bullies and his own quest for answers to political violence led him to JNU. By this time, it was impossible to go back to being a boy who just wanted to play cricket for a living.

 When I first met Khalid to talk about his journey from political indifference to a vision rooted in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s and Bhagat Singh’s ideas, he fit my stereotype of a JNU student: loose kurta, open sandals, dark circles under his eyes, sharing cigarettes with everyone, offering multiple cups of tea at a dhaba nearest his hostel, and discussing politics as a lived experience. He was also a bit more.

Two visitors, students from a medical college in Meerut, interrupted to say hello and be photographed with him. It was one of the iffy outcomes of the televised witch-hunt (his words) leading up to his surrender to police and the court case. Umar Khalid, along with Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya, was a household name.

He smiles at the irony. “We weren’t capable of bringing anyone down. But post-Rohith, the regime was troubled. Still, there was a Modi wave. The BJP was ruling for the first time with a clear majority. The INC had been delegitimised.” Students’ voices of protest were limited to campus, until the government reacted. Overnight, a handful of students turned into symbols of resistance for some and a red flag of danger for others.

Khalid had not been physically attacked, but he felt threatened enough to look over his shoulder. The second time I sought an interview, it was at a cafe off campus and a more tense experience. The occupant of a table across kept staring, and it wasn’t until the stranger finally decided that he wanted to shake Khalid’s hand that I breathed easy.

This recognition, he reiterated, was not his own doing. It was the work of adversaries, who inadvertently gave him and his friends a platform. But he added a note of gloom. “Tomorrow they might get more vicious. Whether they are going attack me physically, or my friends, or my family...” He wasn’t sure what to do if the attacks intensified. There was a time he had even considered retreating from political activity.

His friends dissuaded him. Isolating himself would show that any Muslim activist could be similarly dealt with. “Friends told me, you are helping them and their narrative. So I went out there. I do get scared but I am not isolated.”

In August 2018, heading into an event organised by United Against Hate at the Constitution Club in Delhi, Khalid was attacked by a man with a firearm. Luckily, his friends helped overpower the assailant who dropped the gun and fled.

We all maintain an internal list of things that happen to people out of luck. Things too awful to contemplate: hunger, arrest, getting beaten or stripped naked, being declared an enemy of the state.

How does a literature graduate with no political ambitions end up in jail? How does the son of an urban trader wander from the political right to the left? Is rebellion picked up on campus like a virus or is it seeded in the cradle? Questions like these led me to meet students and political activists who have taken political positions that they, or their families, could not have foreseen.

Sandeep Mahapatra, the only ABVP president of the JNU students’ union, is one of those who broke with his family’s politics. His father had contested local elections and was associated with the Congress party, but he chose the RSS. 

Why? The answer lies in Naupada, a small town that was part of Odisha’s Kalahandi district. It had no cinema halls, good libraries or bookstores. Sandeep recalls that they got the Hindi magazine, Dharmyug, which he read, though he was motivated by a desire to improve his Hindi rather than an interest in literature. His school was Odia medium at the primary level, and he remembers sitting on the floor until seventh grade.

He joined an RSS shakha while he was quite young, because it was there. Where, I asked. “In the middle of a residential area. It wasn’t a maidan, just a bit of open space.” The shakha gave him something to do. The boys played games; there were storytelling sessions. Apart from cricket or watching television, there wasn’t much by way of fun. Even television—limited to one government-controlled channel—was rationed. The family expected him to focus on his studies.

They were against anything from Indian tradition, whether religion, or (singing) Vande Matram.

He was a good student, and so became “school captain”, not an elected position but given to the student who achieved first rank in high school. Besides, his father and grandfather were lawyers, and one uncle was involved with local politics. So, he was politically aware. He read the newspapers and knew who was winning the state or parliamentary elections.

When he went to Sambalpur for higher studies, he remained in touch with RSS. He did not contest elections, but worked on a college senior’s campaign strategy. “Or, whatever strategy a teenager can come up with,” he laughs.He also participated in debates and quiz contests, and got a law degree before applying to JNU. He was accepted.

