Gurmehar Kaur on what actually happened that February at Ramjas College
[Book excerpt] I want no one to go through what I went through, what my family went through.
- Total Shares
In February 2017, a few friends asked me if I wanted to join them for a protest at Ramjas College. I said no. I did not know the details of the protest. I wish I had known then what I know now — that they were protesting against campus violence, that all they wanted was the right to conduct a seminar on "Cultures of Protest". Little did I know how important peace activism and protest culture would turn out to be for me in the months to come. At the time, as a student of Lady Shri Ram College, I had only heard bits and pieces here and there, read a few social media updates and seen a few articles. I had attended a few events in the past within the Delhi University activism circuit, so it didn’t come as a surprise that they expected me to go. I had been very vocal in college, always striking up political conversations and debate, but that day I had a lot on my mind.
Earlier in February, I had had a falling out with a few friends I deeply cared about and loved. I was still nursing the wounds and dealing with the emotional drama that came along with it. All of this was during the final month of the semester, when we were supposed to submit our assignments. I was studying English and I loved my course, so I buried myself under reading assignments and worked to avoid thinking about my personal dilemmas. Why am I telling you about my personal dilemmas and my arguments with friends? It’s because I want you to know that I was living an ordinary life, a teenager’s life.
My head was full of gossip and clothes and trends and books and other things you might expect me to be occupied with. I don’t feel like that girl any more. Today, I think about censorship and freedom of expression; I think about liberalism and online abuse; I think about the state of our nation far more frequently than I ever did in those days.
Why am I telling you about my personal dilemmas and my arguments with friends? It’s because I want you to know that I was living an ordinary life, a teenager’s life. Photo: India Today
With my exams coming, the Ramjas College fest was the last thing on my mind. In fact, after a rough time at our own fest that year, I wanted to run away as far as I could from the very word itself. I had my own problems. Ramjas can sort out its freedom of expression issue on its own, I thought, and left to get a coffee. My best friend joined me and we sat to do our work. Every so often, we’d chatter about college gossip — who was doing what, who was standing for what post on the students’ union, whom we should vote for and if the previous union was corrupt or not. Our phones were on airplane mode because both of us knew that there was no way we could manage to finish our work if there were Instagram and Facebook notifications begging us to glance at our phones.
That evening, when we got back to our rooms and turned off the airplane mode, our phones started buzzing with WhatsApp messages. What was going on? Why was everyone panicking? My phone was flooded with harrowing pictures of violence. These were not pictures that were being circulated by the media — who tended to blow things out of proportion anyway — but those that were being sent to us, in real time, by our own friends who were there.
It all happened in a blur. The students — who had been peacefully protesting to condemn campus violence involving the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — were roughed up. There were long messages telling us what had happened and asking if any of us could shelter the injured girls. But as is the case with most college hostels, no one could enter ours after a certain hour. I was told that students were lathicharged at the protest and shoved into police vans. Then they were taken to a metro station and left there.
A series of emotions ran through me. I felt anger, closely followed by helplessness. What could I have done, sitting in my hostel with a curfew of 8.30pm? How could I help when I could not even go out, I kept wondering. This wasn’t just breaking news on TV, these were injustices happening to my own friends. It is so easy to dismiss the bad in the world when it is playing on your TV screens like a movie. You start to think it’s all fiction but it never is. It is happening somewhere in the world, to real people, and this time it was happening to people I knew, people I saw in my college every day, laughing and smiling.
How does one resist?
I took a piece of paper — one side of which, in fact, had notes from the previous semester — and two different coloured pens. Red and black. My friend wrote down the message we had just sat together and framed. I stood with my back to the white wooden door, holding up the sheet as my friend clicked a picture. It was uploaded with a caption on my Facebook profile page.
This is what the placard said: "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."
So what really happened at Ramjas? The truth is, after that picture was uploaded, no one cared to find out.
All of a sudden, I became the focus of a conversation I had not even started. No one could have predicted the events that followed. I became coloured by the narratives people imposed on me: I was the girl with the placard, but I was also the antinational, the martyr’s daughter, the student activist.
