— Kavita Krishnan
(This article first appeared on 31 March, 2017 on Kafila.online)
It’s been twenty years since the assassin’s bullets took Chandu away from us, at 4 pm on 31 March 1997.
I still recall my sheer disbelief when a phone call from my party office at my hostel that evening informed me ‘Chandu has been killed.’ Chandrashekhar as well as youth leader Shyam Narayan Yadav had been shot dead while addressing a street corner meeting in Siwan – ironically at a Chowk named after JP – Jaiprakash Narayan, icon of the movement for democracy against the Emergency. A rickshaw puller Bhuteli Mian also fell to a stray bullet fired by the assassins – all known to be henchmen of the RJD MP and mafia don Mohd. Shahabuddin.
In the spring of 1997, as JNU began to burst into the riotous colours of amaltas and bougainvillea, Chandu bid us goodbye. He had served two terms as JNUSU President (I was Joint Secretary during his second stint) and had decided to return to his hometown Siwan, as a whole-time activist of the CPI(ML) Liberation. He had made the decision to be a whole-time activist a long time ago. Chandu’s friends know that for him, the decision to be an activist rather than pursue a salaried career was no ‘sacrifice.’ It was a decision to do what he loved doing and felt he owed to society.
The decision to return to Siwan was a harder choice. The party had offered him other responsibilities in Delhi or Patna, but he had opted for Siwan. He knew that Shahabuddin had been conducting a spree of assassinations of CPI(ML) comrades in Siwan. He was keenly aware that the anti-feudal movements of the rural poor led by the CPI(ML) was making great strides in Siwan in spite of Shahabuddin’s patronage of the feudal forces and his consequent attempts to terrorise the party’s activists and supporters. He felt he had much to learn from the Siwan comrades, and he felt he owed it to them to be a part of their struggles. He was very close to his mother, who approved of his decision to be a CPI(ML) whole-timer. But in spite of the fact that she would see a lot more of him if he were to return to Siwan, she urged him to take up any responsibility other than in Siwan, because she feared for his life in Siwan. He went to Siwan with his eyes open: he chose to go – knowing these dangers awaited him. As we said goodbye to him in his room, 360 Jhelum Hostel that last time, I remember telling him “Stay safe.” Giving me a reassuring hug, he had said, “Don’t worry, I’ll see you soon, remember, at the rally in Delhi in April.”
The dangers apart, the decision to return to Siwan was difficult for other reasons too. Chandu knew he loved the access to libraries and books, loved attending film festivals: he acknowledged to us how hard it was to leave behind these aspects of Delhi and urban life.
Several of Chandu’s friends have letters from him, in his characteristic beautiful hand; I wonder whether he would ever have taken to email! In a letter to a JNU friend from Siwan, not long before he was killed, he described political activism in Siwan, and also how strange it was to find the night fall silent by 9 pm, unlike JNU which came alive at 9 pm.
We are used to imagining courage as a man with a gun in his hands – either a soldier or a vigilante hero. Chandu’s brand of courage was different. It was the quiet courage of a young person who felt a duty to society, who calmly opted for a life of dangers and privations. This was the courage of a young person standing on a street corner in a small town unarmed with anything but a hand mike, breaking the undeclared ban on dissent in Siwan, speaking about massacres of Dalits by the Ranveer Sena, protected by the RJD Government.
Chandu was born in a poor Koeri family. The only son of a soldier, Chandu lost his father very young. He studied at the Sainik School Tilaiyya, and then got admission to the NDA, which he left very early. Writing to his mother in 1983 to explain this decision, he had explaining why he had left the National Defence Academy. “I know you’re sad at my leaving NDA because education anywhere else will cost us, that’s why I am teaching tuitions so I can help pay my own college fees,” he told her, “Individuals are not bad, rather it is the social system and consciousness that rests on the economic structure, that is bad…Ma, if you too have human feeling, you will, I think, come to think the way I do… I have a deep enmity with this social system, I have suffered its tortures and am seeing you, my mother, suffer also. Surely we did not fight for freedom for a country where we will not even get our constitutional rights? We wanted a country in which all would be happy….” He ended this letter with a ‘Lal Salaam, your son Chandrashekhar’ – I think of this last bit, not as a flourish of bravado, but as a plea for comradeship and acceptance from his mother. Men love their mothers, but often feel no need to explain their changing ideas, decisions and especially their political opinions to them or to other women in their lives. Chandu had none of this youthful arrogance towards his mother.
