Kanhaiya Kumar’s words, as he delivered his passionate speech in Jawaharlal Nehru University hours after being released on bail following 23 days in custody, will continue to reverberate in our ears for some time to come. “We want freedom in India, not from India,” he said as he went on to define what he meant by that freedom, that “azadi”.

Kumar left those who listened to him at the venue, and on television, speechless. He probably left his detractors, who have called him “anti-national”, sleepless. For what Kumar said on the night of March 3, and what he represents, cannot be ignored anymore.

But is this the story of only one exceptional person, a young man not just with admirable oratorical skills but also commitment, perspective, passion, courage and insight? Or does this represent an awakening among India’s students and youth, a stirring that has been a long time coming?

Rise and spread

What began in September 2014 in Jadavpur University in Kolkata in the form of a demand to investigate an incident of sexual harassment, spread to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in June 2015, when the students went on strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to head the institution.

Like the “infection” the Delhi High Court judge who granted Kumar bail fears, it then spread to the Hyderabad Central University in August 2015, culminating in the tragic death of Rohith Vemula in January this year. And then on February 9, JNU became “infected” as students demanded their right to protest and were instead charged with sedition and being “anti-national”.

Since the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on February 12 on charges of sedition and the subsequent arrest of two other JNU students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, students from many more universities across India have come out in their support. This kind of solidarity among students across universities has not been seen in recent times.

These protests could, of course, subside. The majority of students might decide to get back to classes, and to worrying about their careers. But the chances that this “infection” will spread are greater because the JNU students and the Dalit students from Hyderabad Central University have widened the ambit of their protests. It is not just freedom of expression that they are demanding; they are equally passionate about freedom from caste. It is this combination that must worry the current dispensation at the Centre, or at least should worry them.

Past passion

You would have to delve quite far into your memory to remember a time when Indian universities were in ferment. But there was such a time. If you were in any university or college in the 1960s or 1970s, student politics was alive. There were passionate debates about the country’s future, about injustice and about freedom. There were Gandhians, Socialists, Communists, Maoists. I can’t remember too many Sanghis in those days.

Whether you were politically inclined or not, expressing your views on everything and anything was the norm. And no one was afraid. There was no one telling you what was allowed or not allowed. And there was certainly no one accusing anyone of being “anti-national”, not even if you believed that “power came out of the barrel of a gun”.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the Naxalbari movement at one end, and Jayprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution at the other. Both attracted educated young people, including students who left their studies to go and work in the villages. There were study circles and intense debates. Many young people who followed JP dropped their surnames so as not to identify with any caste. Despite opposition from parents, young people were giving up jobs, education, comfortable homes to follow their convictions. They did not want to wait, to be safe. They wanted to take risks.

For the young people who were politicised in the early 1970s, the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 was an inflexion point; it confirmed their worst fears about the Indian state. When the Congress Party president DK Barooah declared that “India was Indira and Indira was India”, the frame within which rights, such as freedom of expression, could operate had been set. If you were critical of Indira or her policies, you were against India, hence anti-national. In today’s context, this sounds creepily similar.

Lessons not learnt

Although there have been other galvanising events that have drawn out young people since the end of the Emergency in 1977 and today, I would argue that there has been nothing that has been this widespread. The issue of communalism did bring young people out on the streets after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat violence in 2002. But their participation was not on the scale we have seen today.

Since the 2014 election and the formation of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, the demand for “azadi”, in the way Kumar describes it, has been spurred because the state now defines what we can say and cannot, what we can do and cannot, what we can eat and cannot, what we can read and cannot. You don’t have to be a student of JNU to understand that this is unacceptable. Young people have always demanded the right to question, to rebel, to choose their own paths. As Kanhaiya Kumar presciently pointed out, the more you push them down, the stronger they will emerge.

This is precisely what has been happening. Instead of recognising the legitimacy of the demands being made by students on these different campuses, the government has chosen the hammer of “sedition” and the “anti-national” label to knock them down. In turn, it is now facing the ballooning rebellion of students, political and apolitical, who instinctively react against arbitrariness and oppression.

Pertinent reminders

What is particularly pertinent about the struggles of the students in JNU is that they are going beyond demanding freedom of expression. By placing on the same plate caste oppression, these youth have launched a campaign that has relevance and should have resonance. Relevance because it is unacceptable that in 2016 caste should still be a factor that determines a person’s future in this country. And resonance because in 2014, as Kumar reminded us, 69% of the voters did not vote for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is a large constituency of people out there who do not subscribe to identity politics and the divisiveness that is being deliberately fuelled by this government.

Kumar has also reminded us that there is an India that lies beyond university campuses and television studios. It includes places like his village, where his mother is an anganwadi worker. He is in JNU only because there is a system that accommodates people like him. In those places beyond the reach of the media, what is “India”, what is “the nation”, who is a patriot and who an “anti-national”? Does it really matter?

Listening to Kumar’s passionate speech at JNU, I recalled an incident from 40 years ago. I was meeting students at a village school in Panchgani, western Maharashtra. They were curious about Bombay. Some had heard of it, many had not. They had no idea who was the prime minister of India, or the president.

And then I asked, “Which do you think is the biggest city in India?” In an instant, a little girl dressed in the regulation uniform common in most village schools, with her hair neatly braided into two plaits, raised her hand. “Satara”, she said, with utmost confidence.