Gurmehar Kaur, the 20-year-old student from Delhi University who started a social media campaign in opposition to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, has been trolled into silence, and has reportedly left Delhi due to rape and death threats. She is not the first youngster to be at the receiving end of the binary of the nationalist/anti-national.
Ms. Kaur’s politics, similar to vast sections of the student community across the country, is aimed at questioning the narrowing of freedom of speech and expression, aided by the state in conjunction with a society that harbours an increasingly majoritarian attitude. Rohith Vemula of the University of Hyderabad could be demeaned for being a Dalit. Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), with their Muslim identity, could be slotted as traitorous, and their fellow comrade Anirban Bhattacharya could be projected as a menace for being a follower of left-wing ideology.
It was harder to slot Ms. Kaur with such ease. She is a student at one of the most elite colleges of Delhi University, Lady Shri Ram College (as opposed to JNU, much reviled in the popular imagination as the hub of ‘anti-national’ activity). She belongs to one of India’s most celebrated and prosperous minority communities, the Sikhs. Most significantly, her father, Capt. Mandeep Singh of the Indian Army, lost his life battling militants in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999.
Ms. Kaur has disrupted the narrative of the dying soldier that is brought out by the right wing at the drop of a hat to shut down dissent. The fact that sections of the Army veterans and relatives of those who died on the battlefield in Kargil have come out in her support reflects that there is some discomfort within the Army too over its facile politicisation.
Patterns of abuse
Ms. Kaur’s abusers used two distinct reactions. The first was what has become a standard issue response to the articulation of progressive views by women — sexual harassment. Rape threats and death threats flew thick and wild. The second was to shame her for using her father, the soldier’s death as a plank for contrived morality. The strategies were used in combination, becoming a textbook case of the militarised society with heightened levels of gender-based violence.
When celebrities such as cricketer Virender Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda jumped into the fray, they did so in the face of a very real intimidation that Ms. Kaur was facing, unwittingly providing the cue for hundreds of trolls to move in swiftly with a barrage of abuse and threats. Their cavalier intervention, as also tweets and subsequent comments by Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister of State for Home, show that the reality that a young woman could possibly have agency and think independently, without any assistance whatsoever from male members of society, has entirely bypassed our leaders and icons of sport and entertainment.
Other types of politics have also played out wherein representatives within the government used the Delhi University brouhaha and student violence to push further the agenda of curbs on freedom of speech and expression.
The incident has also stoked regional identity politics, with some prominent voices supporting Ms. Kaur remarking with condescension on the brawny, sexist Haryanvi in the context of Sehwag and Hooda, and wrestlers Geeta Phogat, Babita Kumari and Yogeshwar Dutt, all belonging to Haryana, reacting with hostility. The space of social media is admittedly a free-for-all. But progressive-minded people using stereotypes constitutes a weak defence and poor strategy. By that logic, the harassment of Ms. Kaur would also end up constituting ‘free speech’, which it is not.
It took a while for apologies to be tendered to Ms. Kaur by some of the personalities who contributed to her painful experience. Nonetheless, she has been vilified for lacking courage for withdrawing herself from the campaign, regardless of the actual grit she has displayed till this point. The Union Home Minister’s attempt at defusing the situation — by referring to her as a daughter who requires protection — continues to infantilise and patronise, in keeping with the attitude of a nanny state.
Sucharita Sengupta is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi