With so much literature all over the place on Gurmehar Kaur, #SaveDU and the #ProfileforPeace campaign she was part of; most of it polarized one way or the other; it’s hard to ignore what is happening. Even though I’m not very much up to date on current affairs, my Facebook news feed is filled with so many posts either slamming Gurmehar or exalting her, I just had to try and understand what the fuss is all about. And frankly, despite spending some time researching the subject, I am none the wiser.
Don’t get me wrong – this particular issue does pose many pertinent questions, which we will try and dive into momentarily. But what really gets me confused is how no one is acknowledging the fact that this is less about issues like free speech and patriotism/anti-nationalism, but more about political opportunism from virtually every player involved. And that is not something I care too much for.
Let’s recap what has been going on. Actually, let us start with a prologue dating April 2016. Gurmehar Kaur was part of a video entitled “Gurmehar Kaur Soldier of Peace” posted in the ‘Voice of Ram’ Youtube channel (Link to the video). The video is 4 minutes 23 seconds long, and shows Gurmehar holding a series of placards telling her story as the daughter of an army man who passed away when she was two years old, and how her mindset changed from hating all Pakistanis and Muslims, to someone who has given up hatred and wants the Governments of both countries to find a resolution to put an end to the bloodshed. We will dwell into specifics a little later, but this is the gist of the video.
Fast forward into February 2017. Ramjas College, as part of a two day seminar on “Culture of Protest”, invited two speakers – Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Members of Delhi University Students Union and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) gathered outside the college and shouted slogans demanding the invite to the “anti-nationals” be cancelled (Umar Khalid was arrested on sedition charges by the Delhi police in February 2016 and subsequently released on bail, while Shehla Rashid led the agitation for the release of him and others arrested). There were also allegations of stone pelting, locking of the seminar room and cutting off of electricity by the ABVP members, but police claimed there was no violence. So to protest the alleged violence and the restriction on the speakers, the #SaveDU campaign was launched – of which Gurmehar Kaur became the face. Her protest placard read “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP”. And this caused a shitstorm of tweets, Facebook posts, open letters, protest marches, political statements, news items, editorials, and even Facebook emoji opinion polls.
The Ramjas College issue itself isn’t especially unique – it is pretty similar to the Milo Yiannopoulos – UC Berkley riots, where hundreds of protesters rioted against the event involving the controversial speaker, leading to the event being cancelled (not to mention the huge property loss). (Link to the news article). It seems to be more of a law and order issue – people do have the right to protest peacefully and if there is violence involved the police need to intervene. I don’t know how the permissions and stuff work, but I guess this is the basic deal. Just as this applies to ABVP and their allies, it also applies to their opposition – in this case National Students Union of India (NSUI), the #SaveDU campaign and others.
This would ideally not be something that causes a national outrage, right? It’s pretty regular student politics. Things took a weird turn when the video from April 2016 gets mixed with Gurmehar’s protest in February 2017. I wasn’t able to figure out how it started, but one frame of the video, where she holds up a placard saying “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him”, started doing the rounds and that’s how public interest got drummed up. You have to admire the genius behind it, really –a single frame of a video which isn’t even related to the issue at hand is taken and portrayed as the real issue, thus letting ABVP and politicians (both for and against) piggy back on it to generate nationalist and uber-patriotic wave among anyone who takes a look. I mean, honestly, how many people really research what they see anyway (besides jobless idiots like me)? And it’s really easy to paint any disagreeing voice with the anti-national and un-patriotic brush when such a statement is in question.
When only one frame in an almost five minute video is taken under scrutiny, it shouldn’t take a genius to realise that there is more to it than meets the eye. But this one frame has got so much hate and misguided support – I happened to read one of the open letters written, as well as some of the tweets against her. It’s pretty evident that none of them have seen the whole video. I don’t expect many others have seen the full video either – even though it is not a correct barometer to judge given the multiple avenues available, the original Youtube video has only 198,154 views as of writing this post.
I saw the video in 2016 when someone forwarded it to me, well before the controversy. So I do have an objective standpoint to view it from – how I perceived it when I saw it then. It seemed unambiguous enough at the time – it was a plea to both Indian and Pakistani governments to stop pretending and take some serious actions towards resolving their differences and ushering in an era of peace. I believe the placard that sums up her video more accurately is not the one that is being flashed all over the place, but the one that says “Majority of regular Indians and Pakistanis want peace, not war”. Call me naïve, but I believe that statement to be true (and if it weren’t, I sincerely feel there would be no hope for humanity). Even ‘gormint aunty’ is more concerned about the state of politics in her country, and probably doesn’t harbour any negative feelings for India (if you don’t know who gormint aunty is, please find out – and thank me later). There is nothing anti-national in her video, neither anything that undermines the sacrifices made by the Indian army. She asks for a stop in state-sponsored terrorism as well, among other things. What is so anti-national and offensive about that? In all honesty, it is just a version of “Aman ki Aasha”. I didn’t see anything that indicated someone whose mind was polluted. But maybe I’m too slow. Could she have worded her comment on war killing her father better? Maybe – but then again, she was 19 years old. How smart were you when you were 19? Her point was simple – it wasn’t all of Pakistan but the Government and politicians who started the war who killed her father. If it was such a problematic thought to have, why didn’t it receive any backlash immediately?
One of the tweets that garnered a lot of attention is the tweet from Virender Sehwag. Sehwag held a placard saying “I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did”. Whether that is funny or not is a matter of personal taste, but a more accurate analogy would have been “I didn’t score a triple century against Pakistan, I scored it against the Pakistan Cricket team” (kinda takes the zing out of it though). But that is an important distinction. All the other joke tweets, memes etc. try to put across that people can absolve responsibility for their actions by blaming their tools. On the contrary, Gurmehar, in my opinion, was concentrating the responsibility on those really responsible – not the soldiers, but the Governments. Sehwag, like many others, completely missed Gurmehar’s point.
But, and I may be alone in this, I don’t think Sehwag meant to troll Gurmehar – Sehwag has been known to take jibes at everyone on Twitter, so it was nothing more. What he did on Saqlain Mushtaq’s birthday could be considered far worse. I think Gurmehar should be thick-skinned enough to take the joke. And also, freedom of expression, right? The same rights that Gurmehar has also apply to Sehwag. The one I really feel sorry for is Randeep Hooda – all he did was appreciate Sehwag’s joke. And now he is also being accused of trolling Gurmehar. If even a hint of criticism against Gurmehar is taken as a vicious attack on her, how are the liberal flag bearers any different that the ABVP? I think among the many, the one I want to really address is Javed Akhtar – it was a cheap shot to take by targeting their education, sir. They have done our country proud in their respective fields, and even now are doing no more than expressing themselves. You may be passionate on the subject, but you are behaving no better than a troll – and a hypocrite as well, undermining the very thing you are supposedly fighting for.
The real trolls in this situation are the politicians, who have made Gurmehar an unwitting pawn in their game. It is them and their minions who have forced Gurmehar to back off, not Virender Sehwag and Randeep Hooda. Both the people who exalted her to promote their own political agenda, as well as those who mocked and berated her for the same reason – they are the real villains in this story. And honestly, no one in this is patriotic. I believe it is more an anti-national act to threaten rape and murder of someone just because they have a different opinion (even though it is alleged, I don’t doubt that it is true).
This really shouldn’t be rocket science – this is an issue of student politics which has taken on national scope, thanks to the media and our politicians. At the heart of it, it is all about law and order. Everyone has a right to express their opinion, within the confines of the law. There should be a clear definition of what sedition means. Also, if the allegations of the threats of rape and murder against Gurmehar are true, the culprits should be punished.
At the end of it all, all this is just a magic trick – the art of misdirection perfected. I just end up hating our politicians all the more. Seems to me that Gurmehar became an unwitting pawn in all of this; just because she was the face of the protest. I also hate the general public (celebrities included), who swallow anything fed to them without attempting to find out the whole story, and jump onto the bandwagon to showcase their hypocrisy by taking one side without listening to the other – so much for the argumentative, rational Indian. And once again, I hate the media for their cheap sensationalism in covering the whole thing.
As an Indian and as a human, irrespective of how I feel about her political views, I can’t help but feel for Gurmehar – I hope she stays safe, and can put this of all behind her.