His letters to his mother are moving to read. They are the letters of a very young person, awakening to political and social consciousness, taking pains to help a much-loved mother understand his changing ideas and decisions. Chandu’s mother, unlike Brati’s mother in Hazaar Churashir Ma, did not have to piece together fragments of his life to get to know her son’s political life after his death.
In another letter to her dated 1989, written from Delhi before he joined JNU, he begins, “Meri acchi ma, you must be missing me and I too miss you.” The letter, describing his plans to earn enough to do an MA and MPhil, ends, “Have faith in your son. I don’t promise very much. A big house and all that does not mean very much – as long as a person can keep himself from becoming dishonest. Going against the current – one’s life is bound to be difficult. As it is, can one be happy – if one’s mind is alive and sensitive?”
The Movement That Followed Chandrashekhar’s Assassination
After Chandu’s death, it soon became apparent how many felt that he had touched their lives. Chandu, as JNUSU President and as an AISA activist, had visited FTII, Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu University, helping students there in struggles against privatization and for campus democracy. He had reached out to the Narmada Bachao Andolan; to struggles for justice for Bhanwari Devi, the Dalit health worker gangraped in Rajasthan; to struggles against the rape by police of activists of the Uttarakhand statehood movement in Muzaffarnagar and against state repression in the North-East and Kashmir.
In the weeks following his death, thousands of students – not only from JNU, but from AMU, FTII and so many other campuses flocked to Delhi to demand punishment for Shahabuddin – whose presence as an MP bolstered up the then UF Government during a trust vote in Parliament in April 1997. Activists from all streams of people’s movements joined the struggle.
Even students who had never known or even met him, participated in the movement, touched by the spirit of this young man, killed for daring to challenge the fiat of a criminal politician on his home ground.
On the night of 31st March 1997, students gathered at Bihar Bhawan in Delhi, demanding that RJD leader Laloo Yadav come out and meet them. Laloo Yadav then told the media that the students were ‘drug-crazed upper caste feudal boys.’ (When this tack backfired, and Laloo Yadav realized the depth of feeling in Bihar for Chandu, he tried announcing a scholarship in Chandu’s memory, while the UF Home Minister Indrajit Gupta from the CPI offered Chandu’s mother Rs 1 lakh in compensation – an amount she refused, demanding nothing less than justice for her son and asking the UF and RJD to sever ties with Shahabuddin.)
The JNUSU President then was from the SFI but the rest of the Union was from the ABVP. This JNUSU leadership was present at Bihar Bhawan, reluctantly trying to ‘lead’ the agitating students. At one point, the ABVP leaders of JNUSU said that RSS leader Govindacharya (then, the RSS in-charge for Bihar) had arrived and wanted to address the students; the ABVP leaders had also been saying that Chandu’s death must not be ‘politicised,’ that he belonged to all of JNU. I insisted then, on being allowed to speak. In my speech that night, I recall that I said “Chandu’s assassination is a reminder that our society has ruling classes, ruling castes, a dominant gender,” reminding everyone present that Chandu was killed for appealing for a Bihar Bandh against a recent massacre of Dalits on the day of Holi by the Ranveer Sena, as well as many recent assaults on Dalit and oppressed caste women by the Ranveer Sena. “Govindacharya is RSS in-charge of Bihar, and the RSS, BJP and Ranveer Sena are closely linked, how can he be allowed to shed crocodile tears for Chandrashekhar? Ranveer Sena and Shahabuddin both protect feudal interests against the political assertion of the poor and oppressed represented by the CPI(ML),” I added. The approving cheers of students there made it clear that Govindacharya was not welcome.
