For the eighth time in two weeks, Kanhaiya Kumar's convoy was targeted today as he drove through central Bihar's Buxar, part of his journey across Bihar to galvanize support against the controversial new citizenship law.
The 33-year-old, who belongs to the Left, was travelling in an SUV which was accompanied by five cars filled with supporters and a police escort when he spotted a group of people, faces covered and stones in hand, standing by the national highway that leads to the town of Arrah, 75 kms from the state capital of Patna. I was sitting next to him when he asked the driver to pull to a stop.
I told him to relax, and said with the police escort present, we were all safe. But he was concerned and got out of his car to reason with the crowd. By then, 10 of Kanhaiya Kumar's supporters from his home town of Begusarai who are traveling with him on his tour gathered, armed with sticks. The other side provoked the violence that erupted. Stones were hurled for nearly ten minutes.
Kanhaiya Kumar, who ran unsuccessfully for parliament last year, was immediately pushed into a car by a policeman. Habib, my cameraperson, managed to get some footage before ducking into another vehicle. The ten policemen present seemed largely clueless despite the fact that just few days ago, stones were flung at Kanhaiya Kumar's car, shattering the windshield.
The air rattled with the incendiary cries of "Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko", a chant now associated with supporters of the government who feel opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, cleared by parliament in December, are anti-nationals.
The police did not use batons to rein in the crowd that was targeting Kanhaiya Kumar - some of them had removed their belts by now.
The convoy was able to pull away. "It's a fight between Godse supporters and Gandhi supporters...so where's the question of stopping the yatra?" he told me in the SUV. 45 minutes later, Kanhaiya Kumar appeared on stage at Arrah.
The tour, which has seen crowds as large as 10,000 gathering to hear him, is to conclude on February 27. Days after it began, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is a principal in the national ruling coalition, said that Kanhaiya Kumar would be provided with state security for the duration of his tour.
Kanhaiya Kumar's ability to deliver a commanding speech has been acknowledged even by the most hostile of his opponents. At many protests against the new citizenship law, several of which are organized and attended by students, a recording of his speech plays out. Those who describe him as a firebrand say he is emerging as a major irritant to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a symbol of the people's resistance to citizenship rules that impugn India's constitutional commitment to secularism. Those who are his critics say he is a creation of the media and his own hype, unable to place higher than second in the parliamentary election from the constituency he contested less than a year ago.
It was at Delhi's famous Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, where he was president of the student council, that Kanhaiya Kumar, the son of a farmer, first shot into the headlines. In 2016, he was arrested after an event that took place on campus and charged with sedition. His trial has not yet begun.
The PM has said that the new citizenship law is required to protect minorities being persecuted in three Muslim-majority nations including Pakistan; he has accused the opposition of deliberate and malicious disinformation in propagating the view that India's Muslims too will struggle to prove their citizenship when the law comes into force.
"My critical thinking and ability to question Modi's hard-line Hindu policies have scared the government since 2016," Kanhaiya Kumar said in an interview to Reuters last month. "Now, I am not alone. More and more people are joining our movement against Modi," he added.
(Manish Kumar is Executive Editor at NDTV)
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