They were born in two different worlds – over 1,000 kilometres apart and a time difference of about three years.
One was the son of a daily wage labourer in Bihar, the other a son of a prominent Muslim party leader in the heart of Delhi.
They had nothing in common, except a zeal to question the establishment. Their lives intertwined on a summer afternoon in early 2011 outside the administration block in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, at a relay hunger strike.
Today they dominate headlines and prime time news, and are called many names: Anti-nationals, traitors, criminals.
But step inside one of India’s most prestigious institutions, and you’ll find hundreds of students chanting their names in one breath: Comrades Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid.
If 30-year-old Kumar was baptised in politics at an early age in his village of Betia, a Left stronghold in Bihar’s Begusarai district, Khalid, 27, found his calling only in college when he studied the works of Vladimir Lenin.
“I wanted to be an astronaut or a journalist. At one time, I even wanted to be a cricketer and played for a club. When I went to college, I studied philosophy and then I changed. I began to question everything around me,” Khalid told HT, a day before he surrendered to the police, facing sedition charges.
Khalid’s father Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas is the president of the Welfare Party of India and also an executive member of the Jamaat- e- Islami- Hind, a powerful Muslim body.
The party office in Jamia Nagar has photographs of his father with many politicians.
“Till college, he was not interested in politics. But in college he became an atheist and then in JNU, he became a Leftist. JNU does that to budding politicians. We are happy for him,” Syed told HT.
Kumar’s introduction to politics was more hands-on and started years before he went to college.
He studied at home in the early years and went to school only when he was ready to attend Class 5.
“We are a family of Communists. My grandfather was a freedom fighter and a Communist. My father is still member of the party. Betia is the only village where except the last elections, the Left has never lost a seat since 1962,” Kumar’s elder brother Manikant Singh said at the CPI(M) headquarters in Delhi two days ago.
Politics was in his blood but Khalid realised this late.
Born in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, Khalid studied in the Jamia Millia Islamia school and later joined Delhi University.
Khalid showed no interest in politics during his initial years. But, he started changing in college, Khalid’s sister Kulsum Fatima said. “Bhai had got admission to Yale University but he refused to go. He defied religion and later studied history and philosophy. He then went to JNU, it transformed him. He did not want a 9-5 job but wanted to work for the tribals. His PhD subject is also on the status of tribals in Jharkhand.”
Kumar was always a good student, winning debates and interested in politics. But in the village of communists, it was Chandrasekhar – himself a JNU students’ union president whose house was 100 metres away – who influenced Kumar the most.
“Kanhaiya is a good student which is why he got through JNU. JNU gave him wings. When he became the students’ union president in 2015, back home, everyone knew he would be another Chandrashekhar,” Manikant Singh said.
Chandrasekhar Singh, a two-time JNU student union president, was killed in 1997 in Bihar.
Kumar’s father Jai Shankar is bedridden, half his body is paralysed. His mother Meena Devi earns Rs 3,000 as an Anganwadi worker.
“My brother does not even have a girlfriend. When we tease him, he says‘ meri dulhan toh azaadi hai.’ In 2009, when my father fell ill, Kumar started taking tuitions to fund his own education,” said Prince, the youngest in the family and an M.Com student.
Khalid still recalls his meeting with Kanhaiya at a relay hunger strike in 2011. He was three years old in the campus, while Kumar had just joined.
“On that day, it was our turn to sit together. We came to know each other well and the friendship has been strong since then. We have been together in several protests,” Khalid said.
“Why are you focusing only on us? I am uncomfortable. You know the issues for which we were fighting has been buried in this controversy,” Khalid had told HT hours before his surrender.