In the course of the movement, students also raised serious questions about the character and content of secularism and democracy. When the JNU students proposed a March to Parliament, the SFI (student wing of the CPIM that supported the UF Government) and its JNUSU President refused, saying that this would amount to a March against a ‘secular’ Government. At a UGBM where students voted overwhelmingly to march to Parliament, student activists including SFI members asked, “Is secularism merely a negative – i.e to be secular is it enough to be non-BJP? Does secularism not have to be consistently democratic? If Shahabuddin in Siwan protects the same feudal interests who, in Bhojpur are the mainstay of the BJP-backed Ranveer Sena, is he secular? If the RJD Government protects and patronises both Ranveer Sena and Shahabuddin, is it secular? Why can’t we demand – as a mark of consistent democratic secularism – that Shahabuddin be thrown out of the RJD and stripped of his status as an MP?”
How Chandu Re-shaped The Student Movement
Chandu was a Left activist when it was not fashionable to be Left. The Soviet Union had fallen; classrooms were full of post-modern discourse; media was full of obituaries being written for student politics and for the organized communist movement. The anti-Mandal reaction was at its height, as was the communal ‘Mandir’ aggression. JNU was no longer the comfortable Left-liberal oasis it had been for long. Right wing reaction had raised its head there.
In 1994, the JNUSU led by Chandu struggled successfully for the restoration of deprivation points in JNU admissions (on the basis of social, regional and gender deprivations). This unique feature of JNU’s admission policy had been scrapped in 1983, and it was the very first JNUSU led by AISA, that restored it in 1994. In 1995, Chandu led a remarkable and massive agitation which succeeded in foiling an attempt at imposing fee hikes and privatisation in JNU. At a time when JNU’s admission policy and socially inclusive character is under an all-out attack from the Modi Government, it is useful to remember those struggles of the 1990s.
For me personally, the hardest thing about the decision to be an activist was the loss of privacy. It was Chandu who helped me overcome my reluctance to give up my privacy. His example helped me accept that others – students, people, strangers – had a right to expect me to share my time, my mind space, my room, my emotional energy.
Chandu was not just another JNU student leader with the gift of the gab. What set him apart from most others was a deep sense of humanity and compassion, a deep capacity to feel love for people. He was not unique in this capacity, but not many had it. It was this that made depressed people; misfits; people with mental illnesses; men and women with broken hearts, academic stresses or financial worries; students wanting to debate or discuss something; as well as a stream of students and karamcharis needing various problems resolved, sure of a welcome in his room. He was no macho charismatic leader as the stereotype likes to paint such men: he had a very vulnerable and sensitive core, a sense of humour and a gentle smile.
I cherish the fact that it was Chandu who convinced me to become a member of the CPI(ML). On a long walk in the campus in 1996, he asked me about my feminist convictions. Speaking about the Bathani Tola massacre in July that year where 21 people, mostly women and children from oppressed castes, had been killed by the Ranveer Sena, he suggested gently that a feminist politics could have much to learn from the women resisting the Ranveer Sena and feudal oppression. Chandu made sure that I and many others of my generation could know – from up close – what it meant to be a communist, a member of a communist party. For him, the party was no faceless machine; it was a living organism. The party we got to know through him was a functioning democratic movement: where differences could be aired and argued freely; where ideas could be shaped and changed; where one was reminded daily that the living breathing party was made up, not of a few leaders but of every member, every activist.
Asked during a Presidential debate in JNU whether he was contesting for JNUSU President because he was ambitious, Chandrashekhar had retorted, “Yes I am ambitious, my ambition is to live like Bhagat Singh an die like Che Guevara.” That was not an empty piece of rhetoric for him – he meant it deeply. He asked us then: ““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 striving 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…” He reminded us then of the choice that faced us: of “a regressive, communal and fascist India” contending with a “egalitarian, secular and progressive India.”
That choice outlined by Chandu confronts us today, more urgent than ever. Chandu’s loss is irreparable, unforgettable, and unforgivable.