The Literary Society of Ramjas College, Delhi University organized a seminar titled ‘Cultures of Protest’ on the 21st and 22nd of February 2017. The seminar was cut short on the first day by members of the ABVP, the student-wing of the RSS. They objected to the presence of speaker Umar Khalid who was to speak on the war against Adivasis in Bastar, the topic of his PhD thesis. People identifying as ABVP members began to play loud music outside the seminar room, and soon turned into a lynch mob, vandalizing property and violently harassing those attending the seminar, including professors. ABVP members engaged in these acts in the name of ‘nationalism.’ The following day, after the seminar had been called off, ABVP members first disrupted a small gathering of Ramjas students gathered for a silent protest in the Ramjas campus and then a peaceful march organized by AISA to the Maurice Nagar Police Station, attacking and molesting those present at the march, including media persons and faculty.
In solidarity with those injured on both days, several students from universities across the country, and especially from Delhi University, began to put up pictures of themselves holding placards saying ‘I am not afraid of ABVP’ across social media. One of these was Gurmehar Kaur, an undergraduate student of Lady Shriram College (LSR), Delhi University. In May 2016, Kaur made a video using placards in which she criticized the hatred fostered by the creation of strictly opposing nationalisms (If you don’t like the current government, go live in Porkistan, right?). In the video, she refers to her own experience as the child of a member of the armed forces. Her father, Captain Mandeep Singh, was killed in the Kargil War in 1999. This video gained immense popularity then, and Kaur’s display picture has been connected with her video, now. One shot from the video, where Kaur holds a placard saying, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war did,” gained momentum, in particular.
Soon after, she began to receive threats of rape, death and violence on social media, for being an ‘anti-national.’ In her interview with NDTV, Kaur referred to a man named Rahul who commented on her profile picture with a detailed a description of exactly how he would rape her. This is just one of several comments on Kaur’s picture, shares of her picture and articles written about her.
Women are silenced systematically and repeatedly through cyber harassment. Misogyny and violence are as present online as in the physical world. Internet trolls are, in fact, very real, threatening and violent, as we saw through FII’s #DigitalHifazat campaign. The research report that was part of the campaign found that 90% of the interviewees had begun to self-censor, after they had been harassed. Another 70% were battling poor mental health following this harassment, and about 50% had faced public defamation as a result of online harassment. Women are pushed into a corner of fear and distress from which they dare not emerge, either on the streets or on their timelines.
Kaur was also ridiculed by cricketer Virender Sehwag and referred to as a ‘young girl’ by BJP MP Kiran Rijiju, who wondered who had ‘poisoned’ Kaur’s mind. Randeep Hooda, too, tweeted that the ‘poor girl’ was being used as a ‘political pawn.’ A man commenting on an article on the harassment she faced addressed her as ‘Dear Baby.’
Who's polluting this young girl's mind? A strong Arm Force prevents a war. India never attacked anyone but a weak India was always invaded. https://t.co/gXHkAGi9sh
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) February 27, 2017
@virendersehwag what's sad is that the poor girl is being used as political pawn and it seems you are a party to it ..
— Randeep Hooda (@RandeepHooda) February 26, 2017
Calling women ‘girls’ and ‘baby’ infantilizes them, giving license to patronize them and speak on their behalf, or belittle their opinions as childish and uninformed. Patriarchal discourse assumes a certain logic and sensibility by virtue of being spoken by a man, while deciding that all women who speak for themselves have ‘polluted’ minds (remember your mother telling you some friends were bad influences?), are vessels for ‘propaganda,’ or ‘AAP ladies.’
Is there nothing else happening in the country other than some AAP lady crying for attention and the media happily obliging?
— Nupur (@UnSubtleDesi) February 28, 2017
This is a systematic silencing of women’s voices as they are not actually heard as speaking on their own, but as speaking with voices belonging to someone else, often men. In Kaur’s case, too, her ‘anti-national’ political stance was blamed on her father’s absence from her life, implying that a strong male presence in her life is somehow the only thing that can help her shape her worldview well. This also denies adult women of the agency to hold and voice their own opinions, or practice their own independent politics, gaslighting them into believing that may need to seek approval for their opinions from their male counterparts.
On Monday, Kaur complained to the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) about the rape and death threats she received since her participation in the #NotAfraidofABVP campaign on Facebook. She requested DCW to provide police protection to her and her family. She tweeted on the 27th saying that she wishes to step down from this campaign, as she has been harassed too much for it.
I'm withdrawing from the campaign. Congratulations everyone. I request to be left alone. I said what I had to say.. (1/2)
— Gurmehar Kaur (@mehartweets) February 28, 2017
I have been through a lot and this is all my 20 year self could take 🙂
— Gurmehar Kaur (@mehartweets) February 28, 2017
Kaur also took down the picture of her holding the #NotAfraidofABVP placard. However, people have not stopped harassing her online. Her current profile picture, which is just a picture of her and has nothing to do with any questions of ‘nation,’ has over 4000 comments in a matter of 16 hours. The comments are full of memes, pictures of violence with exhortations to nationalism underneath, people telling her they are proud of her father but not her, a man calling her a ‘kuttiya’ (bitch), and even a request to support the Samajwadi Party.
In a paradigm of nation that either deifies women as Bharat Mata or calls for their rape, there can be no nation for women. The love for ‘nation’ today is characterized by a hypermasculinity that needs to assert itself constantly, be it on the streets by following women into their PGs with exhortations of “Hum tumhein dikhayenge azaadi” (“We will show you your freedom“) or online of “Baby you’re going on the wrong path, be careful.”
As Pinjra Tod writes, “What is this nation built and held together (integrated?) by the rape and torture of women? Does the control, surveillance and violence on women’s lives, bodies and desires underlie the very core of what comes to constitute nationalism and the nation? Are masculine and patriarchal notions inherent to the imagination and construction of the nation?” I would like to answer with a resounding ‘NO!’ But I am not sure that I am #NotAfraidofABVP.
In 2019, I will graduate from law school. I am afraid of the political climate that I will encounter, as an activist, a writer, a lawyer, a woman. Where men who want to either deify me as ‘Mata’ or threaten me with rape, I am just gearing up to be infantilized (more), harassed and pushed into the corner that patriarchal nationalism sees fit for me.
Editor’s Note: FII stands in solidarity with Gurmehar Kaur and the DU protests against ABVP. We condemn the deeply misogynistic and hypermasculine cyberviolence that Gurmehar has been subjected to.