Just as his family didn’t object to his joining an RSS shakha, they did not interfere with his decision to contest elections as an ABVP candidate. “I’ve been lucky in that sense,” Sandeep says. “The family is very independent in terms of political choices, but there is no conflict.”

Was he never tempted to explore other political ideas at JNU? No, he says. “This clarity comes from my grounding in the RSS.” It appears to be thorough. Ask for his idols and he names Atal Behari Vajpayee, Arun Jaitley, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi—“for the courage of his convictions”–all RSS men, along with the founders, Dr Hedgewar and M. S. Golwalkar.

He also seems to have measured his own convictions against leftist leaders on campus and found them wanting. “Some later join the Congress party, or accept scholarships from the Rockefeller Foundation.” It was evidence, he felt, that their politics wasn’t for real.

What hardened his stance was Left antipathy to the RSS. The way he sees it, “They were against anything from Indian tradition, whether religion, or (singing) Vande Matram.” He likes to recount one particular incident. In 1997, when he first contested as a student council member, “I approached someone, knowing he was not of my ideology. We talked for two minutes. He was not convinced. I still wanted to shake his hand, but this guy refused to shake my hand.” 

One common thread in these stories is that punitive action serves as a prod rather than deterrent. Being sent to Tihar, for instance, brought into focus socio-political conflict or gender issues middle class students may have only talked or read about. It taught them empathy as well as tested their endurance.

Once Kavita and another female student were in jail, they found themselves in an overcrowded cell with undertrials who couldn’t get bail even though the charge was “stealing a purse with twenty bucks or something”. One inmate found a plate and spoon so that two university students could eat on their first night in. Prison authorities hadn’t bothered to give utensils nor assigned a spot to sleep.

Over the next few days, they discovered the complexity of gender and power in India. Many women were in for dowry-related murders and the perpetrators had come up with bizarre defences. “One older woman explained away her daughter-in-law’s death by saying, ‘Oh, she was weak. She went out in the sun, and died.’ Like, it was some sort of internal combustion!” says Kavita.

An amusing memory surfaces about the girls trying to make themselves useful in prison. “An undertrial asked us to write a letter. Her partner, a gang leader, was killed and she wanted to communicate with his friend, also lodged in jail. So my friend writes a letter and reads it aloud. It was all about: You are like my husband’s brother, like my devar (brother-in-law), therefore like my son, etcetera. That woman’s face fell. She had wanted to write a sort of love letter and complained: ‘Beta bana diya’ (You made him my son)!”

In the meantime, the government sent cops to the homes of arrested students. A team showed up in Bhilai too. Kavita says, “My mother invited them in and gave them tea. They said, your daughter’s in trouble. She said, ‘what’s she done’? They said, demonstrating! Mom said, but that’s not illegal. Then they said, but communist party... Mom said, ‘communist party is legal, isn’t it’? They were quite put out.”

Eventually, while leaving, one of the cops said, “Madam, you teach at college? Will you tutor my daughter?” Her mother, naturally, agreed.

Even within the broad umbrella of communist parties, Kavita chose the less popular one. The CPI was on the decline while the CPI(M) has tasted power in a few states. What did she hope to achieve through the CPI (ML)?

Such questions Kavita deems arrogant. She is more concerned with ethics than elections. She points out that she isn’t alone. “In 1993, a whole lot of people left SFI to join AISA, precisely because of questions about the purpose and principles of left politics at a time of rising communal fascism.”

This included her future husband, she says. He wrote a note after the Babri demolition and the resultant violence that ripped through the country, but the CPI(M) affiliated SFI refused to publish it. Instead they summoned him to warn against upsetting “Hindu opinion”. The student wing, too, was asked to be careful not to be seen as “appeasing Muslims”. He quit the organisation soon after, she says, and joined AISA.

Once Kavita had earned an M.Phil, she toyed with the idea of a doctorate and briefly had a job. Ultimately, she chose to work full-time for CPI (M-L). It felt like a natural decision, she says, but one propelled by tragedy, the murder of her friend and mentor, Chandrashekhar.

In an essay on the 20th anniversary of his assassination, Kavita describes Chandrashekhar as “a Left activist at a time when it was not fashionable to be Left”. Known to friends as “Chandu”, he had persuaded her to join the party by asking her to examine her feminism in the light of feudal and caste violence by groups like the Ranveer Sena in rural Bihar.

The murder very briefly united students of all organisations in a protest at Bihar Bhawan. But the gulf opened up as soon as it closed. RSS ideologue K. N. Govindacharya showed up but was prevented from addressing students. For Sandeep Mahapatra it was evidence of the Left’s unthinking hostility. For Kavita, it was an attempt to protect Chandu’s ideas and to oppose the ideas that led to his killing.

She recalls a presidential debate on campus where Chandu was a candidate. He was asked if he was ambitious. “My ambition is to live like Bhagat Singh,” he said, “and to die like Che Guevara.”

It was not empty rhetoric. He could have stayed in Delhi as an academic, or confined his political activities to Patna. Instead, in 1997, he returned to Siwan. Weeks later, he was dead, murdered. The immediate cause, Krishnan wrote, was “appealing for a Bihar bandh against the Holi massacre of Dalits by Ranveer Sena, as well as assaults on Dalit and oppressed caste women.”

Bhagat Singh—accused of terrorism, sedition and the assassination of a British police officer—has been an inspiration for millions of young Indians since 1931, when he was executed along with Sukhdev and Rajguru. He is celebrated as a martyr across the political spectrum. No party dares reject him as a national icon. His statue sits in Parliament. At JNU, there is a Bhagat Singh chair, though reports suggest that it’s had few or no appointees.

Bhagat Singh. The iconic revolutionary remains an inspiration for political activists of all hues. Illustration by Karthikeyan R.

This is the other thing common to aspiring activists; they are inspired by each other. Chandu, Umar Khalid, Jatin Goraiya, all were inspired by Bhagat Singh. In turn he was inspired by boys like Kartar Singh Sarabha, executed by the British in 1915 at 19 for participating in the freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh kept a photograph of Sarabha in his pocket and made a point of garlanding it during organisation meetings.

Chaman Lal, a retired professor who has authored multiple books on the subject, believes Bhagat Singh’s “greatness” lay in his being a thinker and organiser as well as a revolutionary. He courted arrest after throwing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly and used court appearances, newspapers and every opportunity he got to argue his cause. He read hundreds of books and maintained notes on what he read—Wordsworth to Marx, Thomas Paine to Omar Khayyam, Plato to Gandhi, until they took him off to the gallows.

Bhagat Singh also wrote extensively about the state of the nation, imperialism, exploitation through capitalism, and religious faith. He forbade his parents from petitioning for mercy on his behalf. He went to the gallows with the cry of “Inquilab Zindabad” on his lips.

His family owned enough land for them to be comfortable. True, the country was under British control and Indians were second class people. Still, there was more to gain by finishing his studies and securing a comfortable position from where he could take on institutional racism. It is worth asking: how did a boy born into relative privilege end up on the gallows?

Some of that fervour may have been inherited. In Understanding Bhagat Singh, Prof Chaman Lal writes that his father and two uncles were released from prison the day he was born in 1907. All three were part of the freedom struggle. One uncle contracted tuberculosis in jail and died soon after. The other, Ajit Singh, went into self-imposed exile, leaving India in 1909 and refusing to return until 1947.

From infancy, then, Bhagat Singh was familiar with the risks—imprisonment, exile, disease, death. Yet, at 15, when he joined National College, Lahore, he was taking his first steps on the revolutionary road. He contacted leaders, among them a founder of India’s communist movement, Muzzafar Ahmad, jailed in the Kanpur conspiracy case. By 1926, he had helped found the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), Lahore Students Union, Bal Students Union, and Bal Bharat Sabha. This last was aimed at the 12-15 age group and its president in Amritsar, Kahan Chand, was just 11 when awarded three months rigorous imprisonment. Yash Chand was barely 10 when prosecuted for assisting the Lahore City Congress and the NBS. Around this time, 1,192 juveniles under 15 were convicted for political activities.

