The fog of noise usually begins with a specific issue. The inciting incident of the Gurmehar Kaur episode, where a 20-year-old woman has retreated from a public campaign after she faced violent threats, was not her Facebook picture holding up a placard. Neither did it begin with the video Kaur made in 2016 calling for peace between India and Pakistan. It started with violence, allegedly perpetrated by members of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, outside Ramjas College in Delhi University on February 21.
The ABVP was outraged about an invitation to Umar Khalid, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who was accused of sedition in 2016, even though a charge-sheet is yet to be filed in the case. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed youth outfit locked students in a seminar hall and hurled stones at them. The next day, student groups clashed at Delhi University, with even more violence, allegedly from the ABVP, and also the police, which attacked journalists who were covering the proceedings.
Yet, the conversation has strangely become about 20-year-old Gurmehar Kaur, and whether she has a right to criticise the Indian state. How did we make that leap?
It was clear that the violence outside Ramjas College was a matter of concern, especially when the Times of India decided to flag it as the lead story on its front page in Delhi on February 23, after journalists from the newspaper were attacked by police. That alone should have been a major story, except there was nothing new about it.
Just last year, Right-wing mobs claiming to be angered by allegedly seditious slogans at JNU went on a rampage around Delhi, with police proving unable to maintain order even inside a major court complex. This mirrored incidents across the country where the ABVP has sought to enforce its writ often violently and occasionally with the police also complicit.
The key image-management approach for the Right-wing, even beyond ABVP, is to ensure that the violence they perpetrate does not become the central story. At first, questions are raised about whether there was any violence at all. In the Ramjas incident, the ABVP insisted that they were peacefully demonstrating against those who had invited Khalid to campus.
When they do acknowledge violence, it is usually followed by blaming this on others. At Ramjas, the ABVP blamed “miscreants” for the fracas. In the Hyderabad University incident, which led to the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula last year, the ABVP tried to insist that the first attack came from Vemula and other Ambedkarites – a claim even the local police has contested.
Who is complaining?
But discussing who was behind the violence still forces an acknowledgement of the violence itself. So a much better distraction for the ABVP and its Sangh Parivar supporters has been to question the identity of the person who articulates uncomfortable questions.
In Hyderabad, dozens of officials have spent time trying to prove whether Vemula was really a Dalit – which is how he identified himself – instead of addressing the issues that led to his suicide. The 2015 tragedy in the Uttar Pradesh village of Dadri doesn’t feature the ABVP but is still instructive, After a mob lynched a man named Mohammad Akhlaq for allegedly storing beef in his fridge, the debate came to be centred around the exact nature of the meat and not about how he came to be lynched by a mob.
In the Ramjas case, students opposed to the ABVP decided to take to the internet to criticise the alleged violence on February 22. One student in particular, Gurmehar Kaur, garnered attention for a Facebook post of her holding up a placard saying she was not afraid of the ABVP, a gesture that was then copied by many other students. But Kaur’s post made it into headlines because it was known that her father was a soldier who died in action.
News organisations played on the fact that a soldier’s daughter was raising her voice against the ABVP. Right-wing groups from the BJP to the ABVP have over the last year defended often excessive actions by authorities, such as at JNU, or attacked any criticism by portraying themselves as the defenders of India’s soldiers – who are “dying at the borders to keep us safe”.
The Right-wing argument has become routine that it has turned into a joke, “Soldier ho gaya.” The irony that Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of a soldier who died in battle, was speaking up against the ABVP was too tempting for headline writers to avoid.
Who can complain?
This made Gurmehar Kaur a potent voice against the ABVP, since they could not simply attack the daughter of a dead soldier for being anti-national. Digging into her past, it emerged that in 2016 she had made a silent video calling for peace between India and Pakistan. The presentation includes a shot of her holding a placard saying, “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war did.”
This slide spread quickly, without any of the context. In the preceding slides, Kaur explains how she thought all Muslims were Pakistanis and wanted to hurt them, but eventually learnt that the Pakistani people were not the same as the Pakistani state.
Yet that slide quickly provided an opportunity to attack Kaur. Memes proliferated, with even former Indian men’s cricket team player Virender Sehwag putting out a picture of his own placard saying, “I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did.” The mimicry might have been somewhat like the “soldier ho gaya” joke, except here it was targeted directly at Kaur, and made light of her father’s death.
How can she complain?
For some on the broader Right, it was still beyond the pale to attack a dead soldier’s daughter. Instead, they resorted to arguments that the “poor girl” was a “pawn” in a larger game.
While it was limited to Twitter debates on the weekend, the story remained relatively small. But on Monday, junior minister for home affairs Kiren Rijiju decided to jump in, and asked who was “polluting” Kaur’s mind. This line of questioning masked itself as a defence of Kaur, while refusing to accept that she had a mind of her own.
More significantly, the intervention by a minister meant this would now become a national story that the government had officially responded to.
Yet at the same time, others online were still using the Vemula-Akhlaq approach of questioning her identity. In particular, many were asking if her father had died in Kargil at all.
An Army spokesperson on Tuesday confirmed that Captain Mandeep Singh, Kaur’s father, had died in a militant attack on a base in Kupwara in 1999.
But by then, as this news was playing out on TV screens, it was already evident how far the news had come from focusing on the violence at Ramjas College, where instead time was being spent authenticating the background of a 20-year-old student who had spoken out against the ABVP.
Backlash to the backlash
As Gurmehar Kaur, and not the Ramjas violence, became the story, other little pockets emerged. The media plays into this, as it is led along by the conversation online. And since Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda had initially made fun of her, liberal commentators trying to criticise them also chose some telling words.
The latter in fact, turned the matter into a question about Haryana, prompting Babita Phogat, a prominent wrestler, to add her two bits – and inspiring another round of headlines and airtime that had now gotten further and further away from the Ramjas violence.
Meanwhile, the attacks against Kaur herself were starting to get even more vicious.
On social media, she was getting plenty of hate and even rape threats, which she complained about to the Delhi Commission for Women. Television commentators were not far behind. One panelist told Kaur that she was “trolling” her own father. An anchor held an entire show about whether she was disrespecting the memory of soldiers.
On Tuesday, Kaur said she had had enough. She announced that she was withdrawing the campaign, and though she continued to tweet about the march against violence on campus, she herself did not turn up, and instead left Delhi for her hometown, Jalandhar.
But by then – a week since the ABVP attacks – things had come so far from the original incident that those trying to follow along might have forgotten what the campaign was about in the first place: violence allegedly perpetrated by the RSS youth organisation. As far as the spin doctors are concerned, it was mission accomplished.