Every time I read about the trolling of the Lady Shri Ram college student, Gurmehar Kaur, who stood up for free speech against the violent censorship of the ABVP, the image that comes to my mind is of the attempted disrobing of Draupadi by Dushasana. My mind keeps moving from one event to the other, as if to suggest that the actions of men in both are similar in depravity. But this is obviously an illusion — a trick of Vyasa across the ages. For, honourable men would never stoop so low. Honourable men belong to that select group committed to defending the nation, and its women, against its enemies. Maligning a young woman, especially the daughter of a soldier who died for the nation, is pure fabrication; it is designed to besmirch desh bhakts who do not do such things. It is misrepresentation by the English press and its liberal friends.
But try as I might to believe them, and to purge my mind of the troubling image of Dushasana attempting to disrobe Draupadi, the picture persists. Gurmehar has now asked to be left alone. She says her 20-year-old self cannot take more of the tension heaped upon her. She’s said her bit and will say no more. She will not retract — and for this, she is being trolled in a manner that has sunk our public debate deeper and deeper into the quagmire of moral degeneracy. Did Krishna appear when President Pranab Mukherjee spoke, to protect her with his power?
But it is not on the episode of Gurmehar, or its grim details, that I want to reflect on here. It is, instead, on her impressive decision to take a stand. Thus, I ask, what provokes one to take a stand? How does one know, without ambiguity, that one has reached the point where one has to take a stand? Think of Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of a bus when she was asked to do so by the driver because that is where black people sat in racist America. Think of Wangari Maathai, who stood up against the Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi’s proposal to develop Uhuru Park, a reserved green belt, Maathai thereby facing the full fury of the Kenyan state. It was a tough confrontation — and even led to her arrest. Think of Malala Yousafzai, who, wounded by Taliban gunmen, shot in her head, converted the attack into an opportunity and intensified her campaign for girls’ education. By their actions, and their firm sense of purpose, these women changed the moral coordinates of their societies and made the world a freer place.
But it is not to their exemplary courage that I wish to draw attention here. Such courage is of a very high order and not easily available to lesser persons. What I wish instead to think about is their decision to take a stand: In life, there are many occasions when one is called upon to take a stand. This is especially true of a turbulent society like India, where the social order is changing fast and norms for public behaviour have still not emerged or been accepted in full. We see a robust contestation, sometime violent, between perspectives. In such a fluid world, taking a stand on everything is humanly impossible; it would lead to a moral and psychological overload. Few people can cope with such pressure. That is what Gurmehar was alluding to when she said her 20-year-old self cannot handle this strain. Hence, her plea to be left alone.
In such a fast-changing world, it is important to know which battles to fight and which to leave. Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, sums it up so well: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run”. This idea of knowing which battles to fight and which to leave reminded me of an obituary, written decades ago, as a tribute to one of the great minds of the 20th century, the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner. The tribute one of his colleagues had written in the London School of Economics magazine, if I remember correctly, said that Gellner knew precisely which battles to fight and which to let pass; from the moment I read this, the enigmatic phrase stayed in my mind.
Gellner’s life shows this in practice; he challenged the tautological reasoning of closed intellectual systems, such as the dominant Freudian and Marxist frameworks of his time. It was unfashionable to do so. He insisted on the constitutional limits to democratic politics when it was being presented, like now, as majority rule. He opened up readings of Muslim society and combined Weber and Popper in his contributions to philosophical method in the social sciences.
There were many battles he fought — and many that he let go. He could do so because he had worked out for himself, as an intellectual of his times, what was important for him. He knew how to distinguish between the important and the trivial. Gurmehar Kaur, for all her 20 years, seems to have arrived at the same conclusion, displaying a wisdom far in excess of her years. Perhaps she has done so by intuition. Perhaps it is the trauma of parental loss, the deep
desire to pay tribute to a hero soldier-father. And so, from nowhere, this young girl emerges and goes into battle against the formidable ABVP. On social media, she records her umbrage at the censorship being imposed. She insists on her right to listen to all views before arriving at a decision. No one is to decide for her on what she must think — and certainly not in a university.
This is not going to be an easy battle for her since the group she is confronting enjoys the patronage of the state. But she knows which battle to fight. That she knew this is a tribute to her family, her school, her college, her teachers, her social community. They must be saluted for her courage of character.
But instead of being honoured, she is being trolled by many who call themselves defenders of the nation. The list includes a minister and a cricketer who became a name for playing by the rules of cricket. But this is not cricket, Mr Sehwag; walk, you’ve nicked the ball. For the trolls too, their family, school, college, teachers and community must take the credit. India seems to have become a society where such behaviour is permissible. I won’t say “encouraged” because I am not willing to accept we are in the Kali Yuga age of adharma — but when I read about the travails of a modern Draupadi, harassed by a contemporary Dushasana, it is time to take a stand. Think about it for it is crucial to know which battle to fight and from which to walk away.