The Ladies Finger
By Maya Palit
Two years ago, a photograph of a young girl weeping at her father’s funeral apparently ‘choked the nation to tears’. He was a colonel named MN Rai, and had been killed in a militant attack in Kashmir. Then another
image emerged last year, of his daughter Alka in army uniform, saluting
Indian soldiers after the murder of the young Kashmiri militant Burhan
Wani (who was held directly responsible for Rai’s death in some corners of the Internet). Once again, social media users and Facebook groups like Proud Indian
didn’t hesitate to jump on the bandwagon and deploy her photo to
bolster their views about everything, from the conflict in Kashmir to
notions of what makes a terrorist. Alka’s grief became a weapon to wield
in the face of anyone who appeared to be brandishing ‘anti-national’
What happens when the daughter of a former soldier voices opinions
that aren’t as palatable for the groups seeking support for their
patriotic cause? At this moment in India, it looks like the daughter of a
former soldier is only permitted to have political opinions of a
particular hue, and otherwise things turn spectacularly nasty, as in the
case of Gurmehar Kaur.
A 20-year-old student at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, Kaur is
the daughter of Captain Mandeep Singh, who was killed in the Kargil War
in 1999. Last year, she used her own life experiences — her early hatred
towards Muslims, who she associated with her father’s death, for
instance — to reflect on bigoted and nationalist violence. Her video,
which went on to advocate for peace between India and Pakistan, went
viral, and she was applauded widely for her efforts.
After a week that saw brutal attacks by ABVP members on students and faculty at Ramjas College in New Delhi, on February 22nd
Kaur uploaded a new profile picture on Facebook that condemned the
party’s actions. It showed her holding a placard with the hashtag
‘Students against ABVP’, and called on students around the country to
not be afraid. “The brutal attack on innocent students by ABVP is very
disturbing and should be stopped. It was not an attack on protesters,
but an attack on every notion of democracy that is held dear in every
Indian’s heart. It is an attack on ideals, morals, freedom and rights of
every person born to this nation. The stones that you pelt hit our
bodies, but fail to bruise our ideas,” went the unequivocal description
of the attack in her caption accompanying the photograph.
Soon enough, an army of trolls unleashed themselves on her. Accusations about her being anti-national or publicity-hungry, and condescending warnings like “Baby you are on the wrong path,” are mild comments compared to the threats
that have come her way. Kaur has faced hateful vitriol and scores of
vicious death and rape threats, and approached the Delhi Commission for
Women to report these on Monday.
Meanwhile, mainstream public figures have felt the need to troll and demean Kaur too. The Union Minister Kiren Rijiju wondered
on Twitter who was “polluting this young girl’s mind”, and Pratap
Simha, a BJP MP drew a bizarre analogy between her and the underworld
criminal Dawood Ibrahim.
The cricketer Virender Sehwag latched onto one image from her old video
and ridiculed it for her statement about the Kargil war being the
culprit behind her father’s death.
Kaur with the line: “Your peace video was good but now it’s political
not humanitarian”. It’s tough to tell what he was getting at, but my
guess is that Kaur seemed amenable to him as a relatively amiable
pro-peace voice, but her engagement with organised politics, or simply
voicing a strong political stance, somehow tainted her image in Hooda’s
view. When he received angry rebuttals on Twitter, he tried to backtrack
and lay the blame elsewhere: “What’s sad is that the poor girl is being
used as a politican pawn…,” a sentiment echoed by far too many
paternalists on social media mourning the “blatant abuse of a fatherless
girl by wily and devious leftists…”. The fact that Kaur is capable of
forming her own political convictions and ideologies is evidently beyond
The very present absence of her father in all these discussions, even
in those that congratulate her for her strong position, is also a
problem. The fact that some of the public can’t seem to recognise her
capacity for independent thinking – that she is framed either as the
“brave daughter of her great dad” or a clueless kid falling in with the
murky anti-national crowd – means that she is constantly infantilised.
Disturbingly, the logical follow-up is visible in tweets that assign her
a new mommy and daddy (according to one Twitter user, they should be Barkha Dutt and Arvind Kejriwal).
Kaur is being constantly questioned
on social media about how her father would view her actions. Measuring
her decision to stand up to ABVP either as defiance to her father’s
political sensibilities, or as an action that would ‘make him proud’ (phrasing
that surfaces even in her own writing), ends up comfortably erasing
agency and deliberation on her part. On the other hand, people defending
her by using her father’s career as evidence that she must necessarily appreciate the core values of a certain kind of patriotism and nationalism, are being closed-minded too.
Like the conversations around Alka Rai, which focused first on the
pathos of her tears, and later on her congratulation of the army, all
the current debates about Kaur’s position have done is pigeon-hole her
into a dialogue where her thoughts and speech can only be analysed as
the insights of a “martyr’s daughter”. The fact that she is a student,
and more than entitled to voice her feelings about ABVP violence at her
university, is hardly acknowledged.
Meanwhile, it would be nice if the public would stop giving Kaur
unsolicited advice about how to be an apolitical ‘humanitarian’. It
would be wonderful if members of the government indulged less in amateur
ESP (“What is Meher thinking now and who is making her think it…hmm”)
and focus instead on the urgent issues – the rape threats and appalling
vitriol that Kaur is having to deal with. Surely there has to be a way
to see Kaur for the brave individual she is. Here’s wishing Kaur a world
in which speaking up doesn’t require quite so much bravery.