On 23 February 2017, Gurmehar Kaur, an undergraduate student of literature at Lady Shri Ram College posted an image in which she was holding a placard that read “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.” This picture formed part of an online campaign that had been initiated in response to the violent attack that members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student affiliate, had launched at Ramjas College on 21 February, because of the inclusion of Jawaharlal Nehru University scholars Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid at a seminar called “Cultures of Protest.” The image soon went viral, and several other students uploaded similar photographs. Shortly after, an older video from April 2016 began circulating widely on social media. In the video, Kaur held a series of 36 placards addressing the death of her father, who was killed when militants attacked a Rashtriya Rifles camp in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999 during the Kargil war, and called for peace between India and Pakistan. One of the placards she held in the video read: “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.”
The video—and the placard in particular—became the subject of much debate in both the mainstream and social media. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as Kiren Rijiju, the union minister of state for home affairs, and Pratap Simha, the president of the BJP’s youth wing in Karnataka, posted tweets criticising Kaur and her family. The cricketer Virender Sehwag satirised her statement in a tweet, which the actor Randeep Hooda appeared to applaud. Kaur also began receiving several death and rape threats. On 28 February, she declared that she was withdrawing from the movement. “I have been through a lot and this is all my 20 year self could take,” she posted on Twitter.
On 7 March, Kedar Nagarajan, a web reporter with The Caravan, spoke to Kaur over the phone about the campaign and its aftermath. Kaur discussed her decision to oppose the ABVP, the video that became the centre of the controversy surrounding her and the vitriol she was subjected to as a result of her stance in the video.
Kedar Nagarajan: Could you talk about your involvement in the #StudentsAgainstABVP campaign?
Gurmehar Kaur: There was a protest on the second day [after the incident at Ramjas College] by students, that several friends of mine went for. I did not go because I had to attend classes, but I found out from my friends that they were being [physically] abused and that some of them were hurt. ABVP guys were pelting stones and throwing iron rods from the first floor of the building. Since I had already been into peace activism, I felt that I had to do something to oppose the violence on campus. I decided to change my picture on social media as a form of protest. Then everything got blown out of proportion. I wanted to support the protestors as a normal Delhi University student who is opposed to violence, but all of a sudden the movement became about me.
KN: What was your initial reaction when the 2016 video resurfaced?
GK: The [ABVP] campaign was not even related to my previous campaign. All of a sudden, all these trolls began to look into my past and started picking on my family and me. That is the worst thing that people can do to you: to hit you where it hurts. I do not know why any of that was even a point of conversation.
KN: There were several reports of the threats that you received after you started the campaign.
GK: There were so many rape and death threats, which were terribly disturbing. But what has been worse is the way they have been picking on my family, saying things like my dad would have been very ashamed of me. I have been filing complaints regarding most of the threats that I received.
I have managed to build a mental wall to tune out the threats, but attacks on my family are what I find very hurtful. It was really disturbing that I received threats of this kind only because they did not agree with me. And in the name of what? Nationalism? Threatening women with a point of view with rape and death is nationalism?
KN: Was the harassment you faced restricted only to online platforms?
GK: Luckily, that has been the case so far. I have not been in Delhi for all these days. Now I have come back home and I have not been out of my house for five days, so I honestly do not know how it is going to be when I finally do.
KN: One frame from the film in particular was used out of context to demean your involvement in the campaign criticising the ABVP’s violence at Ramjas College.
GK: The video, if viewed as a whole, will clearly show that I am not saying anything wrong—I am asking for peace. The point of that video was so that no other young girl has to go through what I had gone through. It was something personal that I felt the need to let out. It was me being a pacifist, so I do not know why it was used by so many people to attack and harass me.
KN: Kiren Rijiju wrote in a tweet that your mind had been “polluted.”
GK: He did [later] admit that he had not seen the video. I really do not have anything against anyone. There is this really popular quote, “half knowledge can be extremely destructive,” so you really have to be careful with what you say and what you tweet, especially when you are in a position of power like he is.
KN: Did you see any change in the harassment that you were subjected to after celebrities such as Virendra Sehwag and Randeep Hooda as well as politicians such as Rijiju opposed or appeared to mock your stance on war?
GK: No one knew my profile till these guys came and trolled me. They have such a large number of followers and such great influence. It is absolutely terrible that they would use that influence to humiliate a 20-year-old. After they trolled me, I opened my account and saw so much hate being directed at me. There was an increase in the number of people threatening me and there was an increase in the confidence with which the threats came as well. [People on social media] began to feel like it is okay for them to harass me.
