Gurmehar Kaur has broken no laws. Nor has she slandered any individual on a public platform. The 20-year-old student of English literature at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University is the daughter of late Captain Mandeep Singh, who fell fighting militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. Kaur started a social media campaign after the violence in Ramjas College on February 22. The campaign began with Kaur changing her Facebook profile picture to her holding a placard that read: “I am a student of Delhi University and I am not afraid of ABVP.” For her post, she has received graphic threats on social media, the more innocuous among which include “a fate worse than Nirbhaya (the December 2012 gangrape and murder victim)”, advice to “just die” and been called “a political pawn”. That trolls, anonymous like most trolls are, verbally assault and intimidate a young woman isn’t surprising. What is appalling, however, is how some of the most powerful and influential men in the country, a parliamentarian, a Union minister and even a cricketer and actor, have expressed their disapproval of what she has said, likened her to terrorists, ridiculed her views and refused her agency. But no one mentioned one word defending what’s her Constitutional right or condemned the threat that she faces.
Soon after Kaur’s post on social media, BJP MP Pratap Simha compared her to Dawood Ibrahim saying “at least Dawood didn’t use his father’s name to justify his anti-national stand”. Simha’s reaction was to a post by Kaur from May last year, where she made a case for peace with Pakistan. Rather than condemning his party colleague’s vicious jibe, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju tweeted asking, “Who is polluting this young girl’s mind?” A part of Rijiju’s responsibility is to ensure law and order, to protect the rights of citizens, even when he disagrees with them. Instead of questioning Kaur’s agency and motives, the minister should reassure her that the government will protect her right to free expression. Equally, he should be as vocal in his condemnation of those who have threatened a young woman with sexual assault and death. Union minister M. Venkaiah Naidu has scented a plot to lead young minds astray.
More sophisticated is Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Speaking at the London School of Economics, Jaitley called for a debate on the limits of free speech and whether the right extended to an “assault on the very sovereignty of the nation”. Jaitley himself was a symbol of dissidence and free speech in the face of a government that was clamping down on opposition during the Emergency. As a student leader, he refused to acquiesce to the government of the day, stood up for his principles and went to prison. He must now remember that legacy and condemn a discourse that allows threats to the life of Gurmehar Kaur and others like her. It’s not going to be easy given his government and party’s constant resort to nationalism to silence all argument. That doesn’t behove a government that prides itself on its strength.
And, surely, the nation’s sovereignty isn’t undermined by a 20-year-old college student?