Till a few days ago, no one except Gurmehar Kaur’s family and friends knew who she was. A name that would have drawn a blank till recently is suddenly the only subject people on social media and TV are talking about. Everyone who watches news is discussing her.
They can probably even write a short biographical sketch of her by now. Not just ordinary citizens, even celebrities have opinions on her; certain big names have spoken both in favour of and against her.
While Javed Akhtar is with Team Gurmehar, Virender Sehwag is with those mocking her. Certain prominent ministers have condemned her as a traitor. It will not be an exaggeration to say that ordinary DU student Gurmehar Kaur has suddenly become a youth icon. The old cliché holds: love her or hate her, you just can’t ignore her.
A Symbol of Dissent
It is entirely possible, even likely, that the debate surrounding her will die down in the next few days. She might disappear from our TV screens and newspapers as suddenly as she appeared on them. But the issue within which she finds herself embroiled, the larger debate about freedom of expression in India, is one that will not die anytime soon. The 19-year-old now stands for an emerging sentiment in our country.
Who – or ‘what’ – is Gurmehar? She is a symbol of dissent. In the face of ABVP’s violent efforts to curb freedom of speech in Ramjas College, young Gurmehar declared her opposition loudly. By exercising her constitutional right to freedom of expression and posting her views on social media, Gurmehar ignited a frenzy of debate.
Though certain elements have done their best to derail the conversation by invoking nationalism, the debate still rages. And this, after all, is what icons do. They are symbols of a society’s emerging impulses, hopes, disappointments, traditions, courage, and human sensibilities.
Of Gurmehar, and Those Who Came Before
Gurmehar has voiced her opinion on an issue that even our stalwarts shy away from. And she is not alone in voicing dissent against majoritarian sentiments. In the last few years, some unexpected heroes have risen to the task.
We have seen 24-year-old Hardik Patel launch a battle against major political forces and 32-year-old activist Jignesh Mevani fight against the discrimination and cruelty the Dalit community routinely faces. Two years ago, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar from University of Hyderabad took his own life and became a rallying figure for members of the Dalit community.
Around the same time, certain students in Jawaharlal Nehru University organised an event where sensitive issues vis-a-vis Kashmir and the hanging of Afzal Guru were discussed. This was enough for the ABVP and certain sections of the media to brand the entire university ‘anti-national’. The JNU row gave us Kanhaiya Kumar.
Before all of this, there was Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption in 2011. Hazare’s unflagging fight sparked off a new spirit of revolution, one which Arvind Kejriwal then took up and is taking forward.
When Ordinary Citizens Speak Out
All the figures mentioned above are either disrupting established political discourse, igniting new debates, or stoking dying ones.
Whether it’s Gurmehar, Hardik or Kanhaiya Kumar, each has voiced unpopular political opinions and injected a new vigour into old debates. And none of these people were professional politicians before suddenly shooting into the limelight. They were mostly neither involved with any political parties, or did not support any political platform when they first expressed their opinions.
All of these are ordinary men and women speaking up in a country where these kinds of debates have always risen out of the entrenched political system, both before and after Independence. Similarly, these debates have always been taken to fruition by established political figures or parties.
Whether Lohia’s agitation against caste discrimination or JP’s anti-Emergency movement or even BJP’s Ram Mandir issue: all of these events have their birth in professional politics. But the trail from Anna Hazare to Gurmehar is a fresh and exciting one, begun by common citizens and untainted by party politics. For once, it’s ordinary men and women who are dominating national political debates.
Dawn of a New Optimism
If we look for examples outside the Indian context, the name Wael Ghonim instantly comes to mind. He was an entirely ordinary citizen of Egypt before 25 January 2011. Within three months, the 30-year-old found himself topping TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’ list.
For Ghonim, it all started with a Facebook post in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the current regime and mobilised a protest at Tahrir Square. This moment triggered what would become the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. A two-decade-long authoritarian regime was shaken and President Hosni Mubarak’s government overthrown, with Mubarak being sent to jail.
Egyptian leader ElBaradei later wrote that Ghonim’s voice gave hope to a nation sunk in gloom and defeatism. The sparks of revolution soon made their way from Egypt to the Middle East; cries of democracy were raised and a new wind blew. The story is the same when you look at France in 1789. Change, it seems, begins with common people.
The Jacobins and their associates were all common folk; Robespierre was just a lawyer. They were neither political leaders nor in any way influential members of the ruling class. But as the authoritarianism of their ruler grew, prices increased, and living became a daily struggle for ordinary people, the citizens rose up in revolt.
The totalitarian power of monarchy, feudalism and the Church gave way to a democracy founded on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The historian Hobsbawm wrote that the revolution changed forever where people put their faith and hope: away from the monarchy and in democracy.
Winds of Change Are Blowing in India
So where do we in India go from here? Does this debate presage a revolution? Is a great change coming?
Change is the only constant, goes the cliché. The political apparatus in our country has not been able to keep up with the changes wrought over the past few years in every sphere of society. A new economic system, combined with changes in the administrative framework, have sowed the seeds of change in society. A new middle class has arisen; at the same time, the Dalits and other marginalised communities are agitating more and more for the rights that have been denied them so long.
A similar spirit can be detected in the women of India. They have begun to challenge patriarchy in a number of ways that simply can’t be ignore anymore. But our leaders and parties haven’t awoken to this brave new world yet. Within politics, it’s the same people, the same parties, the same issues. They neither recognise new forces nor offer new solutions. Social media is providing a platform to this new context, this new awakening.
The ordinary citizen is using this tool to make his frustrations felt. When he goes unheard or is mocked, it only adds to the rising tide of resentment.
Social Media is the Common Man’s Microphone
Social media is very powerful. It cuts across all boundaries: region, gender, class, caste. This is an essentially an invitation to debate. Thomas Friedman argues that the world quietly, while we were sleeping, stepped into the third phase of globalisation sometime in 2000.
The first phase, according to Friedman, was characterised by a budding spirit of global dialogue; the second by economic exchange through MNCs, and the third through individuals. In this third phase of globalisation, individuals are coming together to both debate and form communities.
Social media has made the world smaller, more intimately connected. The debates that used to take place between panchayat members or at village paan shops are now recreated on a global scale on social media.
This service has given a new generation a confidence and power never seen before, as well as instant access to unprecedented amount of knowledge. As a result, they aren’t intimidated by authority figures; neither do they feel themselves powerless.
Gurmehar is Not Alone
The need of the hour is to understand this new energy. These new forces must inform and mould our politics. Gurmehar does not stand alone. Her words reflect the sentiments of a whole global community. They lead us all the way back to Marie Antoinette’s “Let them have cake” moment. This chain of revolution has a long history.
We need to understand the worldview that Gurmehar Kaur represents. When people like her raise issues that ignite new debates, it lays bare the limits of political discourse. It shows us how important issues get lost in the din of the same old talk, old issues, old controversies. If we do not reckon with them now, who knows what Tahrir Squares wait for us in our future, and who will turn into our Ghonim?
(The writer is the spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)