Until last month, not many at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University knew much about their student union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar.
But on Thursday evening when Kumar returned to the campus after spending almost three weeks in jail on charges of sedition, thousands lined up to cheer the man at the centre of a swirling nationwide debate on free speech.
His hour-long speech outside JNU’s Administrative block was beamed live on prime-time television and #KanhaiyaKumar trended on Twitter. Discussions about his rousing speech and controversial arrest have dominated discussions in the Capital but the 27-year-old started his life far away from the hurly-burly of Delhi.
He was born in Betia village of Bihar’s Begusarai district, a stronghold of the Left since Independence, to Jai Shankar Singh and Meena Devi. Singh worked as a daily wage labourer till 2009, when he fell ill and was subsequently left paralysed. His mother works as a volunteer in the government Anganwadi’s scheme and earns Rs 3000 a month.
Kumar studied at home till Class 5 and joined Sunrise Public School in his village in 1995. He then enrolled in a government high school at Barauni and went on to study at the Patna College of Commerce
“My brother does not even have a girlfriend. When we tease him, he says ‘meri dulhan toh azaadi hai (Freedom is my beloved)’. In 2009, when my father fell ill, Kanhaiya started taking tuitions to fund his own education,” Prince, the youngest in the family and an MCom student, said.
Kumar’s elder brother Manikant Singh, who works as a supervisor at a private firm in Assam, he was always a meritorious student.
Amit Kumar, a friend who shared a hostel room with Kumar in Patna said the JNU student was one of the best speakers in college. “He used to win the debate competition. His knowledge about politics is noteworthy.”
Singh was an active Left party member and many family members say Kumar was influenced by fellow villager, Chandrashekhar Prasad who was the JNU students’ union president twice before being shot dead in 1997.
In 2011, Kumar joined JNU to pursue an MPhil and is currently pursuing his PhD in post-apartheid South Africa at the Centre for African Studies.
In September last year, a fiery speech during the presidential debate propelled him to a surprise win in the students’ election.
“He is a very bright student and I am proud of him. He belongs to a poor peasant family and that is why is he has a deep understanding of ground realities in this country,” Kanhaiya’s PhD supervisor Subodh Malakar said.