Threats to Gurmehar Kaur show how politicians use the deaths of soldiers as fodder for jingoism

Kavita Krishnan

A 20-year-old girl, Gurmehar Kaur, holds up a placard saying she is not scared of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, after it unleashed violence against students and teachers of her university, Delhi University, on February 22. In response, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated student wing’s cadre dig up a video Kaur posted a year ago and use it to troll her, threatening her with rape.

That video was made in April as part of the #ProfileForPeace campaign, which was relaunched when the clouds of war were darkening over Indian and Pakistani skies after the terrorist attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir’s Uri town in September. In the video, Kaur spoke of how she battled and overcame hate in the wake of the loss of her father, Captain Mandeep Singh, who died in the Kargil war. She described herself as a “warrior for peace”, and wished that no other child would lose his or her father to war. The video went viral. Kaur also spoke very movingly against war-mongering at an event in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on November 9. She faced no attacks then. It was only when she stood up to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad bullies that she was trolled.

The national media then picked up the story and suddenly Kaur was fair game for everyone – from Central government ministers, retired cricketer Virender Sehwag, actor Randeep Hooda, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologues, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leaders, and Film and Television Institute of India director Gajendra Chauhan, to wrestlers and media anchors – to sit in judgement of her. A single placard out of her video, which read “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him”, was plucked out of context and jeered at by all these people.

One wonders why most of the same people found no need to condemn the rape threats that were made against Kaur. Why are media channels and various prominent public figures feeling the need to imply a pro-peace video post by Kaur is anti-national, but none of them seem to feel that a rape threat is anti-national?

Politics of war

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In countries all over the world, war veterans and families of soldiers killed in wars have participated in anti-war movements. Kaur is not alone: it is those who bear the worst costs of war who have an interest in peace. That is why it is no coincidence that when military strikes across the Line of Control in retaliation to the Uri attack were fodder for an election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, people in the border areas of Punjab were speaking up against war.

The virulent attack on Kaur shows how powerful political interests would like Indian citizens to equate patriotism with war and hate. They feel entitled to use the deaths of soldiers as fodder for more war-mongering and hate-mongering. So, a daughter of a dead soldier who speaks against war and hate – in fact, argues that peace is patriotic – is a dangerous voice who must be discredited and silenced. Why do politicians need wars and bombs and war-mongering? These Pakistani schoolgirls, as they debate the merits of acquiring the atom bomb in Indian film-maker Anand Patwardhan’s anti-nuclear documentary War and Peace, have nailed it:

Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju felt it a matter of national importance to ask who was polluting Gurmehar Kaur’s mind. Why didn’t he feel the need to ask what was polluting the minds of those who made rape threats against her? Or of those who kicked a teacher in the kidneys during the clashes at Ramjas College on February 22? (The violence was sparked by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s opposition to an invitation to Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, who faced sedition charges last year, to speak at a seminar).

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha, speaking on an India Today debate, turned to Kaur and declared, “You are trolling your dead father.” So Mr Sinha, a daughter has no right to wish there were no wars so that her father could be alive, but you and other Sangh cadre have the right to cloak yourselves in the death of soldiers like her father so as to posture as patriots?

The Gurmehar Kaur incident exposes the hollowness of the jingoism that is being done in the name of “our soldiers”. Soldiers – most of whom are drawn from poor, vulnerable families – and their children pay the actual costs of war, while politicians reap the harvests from those wars. From media pulpits, we have people thundering “freedom of expression is defended by soldiers at the border”. That is not, in fact, true. When soldiers’ families speak up – or even when soldiers like Tej Bahadur Yadav of the Border Security Force post videos criticising the rations they receive – they are branded traitors or lunatics and subjected to systematic harassment. They themselves do not enjoy freedom of speech.

Role of the media

The media anchors leading the charge against Gurmehar Kaur ought to read George Orwell, who observed:

“All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting…”

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is trying, with the help of certain sections of the electronic media, to turn the issue of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s thuggery into a referendum on patriotism as defined by the student organisation and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Sangh’s Rakesh Sinha and the BJP’s Sambit Patra declared on a TV show that “no challenge to the idea of India will be tolerated”. Why isn’t the mainstream media asking these and other BJP and Sangh leaders: isn’t Hindu Rashtra a challenge to the “idea of India”? Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader Saurabh Sharma tweeted some days ago that Hindu Rashtra would have been a reality long ago were it not for universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University. That, then, is the real reason why universities are being attacked by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Classrooms and campuses where students and teachers ask questions and debate issues, reading, researching and looking for nuances in every issue, are indeed dangerous for fascism.

What is anti-national?

Is it not ironic that rape threats are being made against a Delhi University student by the same people who tell us it is anti-national to discuss rape and other rights violations by the police, Army and paramilitary forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, the Northeast or in Kashmir? The National Human Rights Commission accepted in its report in January that 16 women were raped by police and paramilitary forces in Bastar in 2015. Is the Commission anti-national? The report of the Justice Verma Committee – set up after the gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012, which sparked nationwide protests – acknowledged systematic sexual violence by the armed forces in conflict areas including the Northeast and Kashmir. It made detailed recommendations about measures that need to be taken to prevent such violence. Is the Committee anti-national? And why is it anti-national for Ramjas College or Ambedkar University, Delhi to discuss such sexual violence?

The violence unleashed by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad at Ramjas College and Delhi University’s North Campus, and the chorus of attacks on Gurmehar Kaur may not be coincidental. But by creating a “nationalist versus anti-national” binary, they are calculated to reap benefits for the BJP in the remaining phases of the Uttar Pradesh polls. Gurmehar Kaur and the students of Delhi University have shown great courage in standing up to state-sponsored bullies both online and offline, defending the right to think, speak and debate freely.

Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist).