“Our coming generations will ask us for an answer, they will ask us, where were you when new social forces were being unleashed, where were you when people who live and die every moment, every day strived for their rights, where were you when there was an assertion of the marginal voices of the society. They will seek an answer from all of us…”
– Comrade Chandrashekhar
On 19th September, as we observe the birth anniversary of Comrade Chandrashekhar, it is imperative that we recall his vision of student politics. His words, his life and his politics remind us of the historic role of the student movement – and the responsibility that each and every one of us has to carry forward his legacy.
Com. Chandu’s Journey and Political Initiatives
Chandu, who was the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) President for two terms in 1994-95 and 1995-96, left JNU to become a whole time activist of the CPI(ML) in his hometown Siwan in Bihar. He was shot dead on 31 March 1997 while addressing a street corner meeting in Siwan town, by goons at the behest of RJD MP Mohd. Shahabuddin.
His journey began as an ordinary student in Sainik School Tilaiyya, who joined the NDA. However, he soon left the NDA, finding that it did not fulfil his deep desire to struggle against social injustice. He joined the Left movement as an activist of the CPI, becoming the Vice President of the AISF in Bihar. However, the politics of the CPI too was deeply dissatisfying for him. When he joined JNU in 1990, he was attracted to the radical politics of the then fledging organisation, AISA. He played an important role in AISA’s formative years in JNU.
Chandrashekhar entered JNU during a period of tumultuous political developments: the collapse of the Soviet union, the anti-Mandal frenzy, and BJP’s rath yatra that announced the arrival of communal fascism as a major player on the stage of Indian politics. He was one of the architects of AISA’s spirited resistance against communal fascism in the early 1990s – from Allahabad to Banaras and finally in JNU, he led students to counter the communal frenzy that the Sangh Parivar was whipping up across the country.
This was also a period when under the AISA leadership the role of JNUSU was redefined: JNUSU became a real ‘site of struggle’ rather than a ‘site of power’. As a leader of the JNUSU, Chandrashekhar led successful struggles for the restoration of deprivation points in JNU admissions (on the basis of social, regional and gender deprivations) which had been scrapped in 1983. As a result, JNU’s demography changed – women, as well as students from deprived backgrounds began to take admission in JNU in substantial numbers. The early 1990s saw a renewed neo-liberal assault, and ‘reforms’ were converting Central Universities into enclaves of the rich. It was in such a scenario that Chandu led a remarkable and massive agitation which succeeded in foiling an attempt at imposing fee hikes and privatisation in JNU in 1995.
Bridging the Barriers …..
For Chandrashekhar, JNU and other academic institutions were not isolated islands. He continuously tried to bridge the artificial barriers between the student movement and the people’s movement raging in different parts of the country. Be it the protests against the rape of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, the struggle for independence of the people of Palestine, or the massacre of dalit landless poor at Bathani Tola, the Narmada Bachao movement against displacement of tribals in the name of development, the rape by police of activists of the Uttarakhand separate state movement in Muzaffarnagar, against state repression in the North east and Kashmir, against draconian laws like TADA and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Chandu made the student movement an integral part of all those movements.
In 1995 he represented India in the UN-sponsored youth conference in Seoul, where he formed a group of third world representatives inside the conference and moved several resolutions against US imperialism, eventually staging a walkout in protest. Risking the wrath of Korean authorities, he contacted many outlawed left-wing student leaders and even addressed a huge rally of students on the issue of Korean reunification.
During the JNUSU Presidential Debate of 1994, Chandu replied to a question: “Yes, I’m ambitious – my ambition is to live like Bhagat Singh and die like Che Guevara!” Chandu indeed lived and died as he had wished.
Today’s the best possible, and in fact the only tribute that we can pay to Chandu’s memory is not tears, but a renewed commitment to the struggles that defined his politics. Remembering Chandrashekhar, we and our student movement too must ask ourselves:
- Where were you when innocent Muslims in your country were being branded as ‘terrorists’ and witch-hunted while perpetrators of riots were hailed as heroes? Did you speak out for justice – or remain silent?
- Where were you when the Commonwealth Games were being used an excuse to further massive corruption and misutilisation of public funds? Were you celebrating our colonial legacy and participating in the ‘Queen’s Baton Rally’? Or were you raising your voice against the exploitation of workers and eviction of slum dwellers, beggars, street vendors and students from Delhi?
- Where were you when hundreds of young women were being killed by their families for daring to break the barriers of caste and religion? Were you justifying ‘honour killings’, or were you defending the individual freedom of choice in love and marriage?
- Where were you when hundreds of Kashmiri men, women and children were on the streets protesting against state repression and facing guns and batons? Were you defending AFSPA? Or were you joining the Kashmiri people’s demand of peace and freedom from state repression?
- Where were you when the people of Nandigram, Lanjigarh, Niyamgiri and Gurgaon were waging a struggle to save their land and livelihood? Did you defend the lathis and bullets that were rained down on them; did you brand the protesting peasants as ‘terrorists’? Or did you join the peasants and uphold their struggle?
- When India’s rulers sought to abjectly sell India’s sovereignty and sign the Nuclear Liability Bill, did you stand up in defence of the lives and livelihoods of Indian people; or did you allow the powers-that-be to surrender to US imperialism and corporate interests?
Resist the Commercial Film Industry’s Attempt to Distort Chandrashekhar’s Memory and Legacy
Recently, Chandu’s contemporaries and comrades from CPI(ML) and AISA came to know from newspaper reports that filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt was proposing to make a film on Chandu’s life. They wrote to Mahesh Bhatt, expressing their skepticism about the ability of a mainstream, commercial film to capture the politics and ideology that Chandu lived and died for. They stressed that Chandrashekhar was no ‘lone’ apolitical hero (of the kind preferred by the film industry), and there was every fear that a commercial film might divorce Chandu from the revolutionary movement of which he was an integral part. It now appears that these apprehensions were well-founded.
In the course of a conversation with a CPI(ML) leader in Delhi, the actor who will be playing the role of Chandu in the film, as well as a member of the ‘research’ team for the film revealed that they visited Chandu’s hometown Siwan as part of their preparations for the film. During this visit, they declared that they ‘avoided’ meeting local CPI(ML) activists in keeping with explicit instructions from the local SSP and district authorities. In the words of the member of the film’s research unit, the SSP had ‘correctly’ advised them not to talk to local CPI(ML) people, since in his words “they might take credit instead of giving credit to Chandrashekhar.” This attitude of total contempt for the very people whom Chandu worked with and identified with is a total negation of the politics that he stood for. Clearly, this film is being made by people who have the least understanding, concern or respect for communist politics. The same member of the film’s research team also declared that on the basis of the Siwan visit, they have ‘concluded’ that Chandu’s death was an ‘accidental martyrdom’! Let us remember, that right after Chandu’s murder, there were attempts by the RJD and Shahabuddin himself others to claim that Chandrashekhar had not been the target of a political assassination; that his death was an ‘accidental’ fall out of a ‘personal’ vendetta against some other person. JNU students along with friends and comrades of Chandrashekhar have raised their voice to tell the would-be makers of the film – ‘Leave Chandrashekhar alone!’ Chandrashekhar lives in the hearts and minds of every CPI(ML) activist, every idealist youth and student, every person committed to social transformation – he needs no movie to propagate his legacy. Mr. Bhatt and his friends would be better advised to stick to a fictional character of their imagination – and leave the reality of Chandrashekhar’s life and struggle in the safe hands of those who shared his commitments and his struggles.
The student movement has a historic responsibility – to carry forward the struggles that Chandu lived and died for, and prevent his legacy from being appropriated or misrepresented.