Gurmehar and I first connected in March 2017 when vicious and targeted online trolling had made her part of prime-time headlines on mainstream news channels. A student at Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College, Gurmehar had shot to fame after she participated in protests against campus violence perpetrated by supporters of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
Fame may have arrived uninvited in Gurmehar’s life, but it has had good reason to stay on, feel at home and grow.
In January 2018, Gurmehar published her first book—a tender memoir titled Small Acts Of Freedom (Penguin Random House India). Her second book, The Young And The Restless, is now out, and the young author has certainly dispelled all suspicion that she was a mere pawn being manipulated by other, more powerful people with their own political agenda.
Gurmehar’s voice is clear and distilled in both books and her perspective is fresh and valuable. The premise behind The Young And The Restless is simple, and yet quite urgent. The average parliamentarian in India is more than three decades older than 50% of the electorate, who are 25 years old or younger. Gurmehar profiles eight of the youngest political leaders across party and ideological lines to explore what motivates them and whether they are attuned to the demographic they represent.
At the start of the interview, Gurmehar asks me: “Did you like the book?"
“I did," I say. “I really appreciate how you express your full self as you speak to people so much more powerful and older than you. You never diminish yourself and it’s great to have access to your own inner dialogue as you approach every new person." Edited excerpts:
In your first book, you revisited the trauma of your childhood and the resilience of the child you used to be. You spoke about how hard it had been to write the memoir. How was the experience of writing this new book?
It’s true that writing Small Acts Of Freedom was very emotionally exhausting. Writing this book has been exhilarating. Each interview was so beautiful, most people were telling me what they had never shared in public before. I would just plant the seed of a thought and then watch it grow. I had a blast writing this—the research, the travel, the analysis, everything.
As an interviewer, how did you negotiate the space between being amiable enough to get open responses, and sharp enough to ask tough questions? How did you make them confront the gap between what they project as their political impact and the ground reality?
I felt I could really pierce through the wall that political leaders tend to build around themselves. Most of my interviewees did not see me as a threat, I guess. After all, I was only 21 when I did the interviews. They didn’t feel they were talking to a journalist.
Who was the hardest to interview? Who was the most surprising?
Sachin Pilot kept his guard on all the time. He was kind to me but he stayed very proper. He stuck to his script and I really wish he had opened up more. Jignesh Mevani was difficult to interview in a different way. Because he has known me in the student politics circles for years, he just wouldn’t take me seriously. At the same time, this familiarity made the interview very endearing. He shares his thwarted love story, he talks about how the personal and political is intertwined for him.
Aditya Thackeray was the most surprising to interview. It was fun and so easy to write. The interview with Shehla Rashid was unique in its own way. Shehla has always looked out for me and mentored me in a non-intrusive way. She has never tried to appropriate my thoughts, like I feel many others have. We had so much to explore together—being women, our Kashmir connections, the journey as students leaders.
How do you find your community? After all, student activism can exist in a bubble without access to any on-ground resistance.
My community finds me. Every time I find someone I connect to, I hold on tight. I let them know when I admire them and look up to them. I have a very good process actually. I know I need to keep a relationship when the other person helps me to be the best version of myself.
There were millions of young voters in the 2019 election. Yet the majority did not choose to vote against the politics of hate and divisiveness, the politics that belittles the Constitution and its guarantees to the most vulnerable. How do you explain this to yourself? Where do you see the hope amongst your own generation?
I feel the opposition came to the scene too late. Also, they did not have the machinery to spread their message like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) did. The way content is consumed, especially by the majority of younger India, has changed totally. We are not watching news channels. We are not reading newspapers, there is little trust in traditional media outlets. We are consuming memes, jokes, opinion pieces…we are getting all our political information through our smartphones. One party tapped into this and the others didn’t have a map at all. That showed up in the results of the election.
How have you chosen your battles in life? After all, fame has also brought expectations, but you cannot try to meet all of them.
I have always been very honest with myself. I don’t know everything and I don’t want to talk about what I don’t know. There is so much I am learning. At 22, I can afford to say “I don’t know" very easily. I am not deluded; if someone corrects me, it doesn’t hurt my ego or anything. I am happy to let others have their moment. Also, I talk and write about what I know from my own experience. It comes from a sense of self-assurance.