There is nothing in Chaman Lal’s upbringing to explain his devotion to Bhagat Singh. He came from a “lower middle class family of shopkeepers” often in debt, and remains grateful that he escaped being a petty trader in rural Punjab thanks to his other love—Hindi literature. Both led him to prison.

The year Nehru died, he recalls, he borrowed his first novel from the village library, Premchand’s Godaan. That set the course for his future. Then he found Bharat ke Krantikari, brief sketches of young men who fought for India’s freedom, albeit not in the Gandhian way. Here he discovered Bhagat Singh, which led him to befriend young leftists in Punjab, and eventually to arrest in 1975.

Prof Chaman Lal. Illustration by Karthikeyan R

It was, he laughs, more or less accidental. “I was a government school teacher. Communists were active in our area. We met at events celebrating Bhagat Singh. During the summer vacation that year, I had nothing to do, so I cycled all the way to Bhatinda to hang out with my friend Harbhajan Sohi, nicknamed “professor”. For three or four days, it was infinite gupshup (chatting). On June 26, at 5 am, there was a raid.”

The “professor” was linked to Naxals and had gone underground before. Police came for him and found Chaman Lal asleep on the terrace. He too was hauled off, with no explanation. “On the way to the police station,” he remembers, “some newspaper boys were shouting: Emergency lag gayi (Emergency has been imposed)!”

Through the day, police kept bringing people in. One senior comrade tried to intercede on his behalf, arguing he was not a party member, only a house guest, to no avail. Chaman Lal was in Bhatinda jail for two months. Eventually, he was bailed out for the princely sum of Rs 1 lakh, which his family didn’t have. They had to beg a distant relative. 

He didn’t go home at first and when he did, shocked and fearful faces greeted him. Cops had come looking for the relative who’d posted bail. Chaman Lal went back to Bhatinda, sleeping in a shop with the shutters down and a lock outside. “Professor” meanwhile had jumped bail and gone underground. Within three days, Chaman Lal was re-arrested and held under Defence of India Rules. This time, he spent seven months inside.

When he was released, he found himself suspended from the village school. He decided to resume his studies. JNU was offering doctorates in Hindi literature and he applied. After a “verification” routine, to establish whether or not he was a communist, he was admitted in 1977. For three decades, he taught at various campuses but his heart was consumed by Bhagat Singh. He researches, writes and lectures almost exclusively about him.

 JNU, since its inception in 1969, has been a magnet for young people serious about higher education. One major attraction is a democratic atmosphere designed by students themselves. One of them was Ramesh Dixit, studying political science in Sagar University when he heard of a new institution in Delhi. “In 1970, five or six of us wrote the constitution of the student union. It would be the first Indian university where the students first chose their own election commission, which handled council elections.”

They ensured that money would not be a deciding factor. “We started a tradition that posters would be hand-made. We decided against printing posters so candidates didn’t need money,” says Dixit. “Students remained involved during elections: talking, drinking tea at the dhaba, being creative.”

This aspect of JNU is unique. Because it is mainly a residential campus, it is also easier—for both Right and Left groups—to influence voters rather than bribe them. Sandeep Mahapatra agrees that it is one of the only campuses in Delhi where you don’t need deep pockets. Even in a small town like Sambalpur, as a student of law at a “usual kind of college”, he could not imagine contesting elections without money, muscle or “background”, which meant a well-connected local family. “In JNU, someone like me, who is from outside Delhi, who comes from a backward place, can win.”

A retired professor who heads the Uttar Pradesh unit of the Nationalist Congress Party, Dixit has spent much of his life teaching in Lucknow University. He also studied there and contested elections. It couldn’t be more different from JNU, he says. There’s a wide gap of scholarship in the leadership of these campuses. At JNU, election time meant intensive debates. Leaders were expected to have a position on things. “Somebody might ask a question about ‘the situation in Nicaragua’ and the candidate was expected to have a comment and opinion. You needed to be informed.”

Everything could be and was questioned. You could question professors in class. UP-Bihar universities didn’t have that.

