Kanhaiya Kumar’s emergence as a face of defiance against the Modi government has been met with desperate attempts to downplay his significance. His critics in social and mainstream media have questioned his achievements, asking why exactly his supporters see him as special.

For these detractors, Kumar’s personal odyssey is but an excuse. They feel that an unfortunate boy’s errant behaviour has been tolerated just because he came from rural Bihar, because his family survived on the paltry single income of his mother who worked in an aganwadi, and because his father was incapacitated from seeking employment due to a disability.

This is a warped way of looking at a context which in fact reflects Kumar’s spectacular achievements.

Against all odds

Kumar’s home state of Bihar, as per the 2011 Census data, has the lowest literacy rate in the country, over 10% less than the national average. When Kumar was a school-going boy of thirteen, more than half of the state population was illiterate. The district he hails from, Begusarai, has been identified by the Indian government as among the Most Backward Districts in the country under the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme, a status ascribed based on the prevalence of public infrastructure (for instance, schools) in the district. This fund to alleviate circumstances came the way of Begusarai in 2006, four years after Kumar had moved to Patna for undergraduate study.

Graduating from school is no accomplishment, some might say. But in truth, it is an achievement indeed for those starting from a disadvantaged position. Agreed, while caste and gender must have contributed to Kumar’s rise to some extent, his feat is still nothing short of a wonder.

In his time, half our country’s children, most of them from rural backgrounds like Kumar, were dropping out from formal education by the age of 14. Till as late as 2009, Bihar ranked second lowest in the country in the rate of students transitioning even to upper primary school.

In the year before Kumar completed schooling, research conducted by economists Lant Pritchett and Deon Filmer as part of a World Bank study gauged that while poverty generally has a dampening effect on school enrolment – a “rich child” is 31% more likely to enrol in school than a poor one – in Bihar this effect is amplified to 42%. It is safe to assume that Kumar did not count as a “rich child”: even in 2014, his mother supported the family of four with a salary of Rs 3,000 per month.

Unimpressed critics

Going back to 2004, to the time Kumar was pursuing his undergraduate degree in Patna, rankings show Bihar to be among the worst performers in higher education, with the lowest Gross Enrolment Ratio at 5%, as against Delhi’s 33%. But Kumar didn’t stop at an undergraduate degree. He earned a master’s degree and then joined Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to pursue a doctorate in African studies at the School of International Studies.

What are the odds that of the micro minority of Indian students who enrol in a PhD programme, a working class, rural Bihari boy could get into the most coveted institute in his field without reservation? Excruciatingly small.

Yet Kumar’s critics are not impressed. As Bikram Vohra wrote in an op-ed in Firstpost: “He did not find a cure for AIDS or cancer. He did not even save anyone from a stormy sea or a burning building, no act of even mini-heroism. He has not enhanced the arts, excelled in sport, made a breakthrough in science or engaged in any travail of value. Not even a commercial enterprise where he got people jobs and created an empire. Absolutely nothing of worth and yet he is the most famous face in the country.”

Faced with classism

After the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the 2015 Bihar assembly election, its supporters had sent out sarcastic tweets, suggesting that all Biharis were welcome to remain rickshawallahs. The episode was a reiteration of the classism, both overt and subtle, that people of Bihar often face. Therefore, for them, to have a representative public face, speaking in their accent yet carrying solid middle class credentials, can be motivating and powerful. Whether he intends it or not, Kumar’s very presence, even though it might appear like personal achievement, has a profound social impact.

Students like Kumar, by being in higher education and active in politics, help make these spaces more inclusive. They offer fresh perspectives on issues commonly overlooked due to the middle-class composition of universities. They increase their chances of having a seat at the table. A rough analogy would be the entry of women in higher education and the difference that has made to scholarship and the nature of society.

Like other critics, Vohra is right about one thing. Kanhaiya Kumar’s fame is indeed accidental. To the naked eye, uncorrupted by doctored videos, he had done “absolutely nothing” to merit sudden arrest, lynching, jailing and finally a patronising court judgement returning him to a constrained freedom.