It was an easier conversation to have than the one that was actually at hand. It was comfortable to overlook the tamasha of rape, death threats and nationalism and focus on a college girl and her Facebook profile picture instead. They — the people who suddenly became furious with me — didn’t care about what the placard said, they cared about who held it. Students from one of the top colleges in India were pelted with stones, hurt, manhandled; women were groped, teased and sent anonymous threats; but I understand why the nation wasn’t having this conversation. It was too difficult. We would rather shut our eyes than be witnesses to this violence — it helps us sleep in peace.
I’m not someone who always speaks up about everything. I’m guilty of it too and I sleep in peace. Even as I write this, there is so much going on in the world that I haven’t spoken about. It seems futile sometimes, just talking, just saying something. But that day, after hearing about my friends being manhandled, silence did not seem like an option. I could not have walked into my college and looked my friends in the eye. I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I had lucked out when I said no to them that afternoon, I had escaped the violence, and now guilt was creeping up on me.
Small acts of freedom; Gurmehar Kaur; Penguin Books
What happened at Ramjas College? My friend, who was present there, told me her story. She doesn’t want to be named, and understandably so. Who would want to go through what I had for the mere act of speaking up?
On February 21, 2017, a literary event organised by the English department and the literary society of Ramjas College was disrupted by members of the ABVP.
It was meant to be a series of panel discussions on "Cultures of Protest", featuring speakers such as Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid of Jawaharlal Nehru University and other prominent speakers like Sanjay Kak and Dilip Simeon.
According to my friend, all the society members had reached the Ramjas campus by nine that morning. After setting up the registration desk and putting up the posters, they went to the conference hall to attend the first panel discussion. After the first panel, around 11.30am, they heard from someone that a mob was outside the main gate.
Almost one hour before Umar Khalid’s talk, the society members were notified that the principal had cancelled his invitation and a few professors were already in his office. This was odd since they had already been told that the principal was okay with Khalid coming to the college for the festival. The itinerary had been out for four or five days. There had been no prior objections.
Khalid was meant to speak about the Adivasis in Bastar, and several students from various colleges had come for this discussion. When the society members spoke to the college president and the ABVP intellectual cell head, they were told that as the police wouldn’t be able to offer security on campus, Umar Khalid’s and Shehla Rashid’s invitations had been cancelled.
As soon as the announcement was made, some of the visitors on the campus started hooting and sloganeering, "Bharat Mata Ki Jai!"
By the time all this commotion was over, the second panel discussion had ended. The organizers went to the conference room. They addressed the crowd and explained why the invitations of the two JNU students were cancelled. Those attending the seminar decided to do a protest walk against the ABVP, the students’ union members and the Delhi Police. Over a hundred people started walking from the conference hall to the principal’s office, to the library lawns and back to the conference hall. When they reached the canteen, they were confronted by a mob who began to abuse them and push them aggressively. The Delhi Police had created a wall between the disruptors and the students.
The police were successful in taking a few people inside the conference room, but had locked them inside. The others couldn’t go inside because the conference room was locked and they couldn’t go downstairs because the ABVP supporters had become very violent. Everyone was scared. The students locked inside had to break open the lock so that those who were left behind could enter.
Once everyone was inside, they decided to resume their third panel discussion without Umar Khalid. The mob and their supporters downstairs started playing music and dancing at the amphitheatre. The organisers closed all the windows and continued the seminar.
According to S Santhoshkumar Singh, a student of Ramjas College:
They were determined to hurt us in every possible way. They attacked us, even girls and professors, as if we were their enemies in a critical battlefield. I saw one of them charging towards us, with a half-cut log in hand, committed to hit anyone standing against them. They tore shirts and dragged and whacked anyone within their reach.
In another five minutes, the electricity went out and they were trapped in the conference room for thirty to forty minutes. The students were told by their professors to evacuate the conference room as the police had advised them to do so, keeping their safety in mind. It wasn’t safe to stay in the conference hall any more. They were escorted by the police to the back gate of the college.
The following day, a march was organised by the All India Students’ Association (AISA) in solidarity with the Ramjas College students. A mob blocked the main gate. The students of the college weren’t allowed to leave their own campus. The mob surrounded them, with only a human chain of police separating them from the mob. They were all so scared that someone suggested that the girls take off their earrings, just in case they were attacked.