It is really saddening when one admires these people and then suddenly you realise that all this hate is coming your way because these people made fun of you. Even if I said something wrong, you cannot use your influence to direct hate towards young women. An opinion is one thing, but a direct attack where I am being tagged in a tweet is harassment. Freedom of expression is one thing, but the nature of their statements is that of an attack.
KN: How would you respond to being labelled “anti-national” for your view that Pakistan cannot solely be blamed for the death of soldiers such as your father?
GK: Is this really the only argument that they have against me? It is not even a valid argument. I absolutely love my country and I will not let a third party come and define nationalism for me. My nationalism is very pure. It comes from the heart not from a political agenda.
KN: A report in India Today quoted you as saying that “campuses are not for politics, but for developing minds.” Could you elaborate on this idea?
GK: They’ve misquoted me because I said “Campuses are not for violent politics, they are for developing minds.” And the word “violent” was missed, but that’s okay, I think that happens with the whole chaos.
KN: The term “martyr’s daughter” was used repeatedly by sections of the media that targeted you as well as by those that supported you.
GK: I don’t understand it, and I even tweeted about it saying that if you have a problem with it, you can just call me Gurmehar. You don’t have to call me a “martyr’s daughter.” It bothered me a lot because this isn’t my identity, I’m a lot more than just that. Of course, I am my father’s daughter and I absolutely respect him, but it was troubling. They could have just used my name.
KN: The central theme of the video is the manner in which you overcame your anger towards Pakistanis and Muslims. Could you talk about this transition?
GK: My mother created a very religiously tolerant environment for me at home. My masi [aunt] lives in Bombay, so when we used to visit, my mother never took me to Haji Ali because she understood the feelings that I had as a child. When I became more mature, she began to introduce me to that space as well. She told me that it was irresponsible and unacceptable to hate people just because they were from a particular community. Now I visit all religious spaces because my mother created an environment where I could grow into a mentally healthy mind. As I grew older, I began to read books such as A Thousand Splendid Sons, The Diary of Anne Frank and watch movies such as Life is Beautiful. When you are surrounded by such beautiful art, you tend to become more humanist.
KN: What kind of effect did the harassment that you faced have on your family and friends?
GK: Of course, my mother was concerned, and my friends. Even on a personal level, it has been a litmus test for me to find out who my real friends are. There have been a lot people who all of a sudden started disagreeing with me, who knew my stance from the video earlier, and that has been a little too much to bear. It is difficult to wrap my head around that my own people would suddenly turn against me, but there has been a lot of support from my other friends. My mother has been concerned, that’s why I’ve been in the house for the last 5 days. But then, we’re very strong people.
KN: Were any of your friends or family subjected to personal attacks as well?
GK: Luckily, no. I have my friends out there on the comment section fighting with people, so yes, in that way they have been harassed when they were defending me on comments and they got messages that were very anti-me. Anyone who has been speaking up for me has received messages.
KN: On 28 February, you decided to withdraw from the campaign and you left Delhi. What led to this decision?
GK: The campaign was started for the students by the students and all of a sudden the campaign became for Gurmehar by Gurmehar. This was not how I had hoped for it to be. I began to get very disturbed when I had to spend the whole day clarifying and justifying [myself] while hearing the worst things being said about me, so I no longer felt the need to be there. The movement is about students and not me. The final protest was beautiful and I would have loved to be there. Nearly 5,000 students were on the streets demanding peace with the tiranga flowing and people singing songs—it was a great sight.
KN: The faculty members of your college released a statement in support of your stance.
GK: Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for anything more [from them]. My teachers are absolutely amazing. I understand as a student why we need more education institutions like LSR that will stand in support of their students, who will speak up for them, because it’s been a constant support. Even on the phone my teachers have been very kind. They cancelled classes on Tuesday and Wednesday [28 February and 1 March] for the protest—that’s been amazing.
KN: What was the kind of response you received from within the defence community?
GK: I’ve received positive response from the armed forces. Just yesterday I read this article about ex-army men coming forward in a protest in solidarity with me, which I think is the most important thing. They’ve been raising their voice, saying the army shouldn’t be politicised, and they’re totally correct. From my dad’s unit, all his friends have been very supportive, his batchmates have been supportive and they have been changing their profile pictures to “in support of Gurmehar.” Of course there will be people that have their own [opposing] opinions, but like I said, freedom of expression to them. You can have an opinion of me as long as it’s not a personal attack.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.