New Delhi: Kanhaiya Kumar's oratory and logic had won over many of the staff and policemen in Tihar jail, weeks before he captivated a larger audience with his speech last evening.
Yesterday, Kanhaiya had recalled his conversation with a policeman in prison who he said turned out to be "just like me" - a poor man from a disadvantaged section.
" Meri toh ichchha hui thi ke jab tum aogey... toh bahut peetenge (I'd thought that when you turned up here, I would thrash you badly)," the policeman had said.
"But after speaking to you, I feel I should thrash them (Kanhaiya's opponents)."
Kanhaiya added: "The policeman is a man from an ordinary family, like me. He too wanted to do a PhD but he did not get JNU."
Several Tihar jail officials today described to The Telegraph - on condition of anonymity for they are not authorised to talk to the media -how impressed they had been with this "mild-mannered and soft-spoken" young man who had opened their eyes to "true nationalism".
Kanhaiya had yesterday described how he had got talking to policemen in jail.
"The policemen would come to give me my meals and to take me for my medical check-up. I being a JNU student... how could I stay without talking? So I struck up a conversation with a policeman and discovered he was just like me," he said.
"Think - who takes up a police job inside a jail - someone whose father is either a farmer or a labourer, someone whose father is from a disadvantaged section. I too come from one of India's backward states, Bihar. I too come from a poor family, a farmer's family.
"By and large it is only those from poor families who join the police. Here I'm talking about policeman or constable, head constable and inspector rank. I haven't had much interactions with the IPS."
Another of his conversations with a policeman, just before he stepped out of prison, went like this:
Cop: Do you believe in religion?
Kanhaiya: I need to know about religion to be a believer.
C: You must have been born in some family?
K: Coincidentally, I was born in a Hindu family.
C: So do you know something about your religion?
K: From the little I know I can say that God created this earth and is present in every little speck. Bhagwan ne brahmand racha hai aur kan-kan mein Bhagwan hai. What do you say? What do you say?
C: Absolutely right.
K: Aur kuchh log Bhagwan ke liye kuchh rachna chahte hain (And some people want to create something for God).
C: Yeh maha burbak idea hai (This is a very stupid idea).
One of the jail officials explained why they had initially been hostile to Kanhaiya. "After watching the doctored video, we were angry like many people at Kanhaiya (purportedly) demanding azadi (freedom) during the February 9 event on the JNU campus," the official said.
"But during our interactions he explained everything. This is what we all Indians want - freedom from caste, starvation, corruption and divisive forces," he added as two of his colleagues nodded.
The official's son, who is doing his master's from Delhi University, hopes to earn a PhD from JNU. "My son has the same viewpoint. Does it make him anti-national?" he asked.
During his 16 days in Tihar, Kanhaiya advised many prison officials about how their children could crack the JNU entrance test.
Another official said Kanhaiya's voice cannot be muzzled. "He speaks from the heart," he said.
"We all agree with him that the idea of a nation does not mean anything to a hungry man and the underprivileged sections of society who can't afford good health and a dignified life."
Kanhaiya, he said, had once broken down while talking about the injustices suffered by the poor. He had highlighted Rohith Vemula's suicide to argue that the caste system should be done away with.
"What's wrong if someone speaks of a casteless and classless society?" one of Tihar's accountants said. "This is true nationalism."
The officials said Kanhaiya was treated well at Tihar. He was provided with a TV set, books and newspapers in his solitary cell inside Jail No. 3.
"He was given new clothes and we took care of his food too. He told us the normal jail food - dal and roti - had been his and his family's staple."
Tihar comes under Arvind Kejriwal's Delhi government but the director-general (prisons) is appointed by the Union home ministry. The current acting Tihar chief, DIG (Tihar) Mukesh Prasad, is a former JNU student.
One jail official said Kanhaiya was "the new hope in these depressing times" of divisive politics. "We couldn't understand why the government had kept him in jail."
He remembered Kanhaiya's parting shot.
" Ab to ladte rahenge aur isi bahane yahan aana jaana laga rahega (I shall continue to fight and will therefore keep coming back)," the student leader had said with a smile that is increasingly becoming familiar to TV audiences across the country.
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