My student Prashant Kanojia, the journalist under arrest
I taught Prashant, the freelance journalist with an activist streak, at IIMC three years back.
It isn’t too common for a professor to remember individual students over the span of all his teaching years. This is even more rare in the case of guest lecturers.
However, there are a few I did remember over the years I taught at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi.
One among them was Prashant Kanojia, the freelance journalist who has been rounded up by the Uttar Pradesh police for his Facebook post that urged Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to “get married”.
In 2015-16, I taught the IIMC English journalism batch the subject History of The Press, a course – rather, part of a course – that was notorious for having few books worth a read. It was treated more as a chronicle of journalistic events related to the foundation of different newspapers in colonial times.
My pedagogy would be in the nature of breaking down press activities in colonial India as processes. There were journalistic attempts to counter colonialism, standing in opposition to the pro-Raj press. Journalism for the anti-colonial press was more a mission than an enterprise. And there were other distinctions too: the “secular” vs the communal press; journalistic activity taking up progressive positions vis-a-vis questions of caste and gender and those taking conservative social positions. Discussions involved Ram Mohun Roy’s Sambad Kaumudi and its bête noire, the conservative Samachar Chandrika; Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, which first appeared as a series of journalistic articles; Lal Chand’s Hindu-centric Self-Abnegation in Politics, Gandhi’s Harijan and even the Dalit Ad Dharm’s Adi Danka.
I saw an attentive Prashant walk up to me a couple of times after the class with observations on the social aspect of what was discussed.
He was focused and attentive in the class. Soon afterwards, I came to know about the activist side of Prashant.
A Dalit brought up in Mumbai – I saw his talk on FB last year, in chaste Hindi, discussing his experiences as he made it to Delhi – Prashant became a visible voice of “caste issues” at IIMC.
“We organised a talk in English journalism on Rohith Vemula. Some of us spoke, including him,” said a classmate of Prashant.
Days later, Prashant lodged a complaint against a student of Hindi journalism for what he saw as a caste slur made on social media. The student defended himself, saying that what he used was a common figure of speech in Hindi, something Prashant rejected in a Facebook post.
The news leaked to the media. As tensions mounted and Prashant also apparently took positions for and against faculty members, he was suspended for a week.
The batch ended with Prashant not landing a job. I bumped into him once near my office and asked him what he was doing. With a straight face – and wearing his trademark, in-your-face, expression – he said he hadn’t got a job during the campus placement.
The next time I met him was when I visited the office of The Wire for a discussion on the Gujarat assembly elections. Prashant was there – working at The Wire Hindi – and we met with a smile. The activist-journalist in him was always polite when I met him.
Yet another chance meeting took place in JNU, when we both met on Holi, our faces smeared in colour.
But there was one place where I always saw what Prashant was up to: his Facebook timeline.
With 5000 followers on Facebook, Prashant often commented in Hindi on current issues. And there was often a combative and sarcastic tone in his writings.
He would write against Hindutva. He would sometimes turn iconoclastic, once wondering why Rana Pratap was considered brave if he escaped from the battlefield. I could not stop myself and commented that bravery and suicide were two very different things, driving home the point that Pratap’s bravery and commitment were never in doubt. He did not respond.
Yet, his style was one that involved a degree of dissent across ideological lines, something specific and unique to him.
There were days when he brutally attacked Muslim fundamentalism, getting into online arguments with people who were associated with Aligarh Muslim University. I would read his posts but avoid commenting.
For days together last year, his posts on Facebook argued for an anti-secular equivalence between the RSS and Islamists in minority institutions, often leading to bitter arguments on his timeline.
Apart from an update on his marriage last year, Prashant would pop up in my Facebook feeds, taking up one cause or another in a provocative tone.
Meanwhile, he interviewed Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan after the release of the Bhim Army chief, his being the first interview of Ravan that I read. I immediately texted him to send me Ravan’s number. By the time I checked my inbox, Prashant had texted me the numbers of three-four close associates of Ravan, with the message: “Sir, call any of them. They will connect you to Ravan.”
But by the time I could line up an interview with the Bhim Army chief, I had to go for a long journalistic trip and the interview could never materialise.
The latest avatar of Prashant, whom his classmates recall as an activist at heart, was his online criticism of Mayawati.
It struck me, as it was unexpected. One FB post said: “Mayawati is with those who have the CBI with them.” The post came on the heels of Mayawati’s announcement that the BSP would be contesting the UP by-polls independently.
On June 3, he also wrote a sarcastic post mocking her claim that Yadavs did not vote for the BSP in the recent Lok Sabha polls. “The BSP got zero seats in 2014 and 10 in 2019. Its vote remained static at about 20-%. SP was restricted to five seats and its vote share fell by 3-percentage points to 17-%. Yet, Behenji is angry that Yadavs did not vote for the BSP.”
He also called Mayawati “opportunistic” and a leader “without ideology”.
On the same day, he wrote another FB post saying that Dalits would leave the BSP after Mayawati broke the alliance with the SP. “I think Akhilesh Yadav can fill the vacuum and will need no alliance in 2022,” he added.
The news of the arrest – ironically, I read about it first on Facebook – came to me via a news website with the familiar face of Prashant. The casual yet determined visage, as I saw it years back in the classroom, accompanied a story of the authorities coming down with a heavy hand on a young, freelance journalist.
There was a protest by journalists outside the Press Club of India against the arrest of Prashant and two other journalists on Monday afternoon. Freedom of press is again being seen to be under attack and is being defended by journalists. The Press Club has seen many such protests in the last few years.
Yes, Prashant has a strong activist streak that an old-fashioned journalist may disagree with. But Prashant has one, unique, journalistic ability: he can hit out at Hindutva nationalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Brahmanism and the BSP at the same time, something rare at a time when our likes and dislikes follow predictable patterns.
I revisited his FB page after his arrest and saw it fall silent on June 8.
True to his sarcastic style, his status on FB is an exact copy of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said: ‘Hum to fakir hain. Jhola Utha kar chal denge (I am a Fakir. I will walk away with my jhola).’
Trademark Prashant Kanojia, if I may say so.