“Vidrohi was the last hippie of our times. He was a politically conscious hippie,” said Sandeep Singh, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union and a close friend of the street poet Ramashankar Yadav, popularly known as Vidrohi (The Rebel). “He always had a tragic sense of defeat. A warrior who had lost his battle but continued to fight. He was not ready to bow down; that was, in a way, his political, ideological zeal. He had said this in many of his poems, ‘I am a defeated warrior, lying on the flames of the ocean, continuously burning.’”

Actually, his work was far from defeatist. When Vidrohi spoke to his comrades in JNU, he often seamlessly quoted Marxist thinkers. “Communism is not madness. It is the end of madness,” he would echo Brecht.

A day in the life

Vidrohi spent the last three decades of his life at JNU. He would start his day at dusk with a chai at the JNU library canteen, and would then walk to Ganga Dhaba, which is the hub of JNU’s political culture with its rustic stone benches, cheap food and absence of lighting, the place where most student protests start.

Vidrohi would sit on his stone bench here and recite his poems. He was part of the JNU’s political and physical landscape by the time of his death. Late at night, Vidrohi would retire to the Students’ Union office where he would sleep, no longer spending his nights in the woods of JNU, as he used to in the past.

He admired his own poetry. “It was necessary for him to sustain himself," Singh said. "He never considered himself less than any other great poet: he always saw himself belonging to the lineage of Kabir and Nagarjun, but he never associated with someone like Tulasi Das.”

Vidrohi was both shabby and eccentric.  Students considered his lifestyle anarchic. But the poet thought otherwise.

In the documentary on his life, Mein Tumhara Kavi Hoon, Vidrohi explained, “It might seem as if Vidrohi’s life is utterly anarchic, but in fact no life is more disciplined than mine. I follow a strict discipline. I am a man of international discipline, that comes from an international school of thought.”

He was conscious about whom he interacted with and whose money he accepted. “He would not mind smoking with students from the extreme left, but would only speak, and nothing else, with those he thought were moderate. He might have a chai with the NSUI [the student wing of the Congress party] students,” recollected Kanhaiya Kumar, the current president of JNU’s student union. “But from the ABVP [the student wing of the BJP] students, he would never speak or take money.”

However, he did accept sweets from ABVP activists after the 2015 student elections. Vidrohi went to Kanhaiya after the elections, in which the ABVP’s candidate had won a seat in JNU’s student panel, and said, “They offered me sweets and I took them. They looked like they would kill me if I didn’t. Kanhaiya, it’s the Left’s responsibility to get them out of the campus.”

“Vidrohi had several shades,” said Kanhaiya. "He was a very complex person." These shades to him often interfered with what he wrote and how he expressed himself. He would never write on paper, and often remarked, “If I write my poems and do all the work, what work will my comrades have?”

Vidrohi’s poetry is in Hindi and Awadhi, and he only recited them to audiences at dhabas, protests, marches and meetings.

The poet’s desire

But that did not mean he had no desire to be published. When his poems appeared for the first time on the BBC Hindi website, he had the pages printed out to show students.  In the 1990s, at the request of a student leader, he had prepared a draft of a book for publication. It was never published, and the draft was subsequently lost. So Vidrohi was a happy man when his poetry was published on the Internet.

On a typical day, when there were no student protests, Vidrohi would be in his favourite spot amongst the rocks, sit in the library canteen, or on his bench in Ganga Dhaba, and either relax or recite his poems. But the poems he recited were at least a decade old.

“The poet in him had died," said Singh. "The activist in him recited his old poems and stayed active politically.” At times he would seemingly go  into a trance, trembling or shaking his head, often closing his eyes or fixing his gaze in the distance or on a person.

He would then start speaking in whispers, words that would morph into random phrases or even gibberish. Sometimes he recited them so quickly that the words slipped through the senses. One could often hear gendered Hindi abuses as he rambled.

“Great wars and mythologies happened inside Vidrohi’s head,” Singh said. “His profanity was never driven at an individual, but at the rotten system and the images he saw in his head.” Not everyone interpreted Vidrohi’s invective this way. A few students even complained to the JNU administration, which asked Vidrohi to leave the campus.

“The administration thought of Vidrohi as a nuisance,” recollected Yagyaseni Bareth, who started a campaign with her friends to bring Vidrohi back. He stayed in Munirka with his comrades for two months. “How can he write such progressive poetry about women and yet use these gendered abuse?” students would ask Yagyaseni.

Vidrohi’s visions and hallucinations were often driven by his angst. “His visions were political,” Yagyaseni recollected, “and although he spoke too fast, there were often words and phrases like Babri Masjid, 1992, George Bush, and Brahmin within his rants.” Said Singh, “Vidrohi was vehemently opposed to two things: the RSS and the caste system.”

A life of oppression

A member of a peasant family in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Vidrohi was married when he was a child. “It was his wife who inspired him to go to school and he competed with her in studies,” said Singh. Vidrohi then took up academics seriously and secured admission to JNU.

He loved his wife and fondly addressed her as “Shanti-ji”, eventually dedicating his first book of poems to her. She was very supportive of his lifestyle. When Nitin Panmani won an award for his documentary on Vidrohi and decided to give the prize money to the poet, he immediately handed it over to his wife.

Vidrohi’s poetry was a mixture of the struggles of peasant life, a very deep and often disturbing, subverted sense of history and mythology, and a great sense of geography. His poems featured halwais from his village, his grandmother, shepherds of Australia, nomads of central Asia and several oppressed women.

Vidrohi was a principled man. He believed in living out his life in the university with the students who struggled against an oppressive system he despised. Earlier in 2015, when Kanhaiya became the JNUSU president, Vidrohi went to him and whispered in his ear, “I can stay in the students’ union office for one more year without fear now.”

Said Kanhaiya, “He will stay here forever. We will name the students’ union office after him: after all, this is for those who are involved in vidroh [rebellion]. That’s a perfect name for a students’ union building.”