The students decided to sit down and sing songs of love and friendship instead. Aman Bhardwaj, a student who was present, said:
Even when we encountered violence and police apathy, we did not respond with violence. This was in part due to our fear of backlash and a further round of violence which could potentially spiral into a riot, and partly due to our own non-violent ethos. Instead we sang songs using our creativity and imagination. For example, slogans like "Desh ke gaddaron ko, joote maaro saalon ko" were countered by songs meant to caricature their seriousness, like "Tareef karun kya uski, jisne tumhe banaya".
Around 1.20pm, the police escorted them towards the back gate. At this point, the crowd managed to push through the police protection and viciously attack the students. While some of the students were trying to speak to the policemen in the front, the attacks continued from the sides and the back. One of my friends said, "Students were crying. I don’t remember feeling so unsafe and threatened in my life."
Some of the girls stood up and made a human wall around the students to protect them from the mob. Another student was threatened because she was taking a video of the mob misbehaving with the professors. Around 4.30pm, the police escorted the students to the police buses and dropped them off at the Civil Lines metro station. My friend and other protesters received several threats later in the evening, stating they were going to be witchhunted. They all had to leave the campus and stay with friends for a few days.
This was the information I had. This was what was told to me. This was what was not being talked about on prime-time TV shows. Those shows spoke about ideologies and nationalism and everything other than the injured students. These were 18-year-old first-year undergraduate students who had come to college for an education, to find themselves and their ideologies. All their lives they had studied hard to get here. Who knows how many battles they had fought? Some had economic problems, some had to fight their families to be in Delhi. Everyone who had come to that college had waged their own tiny battles and this is what happened to them. How is it correct?
How can we justify this in the name of nationalism, or hell, in the name of anything? What is nationalism? Beating eighteen-year-old students of a top college to pulp because they didn’t adhere to the ideology you wanted to impose on them? Later, I asked Shehla Rashid about this incident and she wrote to me: "The takeaway from the incident is that we should not be afraid of these cowardly tactics, and stand together instead. This is the model of resistance that we need to replicate across the country in order to save India from the fascist regime."
I have often wondered ever since if I could go back and do it all over again. Knowing the consequences, would I? And every time, in about a heartbeat, I say yes. All my life I wanted to be strong and just like my father, I wanted to serve the country — the people of the country — and what I did was a part of that. It was my duty as a citizen, as a student and as a friend to resist.
But here’s what happened. After my picture with the placard went viral on social media, all sorts of things were dug out. A year previously, as part of a peace campaign I had participated in, I appeared in a video in which I held up a placard which read, "Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him."
Does this seem callous? I genuinely believe that war is cruel and pointless and unnecessary. I lost my father to war. If anyone knows the damage war can do, it’s the family of an officer.
That video — which no one had paid attention to at the time — now resurfaced on social media. Screenshots of me were suddenly being shared online as further proof of my "anti-national" tendencies. I had never faced as much hate as I did in the three days that followed. I had never even known that this much hate was possible.
People I revered and respected — celebrities, politicians, the media — went after me with a kind of vitriol that I could barely comprehend at first. From strangers, I received abuse and threats. It seemed that everyone had an opinion on my political beliefs but no one actually wanted to ask me what these were.
What bothered me the most was the unspoken accusation that I was not patriotic. At first, I couldn’t articulate clearly why this bothered me so much. With hindsight, I now know what it was. The idea that I — a girl who had lost her father in the cause of the nation — didn’t care about this country was not just ridiculous or laughable, it was actually hurtful. My father taught me more about the real meaning of patriotism in the few years I knew him than anyone else in the years that followed. He was brilliant, brave and loving, and he taught me that a love of peace was more patriotic than any macho enthusiasm for the battlefield. He taught me that hatred does not solve any problem in the world. And he taught me to stand up for myself.
I want no one to go through what I went through, what my family went through. I’ve had to live without a father for more years than I’ve lived with one. Why would I want anyone else to experience that? And all the people who expressed their hatred and accused me of apathy — they will never know how much I’ve had to struggle to get over the loss of my father.
I’ve been trolled, mocked and bullied. I’ve had people call me names. And I’ve been frightened for my life. But I emerged from all of that more determined than ever before to never be silenced.
(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House.)