A graffiti in support of JNU Students' Union president Kanhaiya Kumar in Patna. Pictures by Ruchira Gupta
My flight arrived an hour early at the Patna airport and instead of waiting for my car, I decided to take a pre-paid auto to my hotel.
I had heard that 50 per cent of the drivers at the Jayaprakash Narayan International Airport auto stand were women. Sure enough, as I was dragging my trolley through the VIP car park, I saw a young woman in a salwar-kurta with a sling bag around her neck, drive into the stand and start parking her auto. I immediately went to her and asked if she could take me to the Maurya. With a smiling nod, she jumped out, picked up my big suitcase, flung it to the back of the auto, and asked me to get in.
Autorickshaw driver Sushmita Kumari
Sushmita Kumari is married with two children. Her mother was a teacher and father a clerk in a government office. She is from the Kushwaha caste. The rising cost of education and inadequate income drove her to start looking for a job. She saw an advertisement for female auto-drivers and took it.
She applied to the bank and got a loan to buy an auto immediately. She works out of the airport stand "because this is safe. I have never been harassed by anyone. No passenger has mistreated me".
I chatted with her on the way to the hotel. Did her husband object? "Initially, he did, but he is happy with the income I bring in. He also sees that I have not faced any physical intimidation or threat." Did she have any difficulty at all? "My male colleagues are uncomfortable with the fact that I work as their equal. They constantly complain about me to my boss. They are not used to see a woman in this role, so they joke about me, crib about me, sometimes even try to intimidate me. But I will not give in. I just ignore them."
I suddenly see a graffiti on the wall that I want to photograph. I ask her to stop so that I can take a picture. She smiles and says, "I too support Kanhaiya Kumar. He has done Bihar proud. He fought for the rights of poor students. They realised that he was not wrong, so they released him from jail."
Twenty-year-old Kanhaiya is the current president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union in Delhi. In February 2016, he was arrested and charged with sedition by the Delhi police for allegedly raising slogans asking for freedom from India in a student rally. The rally was called to protest the central government's plans to increase student tuition fees and decrease scholarships for poor students, as well as the death penalty. After 13 days in jail, Kanhaiya was released on interim bail for lack of conclusive evidence. On his release, he gave a speech in which he said that he had asked for freedom in India and not freedom from India. He had spoken about freedom from illiteracy, hunger and poverty.
The graffiti on the wall says: "Brave Kanhaiya continue your struggle, we are with you." Another one announces a rally at Gandhi Maidan where he will speak.
Kanhaiya is from Bihat village in the Begusarai district of Bihar. His mother is an anganwadi worker and his father was a farmer till he was paralysed.
I smile back at Sushmita Kumari in solidarity, crossing the boundary of class for a second. I want to challenge her a little. I tell her, "They did not release him completely. The BJP has not dropped the charges even though Justice Pratibha Rani noted that there were no recordings of Kanhaiya Kumar participating in anti-national slogans and that out of the seven videos given by BJP leaders of the event that were sent to the forensic lab, three were found to be doctored, including a clipping of a news channel."
"In fact," I added, "he is continuing to be punished for a crime he did not commit. A disciplinary committee constituted by JNU's vice-chancellor has imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 on Kanhaiya Kumar."
Sushmita waited for a traffic signal, turned around and said, "But everyone knows that BJP is a party for the rich."
Life is politics and politics is life in Bihar.
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Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.