First of all, Gurmehar Kaur is not a girl. She is a young woman with the right to vote, a 20-year-old student who lost her father during military action when she was barely two years old. In her two decades, she has learnt more about what life has to offer than many twice her age. Calling her an impressionable or misguided girl is not only patronizing, it reveals wilful refusal to acknowledge the points she is making.
Gurmehar lost her father at an age too young to comprehend death, and she struggled to fathom the meaning of such a profound loss. In 2016, she featured in a video, standing silently, holding 36 placards, where she explained her journey from incomprehension and disbelief, to uncontrollable anger (as a child she wanted to take revenge on anyone who looked like or resembled the people who had killed her father). But her courageous mother, who was dealing with her own grief, helped Gurmehar understand the critical difference between the one and the many, between the individual and the group, and the power of compassion. She learnt that the wrong deed by one individual or a few does not transfer guilt on the rest from the same religion or nationality, or any other group identity.
This is beyond the understanding of the many cowards on the Internet who hurled ugly abuses at her and threatened violence. In response, Gurmehar has ignored them. She has remained steadfast in her views, which shows that her views weren’t an overnight, instinctive, flippant response to the actions of activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who violently disrupted a seminar at Delhi University. Her views evolved from her own suffering—she has learnt to let go of hate. She has given an astonishing display of how Ernest Hemingway described courage—grace under pressure.
In contrast, her critics have only revealed their insensitivity. Cricketer Virender Sehwag had the good sense to withdraw after his tasteless cameo, in which he mimicked Gurmehar, backfired. But others have rushed in.
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Rajeev Chandrasekhar, whose Rajya Sabha term ends next year, wrote her an open letter, reeking of paternalism, where he “mansplained” the strategic reality of the India-Pakistan relationship, in which naïve pacifism is misplaced, and warned her of the response she might get from those who hold the idea of national integrity dear, suggesting—or hoping—that once she is older, she would know better. In essence, he implied that Gurmehar sees national integrity as a tradable commodity—which she doesn’t—and that pacifism is simplistic, which it isn’t, or that she opposes the military, which she doesn’t.
Valour, sacrifice, national integrity—these are subjective terms. The soldier dying while killing a terrorist about to set off an explosive represents all three as much as the man at Tiananmen Square did in 1989 when he tried to stop a convoy of tanks.
Chandrasekhar said he had seen Gurmehar’s video. Kiren Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home affairs, hadn’t, but that did not stop him from commenting on what he thought she had said. He admitted he had not had the time to follow the issue closely, and his criticism of Gurmehar came after a journalist showed him a part of her statement.
These men sound like those interfering uncles who annoyingly tell their nieces how to behave, and what’s right and what’s wrong, simply because they are older and male. Rijiju blamed the left for polluting Gurmehar’s mind; meanwhile the ABVP was busy trying to close minds.
So frightened is the ABVP of ideas that question its world view that it wants to banish those ideas. So incapable is it of making an argument, that it fights a slogan with a stone. So insecure is its belief, that it wants to protect it by removing a text from the university syllabus because it might confuse students. And so fragile is its notion of nationhood that it wants to prevent some students from speaking about the violence perpetrated in the name of the state.
Its desperation is not surprising—in India’s independence struggle, the leaders of the Hindutva pantheon were conspicuously absent. It needs new heroes, and so it is embracing leaders of the freedom movement whom the Congress unjustly neglected, since the Congress was busy creating its own iconography.
The ABVP’s intolerance undermines the very idea of a university campus, and Gurmehar is challenging that intolerance. As John Etchemendy, who stepped down as Stanford University’s provost in January, said recently: “The modern university is devoted to a methodology, not a set of doctrines…. Rational inquiry is intended to uncover truths, but it depends crucially on vibrant debate and disagreement. The university’s responsibility is to nurture the methodology, not to adjudicate its output.” This means “to remind ourselves…that those who hold views contrary to our own are rarely evil or stupid, and may know or understand things that we do not. To genuinely listen requires an intellectual humility that has become increasingly rare.”
By closing off debates, the ABVP wants to prevent the emergence of ideas that challenge its orthodoxy. If it prevails, it will create a zombie nation, which marches to a singular tune, rises for the national anthem, and parrots slogans.
Gurmehar’s placards silently show the folly of that cacophony. Enough is enough, she says; she wants an end to state-sponsored terrorism, spies, and hatred. Let go of hate, she says. It is time to listen.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Salil Tripathi’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi