By Taruni Kumar
On 26 February 2017, I was on NDTV’s We The People. As a journalist for The Quint, I had been at the 22 February anti-ABVP protest at Ramjas College in Delhi University’s North campus and had been beaten up by a woman from ABVP. At the studio, sitting beside and in front of me in the audience were some students of Ramjas College. When asked why they had covered their faces with dupattas, they said they were afraid because they’d received death threats after the protest.
Gurmehar Kaur, a 19-year-old student of English Literature at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, became involved after the episode. The death and rape threats she was receiving after she had voiced support for the protest had scared her mother to the point that she didn’t want her present in the studio. Sarah Jacob, the anchor of the episode which was focused on the state of freedom of speech in India, pointed out the irony that Kaur’s voice — that of the daughter of a Kargil martyr who sacrificed his life for the country — was being stifled in the name of nationalism.
This backlash for her opinions on freedom and speech, as well as her support for the Ramjas protests, was what I assumed Gurmehar Kaur’s new book Small Acts of Freedom would be about. After all, her rise to fame — or infamy — depending on who you ask, began because she posted the now-famous picture of her holding a sign that reads, “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”.
The headlines spoke of the daughter of Kargil martyr Captain Mandeep Singh taking on the ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, which claims to be the ultimate guardian of nationalism in the country. A previously posted peace campaign video in which Kaur had participated was dug up, and screenshots of her holding a placard that read, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him,” were circulated in an odd sort of attempt to dissociate her from her father, and in the process, discredit her. But the online hatred – it was too vicious to be simply labelled ‘trolling’ – and the fact that despite not being a Ramjas College student herself, she still took a stand in solidarity, made her one of the faces of the protest. While I didn’t dismiss the book, I did expect it to be limited in its scope. But I was proved wrong pretty early on.
Kaur begins with the story of the Ramjas protests and explains her motivations, despite being a regular college kid with regular college kid concerns, to raise her voice in defence of freedom of speech. But her explanations for how she became ‘the girl with the sign’, who made the right-wing foam at the mouth, don’t end in the introduction. They span the pages of the entire book as she describes the values she imbibed from the book’s other protagonists – her mother, her grandmother, and interweaved through it all, her late father.
The book is about tragedies, written by a young girl, the third in a line of women from a family that has seen too much death. There’s a pattern that emerges and not a happy one at that. Her grandmother, whose family had to flee Pakistan after Partition, lost her husband when Gurmehar’s mother was just a child and Gurmehar lost her father at the young age of two. While Gurmehar’s grandmother faced prejudice for being a widow – she and her daughters were labelled bad luck – Gurmehar’s mother brought up her two daughters on her own after the death of her husband.
Kaur’s story-telling is simple but taps into a rich vein of emotionality. As a two-year-old (we presume that this is one of many stories that was told in the family keeping alive the memory of her father), Kaur is on a road-trip with her parents. She feels nauseous, tries to be stoic about it and then throws up. She writes, “As we walk back to the car, he asks me to promise him that I will tell him about anything that makes me uncomfortable without thinking twice. ‘Your papa is here to fix everything,’ he says. We make our promises.”
When juxtaposed with these small, intimate stories of Kaur’s father, accusations of “anti-nationalism” seem like from they are from another planet afflicted by grandiosity and long words. But on the other hand, her’s father’s death while fighting in Kargil, her grandmother’s flight from Pakistan, her mother’s constant reminder of her father’s sacrifice and her own emphasis on freedom and patriotism all fit squarely into a nationalistic space.
Kaur tells the story of how her parents took her at the age of three months to the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur for Independence Day fireworks at midnight and how a reporter from Rajasthan Patrikawas intrigued by the couple with a young baby.
“The next morning’s local newspaper read, ‘Months-old Gulgul at Mehrangarh Fort, celebrating freedom’. Harry was overjoyed. He couldn’t believe that his baby’s name was in the headline of a newspaper. He called his family back in Jalandhar on his landline and read out the headline and the article excitedly. He cut out the article and put it in a file. ‘We will show it to her when she grows up. We will tell her that her parents taught her the value of freedom from an early age.’”
On more than one occasion, where I wished I felt dismissive of the hokey-ness of what I was reading, I found myself moved instead. Kaur is not a veteran storyteller but she doesn’t try to be either. Instead the stories are told with the simplicity, sensitivity and empathy of the child she was not so long ago. A great example of this is when Kaur talks of a time when she was six years old and, on a hunt for chocolates, she discovers her nani’s passport which says Pakistan. Having associated Muslims with Pakistan and Pakistan with the death of her father, she becomes enraged and begins to cry till her mother explains to her that neither Pakistan nor Muslims are bad. After she apologises to her nani for her behaviour, the story ends with her achieving what she had initially set out to do — eat a chocolate.
And whatever you feel about nationalism or other long words, you are likely to enjoy the book which is, in short, about women. About a woman who chose to not work because she could. A woman who did work and brought up her two daughters alone. And now, a young woman who’s standing up for what she believes in.
I recently met someone in Bangalore who recognised me as the reporter “whose glasses they smashed” at the Ramjas protest. I assumed she had seen me in the short period of time that the incident made the news. But no, that wasn’t it all. When I was beaten up I also lost my glasses. Walking around blindly looking for my glasses after being assaulted, I ran into a blur of a young woman, who asked me where the protest was and what I was looking for. I told her where the march was headed but as soon as she heard I needed my glasses she helped me look for them. In a few moments she arrived with a pair of glasses. Astonishingly they were not mine.
As Kaur tells the story of herself and who she is now through the stories of her family, I did have the odd moment of thinking about my own childhood in newsrooms, my journalist mother and so many things that led me to that day at Ramjas. What led the boys and girls who later needed to cover their faces with dupattas, the girl who helped me look for my glasses, the girl who had lost her glasses, and the girl who eventually wrote this book? It’s only those who will not ask us how we got there who will assume that we were there because we are anti-nationals.
Co-published with Firstpost.