Why, I asked, was this not replicated in Lucknow or Sagar or even Delhi? Better infrastructure and scholarships for one, says Dixit, but there is another major difference. “JNU students enter through competitive exams and interviews. Students come from all strata and from all over, Meghalaya to Kerala. Lucknow University attracts students from a 100-km radius. In western UP you go to Aligarh. In the east, you go to Benaras or Allahabad. Lucknow gets local students, and from neighbouring districts like Hardoi and Barabanki. Regional and caste affiliations are very strong. Besides, there is no entrance exam. Admissions are based on marks in board exams, and you know how such marks can be obtained,” Dixit says.

Students like himself had worked to create a liberal, secular, democratic ethos at JNU, but Dixit says it was possible only because the first vice-chancellor, rector and chancellor–the three main administrative figures–allowed it to happen. “Everything could be and was questioned. You could question professors in class. UP-Bihar universities didn’t have that. If students posed a challenge, professors could throw them out, saying, you dare question me?” Dixit says.

Other ex-students, however, say administrations of central universities always take their cue from the establishment. Prabir Purkayastha, invited to deliver one of the “freedom” series lectures at JNU after Kanhaiyya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition, points out that when democratic rights were stripped during the Emergency, JNU fell in line. The administration did not try to defend students during police raids on hostels, nor did it challenge abductions like his own.

Like Chaman Lal, Purkayastha was arrested by mistake. He had moved from Calcutta to Mithila Nehru College in Allahabad, then to IIT Delhi, and finally, to JNU. Less than 15 days after his arrival—and just 15 days before his scheduled wedding—he found himself bundled into a large black car and whisked off. Cops in plainclothes had come looking for the president of the student council, D.P. Tripathi (who later joined the Nationalist Congress Party). The mix-up was cleared up but Purkayastha was not released. He spent a year in prison under MISA, wherein you could be held indefinitely without a charge.

Such arrests were not uncommon during the Emergency. Even so, Purkayastha was a bit of a rarity. He recalls a conversation with a jail superintendent, “He said, I’ve had engineering students. I’ve had PhD students, but you are the first engineering PhD student in my 40 years here!”

Purkayastha’s was also a rare case in that he was given “relief” to attend a viva voce in Allahabad. He went by train, handcuffed and surrounded by eight armed cops. “The compartment emptied easily,” he laughs now. “It was the easiest travel I’ve had without reservations.”

Some students had been bracing for arrests, but even so, it was a testing time. “People had no clue whether they’d be in jail for one year, two years, five years, ten years. The sheer uncertainty broke a lot of people,” says Purkayastha. Jail meant political irrelevance. Many people wrote apology letters to the government in exchange for a release but he believes this took a toll. “They fell in their own esteem. Many never came back to politics or remained on the sidelines.”

He simply refused to think about it. He read books, exercised, talked to people across the political spectrum. “If you have no control, why worry? That way is paralysis. Would I apologise and get out? No. Nothing else mattered.”

Was jail not so awful? “Jail is not awful because of hard labour or bad food,” he says. “The awfulness is that you cannot get out. Besides, Indian jails are very hierarchical. Class protects you. For the first three days, I was kept with common prisoners. Then I was shifted to the political ward. But for those three days, nobody would touch me because of the respect you get as a middle class, padha likha (educated) man.”

Police officials too were careful: today’s prisoner might be tomorrow’s chief minister, or prime minister. They were wise, as it turned out. Student leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar went on to head state governments. Atal Behari Vajpayee started out as a student activist jailed before independence and rose to India’s top job.

The year 2018 brought new troubles for Umar Khalid. In the beginning, an FIR was lodged with the Pune police naming him and independent Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani for “promoting enmity” over speeches at the Elgaar Parishad to commemorate the Bhima-Koregaon battle.

He managed to submit his doctoral thesis at some point during the year, and survived an assassination attempt. By the end of the year, reports suggested that Delhi Police were preparing chargesheets against Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban, accusing them of sedition.

Last we spoke Umar had not joined any party. If his Muslim name brings one set of complications, his avowed atheism is not likely to make him popular with Muslim organisations.

How does his family deal with that? He smiled and referred to a term the Soviet Union used in the 1960s: “peaceful co-existence”. But he contests the idea that Indian Muslims are a homogeneous block.

“People see it as a static community—unthinking, concerned about religion and nothing else. It is a very elitist reading. Yes, they are religious because 99 per cent of this country is goddamn religious! You cannot expect Muslims to be an exception, especially when there’s a feeling of being under siege. When there’s little hope for justice in this world, one’s hopes for the other world get exaggerated,” he says.

But he has good things to say about student politics. “It doesn’t have the baggage of the mainstream. We have not started worrying about the Hindu vote, the caste vote and so on.”

Sandeep disagrees. Religion, caste are factors on campus too, he says, and he believes campus politics is reflective of developments at the national level. “You see Left parties ganging up, both on campus to defeat ABVP and also outside.”

Outside, however, is a cut-throat affair. He has not thrown himself into national politics via the BJP, which would have been a logical progression. “You need some background, some family support. If you are from this part of the country, you at least have a place to live while you do politics.” Besides, in mainstream politics, he says, someone 30 years older, who ought to be a mentor, looks upon you as a competitor.

He remains connected to the RSS through the Akhil Bhartiya Adivakta Parishad, a lawyer’s organisation that was founded by another of his idols, Dattopant Thengadi. It has no system of membership but does have positions of responsibility and Sandeep was general secretary, 2015-18. Eventually, he hopes to return to Odisha, but is in no rush to jump into the electoral fray.

On campus, one can say a lot of things not accepted outside, like about Kashmir and about Dalits in India. Outside the gates, everything changes.

As much as the politics of mainstream parties filters down to student wings, the stated politics of a student body has to be validated by its leaders once they leave campus. With the founders of BASO having left campus, it is struggling. Jatin Goraiya did join them but has found that the fierce energy has dissipated. “On campus, one can say a lot of things not accepted outside, like about Kashmir and about Dalits in India. Outside the gates, everything changes. You can’t afford to be so radical in the mainstream. So when new students are approached to sign up, they ask questions like, ‘Your BASO leaders take a different position outside. Why should we support you if you are no different from other Left parties’?”

Jatin has also faced punitive action. After a professor alleged that he was harassed and manhandled during a campus protest, a police complaint was filed against a group of students. It wasn’t an FIR and there was no evidence backing the complaint. But the administration imposed a fine and demanded an apology. “They were blocking our registration for the next academic year. Paying a fine and apologising meant admitting we had attacked a professor, which is a lie. It would go down on our records, so we went to court.”

Courts, lawyers, arguments, fines, all are designed to wear out students, he says. There are fewer protests on campus now, and discussions tend to be muted. Many students can’t afford to pay fines and don’t know how to fight back legally.

For a while, he tried to work with another Dalit organisation, the Bhim Army, and his family began to freak out. That brand of confrontational politics scares them. His parents sometimes ask him not to live on campus, to do the commute from home instead, and if he must be an activist, to confine himself to Delhi instead of going into Haryana or UP, where he might meet with greater danger.

Jatin is on the cusp now. He is trying to find his niche, while trying to figure out just how much politics he wants. Full blown, full time politics is not for everyone. “Most students join protests, have intense discussions over chai for two or three years,” he says. “Then they hunker down to exams for government service, or jobs. They settle down.”

He hopes to earn a doctorate over the next few years. Whether he remains politically active is anybody’s guess, but his political imagination is no longer limited to the two behemoths: Congress and BJP.

Does student politics matter, then, if one isn’t seeking a political career? Jatin thinks it does. “If I had not joined JNU, I would have been a totally different person,” he says. “I would be doing a management course, working in a private firm. My Dalit identity would have been an embarrassment, which today is a strength and motivation to struggle and fight for a just society.”

Speaking of influence and transformation, Kavita’s mother has also joined the CPI (M-L). It is unlikely the cops will come visiting to complain about her daughter being a communist.

Correction, February 18, 2019: An earlier version of the story wrongly attributed a claim about JNU to NDA minister Giriraj Singh. The claim about cigarettes and condoms in JNU was made by Rajasthan BJP leader Gyan Dev Ahuja.