In the middle of his electrifying speech after being released from prison on Thursday, Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar decided to address Narendra Modi, making sure to use the phrase, “my esteemed, respected Prime Minister”. Grinning sarcastically, he explained, “I better use those words, right. Who knows, someone might doctor this video too and then slap sedition charges on me”. The enormous crowd outside the university's administrative block went into raptures.

The moment exemplified the canny insouciance with which Kumar has steered through the maelstrom that he and five other students have been thrust into since February 9, the day “anti-national” slogans were allegedly raised on the JNU campus. The Modi administration’s response was swift and strong: it accused six JNU students of committing sedition against the government, bringing out the colonial-era law once used against Mahatma Gandhi.

Sedition and doctored videos

But it soon became clear that the police action against the students had been bungled, and was perhaps even malevolent. The Delhi Police based its case on videos of Kumar – videos that have now been proven to be doctored. Not only the police, even the JNU registrar, Bhupinder Zutshi, incorrectly claimed that “Kanhaiya was also seen in the video raising anti-national slogans”. In an unprecedented move, the JNU Teacher’s Association has even asked for Zutshi to be removed, accusing him of conspiring with the police to frame students.

Kumar did indeed chant slogans asking for “azadi” but they weren't a call for secession from India. Instead, he was asking for freedom from a range of societal ills. The doctored videos, though, made it seem as if he was a political separatist, setting of a chain of events: sedition, large-scale media vilification and even physical assault by lawyers as he was produced in court, as the Delhi Police looked on.

After this, many would have thought it prudent for Kumar to stay away from this slogan. But, of course, he didn’t do that. As his speech on Thursday was broadcast across the nation, Kumar made it clear that he was asking for freedom not from India, but in India. Kumar ended his speech by shouting the azadi slogan again – this time, as millions watched.

Ambedkarite leftism

Kumar already seems to have a rare pulse of public affairs. On Friday, the morning after his scintillating speech, Kumar held a press conference making sure to put on record his condemnation of the events of February 9 – and his admiration of the Indian Constitution. But then, he also made sure to firmly convey his political ideology with the nation watching. “These dark clouds will not be able to hide the red sun that shines against the blue sky,” referring to the Communist and Ambedkarite colours.

This was, by far, the most significant thrust of Kumar’s political messaging. The Left in India has always been blind to caste. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has never had a Dalit on its politburo. Kumar was attempting to change that. And thanks to the sedition case, he had a national audience to work with.

There was more: answering a question on what he thought of Afzal Guru’s death sentence, Kumar made it clear that the Kashmiri man convicted for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack wasn’t his hero, Rohith Vemula was. Vemula, the Dalit scholar from the University of Hyderabad, had been hounded by a minister in the Modi government, being called “anti-national” and his stipend stopped. Vemula committed suicide in January – an act Kumar pointedly described as “murder” in his Thursday speech.

Later, Kumar spoke to about the charge of sedition against him. “Large sections of the Hindi media have used the word deshdroh, treason for the charge against me rather than the correct term rajdroh, sedition,” Kumar explained animatedly. “Sedition is a colonial-era law – we need to question it.”

Outside the JNU campus, though, this difference is often blurred. The Bharatiya Janata Party senses a political opportunity in this and had, a week ago, led a Lok Sabha debate on the matter. During the discussions, Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani played an ace, bringing up a previous event of alleged blasphemy against the goddess Durga on the JNU campus. This was an incendiary mix of religion and nationalism that can fire up not only the BJP base but many voters across the Hindi heartland.

Patriot but not a nationalist

Back in JNU, Kumar presents a sharp contrast, calmly debating the very concept of nationalism. “I am a patriot but not a nationalist,” explained Kumar. “Nationalism is a European concept. India is a land of diversity – she has no one uniform identity."

He argued: “The BJP’s nationalism is fake. Remember, the first words in the Constitution are ‘We, the People’. A minority, who is being lynched, is part of the People. A Dalit, who is told that a cow is purer than him, is part of the People.

"Nationalism is a ploy, nothing else, for the BJP. They’re doing it to distract people from economic issues. So that the people don’t ask Modi how he is able to afford a suit worth lakhs of rupees.”

Azadi within India

The student leader said that he was glad the azadi slogan has become so popular across the country. “This isn’t a treasonous or seditious slogan," he said. "This talks of bettering the country."

During his press conference, Kumar had been asked if he has plans to enter politics. He answered that right now he was a student leader more concerned with removing bed bugs from hostel rooms. Indeed, till February 9, that is what Kumar was – a rather nondescript student leader. Like countless other Jawaharlal Nehru Student Union presidents before him, constricted by a shrinking Left wing space, Kumar would also have graduated from university and faded into obscurity. But the government’s near-comical overreaction to a student event in JNU has meant Kumar now has the platform to rise much higher. His oratory and grasp of ideas means that the traditional political class looks tired and slow in front of him.

For now, those around him are convinced that he's in for the long haul. One JNU faculty member suggested that the government had made a mistake by picking on Kumar: “Not only is he a great orator, but he is plucky. He won’t back down.”