What Gurmehar teaches us all
Courage does not mean the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it
This week I spent a lot of time texting and talking with Gurmehar Kaur and her mother. On the first day, Gurmehar was calling me ma’am in the morning, by afternoon I was aunty, and late in the evening she had decided that didi worked perfectly well for me.
“This is not the time to be alone, Gul," I said to her. “Let your friends help you. A warrior like you protects herself first."
Ever since Gurmehar participated in an online campaign in support of the students of Ramjas College, Delhi University, she has found herself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. Gurmehar’s expression of protest started with changing her Facebook and Twitter profile photos to one in which she is holding a placard 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
In a social media campaign aimed at protesting against the violence perpetrated on the Delhi University campus by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) last week, the student organization affiliated to the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), students from many universities all over India changed their profile photos similarly.
In response, Gurmehar has received threats of rape and violence and a barrage of accusations that she is just a pawn being manipulated by others who have a political agenda. Popular and powerful people like cricketer Virender Sehwag, actor Randeep Hooda and the minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, have mocked and shamed Gurmehar Kaur for taking a public stand against violence on her university campus, further fanning the hate being directed towards her.
Gurmehar’s personal history makes her stand out among her peers. She is the daughter of Captain Mandeep Singh, who was martyred in the Kargil war when she was just over two years old. Last year, Gurmehar featured in a powerful video hashtagged Profile For Peace where she tells the story of her evolution from a child whose heart was full of hate and anger to a young adult who understands and advocates peace over war.
When I got in touch with her this week, I could say that Gurmehar was having the worst day of her life but that wouldn’t be accurate. This young woman has seen her father’s body in a coffin when she was still a toddler. She has had to understand the permanence of death before she was ready. She has grown up with a single mother and a younger sister who was an infant when their father was killed. She remembers everything—the pain, the loss, the trauma and the recovery.
“I never wanted that anyone should say bechare bachche when they talk about my daughters," Rajvinder Kaur said to me over the phone. “I was determined that my children would not be helpless. They don’t have a father, but they will not suffer.
“My husband was posted in Kupwara in Kashmir and he would speak to Gul over the phone. She was an early speaker. We had taught her to say Vande Mataram instead of hello when she knew that it was her father on the phone. She would sing the song, Soldier, soldier, from the Hindi film, Soldier, and it would make him so happy to hear it in her little girl voice. When he wrote letters to me, he would also make a drawing of a little girl on a separate page. That was his letter to his daughter, who he called Gulgul.
“I want to be on her mind all the time, he would say. I want her to associate her Papa with happiness."
As I listen to Rajvinder Kaur recount the years, I realize that Gurmehar is not only a martyr’s daughter, she is also the child of a living hero. As she coped with her personal sorrow, Rajvinder became determined that her daughters would know no fear. She enrolled Gurmehar in swimming and tennis. The child became an avid reader and began to write her own stories as an adolescent. She is a national-level tennis player.
“When she was six years old, I realized she was carrying a lot of anger in her heart. One day I met a child who had scratches on his face from a fight with Gul. On another day, in Meerut, she moved forward to attack a woman in a burqa. From what she had heard around her, she had begun to form the impression that Muslims and Pakistan had killed her father.
“That’s when I sat her down and explained to her that war had killed her father. There are children like her in every country who have lost their parents to mindless war. I did not want my child to grow up with hatred instead of love in her heart. I wanted to raise a child who would seek to change the way things are."
I had earlier watched and been moved by Gurmehar’s #ProfileforPeace video on YouTube. When I began to read about her being attacked online, I searched for the video and played it again. One by one, Gurmehar shows the viewer a series of 30 placards through which she conveys her anti-war message. No words are spoken.
I could barely read what was written on the placards she was holding up. My eyes kept welling up with tears. I would close them and press on my eyelids to let go, and then another stream of tears would well up.
What do I see in Gurmehar Kaur? I see a survivor. I see a girl who believes in her own power. I see me. I see my mother. I see my own daughters. I see a child who misses her father, trying to make sense of a world and society that sent him to his death as a soldier. A country that celebrates him for being a martyr. I see one more generation carrying the wounds and trauma of the previous generations, determined to be the change.
In a status update on Facebook, Gurmehar elaborates, “What is INDIA? It’s a beautiful secular mix of cultures. It is a democratic country. The Constitution-which several “nationalists" suffered and put all their efforts to create- is its spine. The constitution has 7 basic fundamental rights.
Freedom of speech being one of them and my present favourite."
“What hurts to watch is how she is being deliberately misunderstood," says Rajvinder. “The child is talking about peace. She doesn’t want others to suffer like she has. She is expressing herself peacefully. It is the retaliation against her that is violent and unlawful. Why would you hurt someone’s innocence and courage like this?"
As I listen to Gurmehar, she reminds me of the oft-quoted phrase—courage does not mean the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it.
Gurmehar is strong and sensitive, she is determined to practise courage and peace together. She has received support from the Delhi Commission for Women, which has written to the Delhi Police Commissioner requesting that FIRs be registered against those who have threatened Gurmehar, and she and her family be given police protection. The faculty of the English department of Lady Shri Ram College, where she studies, has also issued a statement in her support, applauding Gurmehar for responding sensitively, creatively and bravely to events.
“When I watch her speaking on various channels, I admire how mature she has become," says Gurmehar’s mother. “She has been handling everything so beautifully. This is my victory. As a single parent I am always afraid of what will happen when I am not here tomorrow. This incident has taught me that nothing will happen to my daughter even when I am gone."
Meanwhile, Gurmehar tweets her message for all to see—Free of hate. Free to speak. Free to hold opinions. Free to learn. This is my nation.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. The writer tweets as @natashabadhwar