"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 political signage by DU student Gurmehar Kaur opened the gates of hell on Twitter over the weekend, drawing out a swarm of right wing trolls who descended on her notifications to bully her into silence. It was not unlike any other day on Twitter, a platform on which most women have encountered sexist trolls.
However, when celebrities — a sport star, a Bollywood actor, and a politician — weighed in on the debate with their posse of fans, the online argument about free speech and political dissent took a sinister turn, resulting in mockery, threats and abuses directed at the woman who is incidentally also the daughter of Kargil war martyr, Captain Mandeep Singh.
They took Kaur's words, robbed it of agency and implied that she is incapable of formulating a political thought without outside help — the misogyny so deep-rooted that even on being called out by women on Twitter, most of Kaur's celebrity trolls refused to either shift from their stand or apologise to her.
Take the response of Minister of State for Home Affair, Kiren Rijiju, for example. Rijiju, not known for sugar-coating his political opinions on Twitter, asked who's "polluting this young girl's mind." Kaur is a 20-year-old student of English Honours at the prestigious Lady Sriram College. But all that did not matter to the minister whose government has made women's empowerment a priority. By infantilising Kaur's tweet, Rijiju flatly dismissed her ability to form and defend an opinion — a problem millions of women face in a country with roots of patriarchy running deep within its family structures.
Cricketer Virender Sehwag took the mockery route to silence Kaur, knowing full well what the consequences of his tweet would be. He copied Kaur's style of activism and held a placard that mocked an earlier message of hers that suggested war, and not Pakistan killed her father. Sehwag's message was crude and direct. My bat, not I, scored the centuries for my country.
Sehwag is within his rights to mock Kaur, who is an adult exercising her own privilege on social media to drive home a political point about the human toll of war and peace. However, Sehwag's tweet did not initiate a debate with Kaur. He did not tweet at her to demand an explanation. He ridiculed her for her opinion and emboldened trolls to question her patriotism and threaten her with rape, suspecting her of the so-called anti-national activity that so many people who are not wearing the tiranga on their lapel every day to work, are accused of these days.
It enabled trolls to question her morals and float opinions that she is using her father's death to politicise and peddle the nation to forces with subversive intent.
But the trollage surrounding Kaur's statement also exposed, again, an inherent gender bias problem in India. That so many people in important positions, and with the ability to influence public opinion, would think nothing of doubting whether a young woman is capable of expressing an opinion, shows the long and rocky path ahead for women's rights here.
Sehwag's tweet was cheered on by actor Randeep Hooda, who in turn tweeted "she is being used as a prop." Perhaps it's less terrifying for Hooda and his masculinity to assume that a 20-something student in Delhi was brainwashed to express a viewpoint contrary to his own, than accepting that a smart, witty and opinionated woman is perfectly able to stick to her guns and stand up to bullying.
But why single out Hooda? His thought was reflected in countless other tweets from others, eventually culminating in Rijiju copying that exact condescending tone when he asked who's polluting Kaur's mind. All Kaur was doing was protesting violence by suspected ABVP members on the Ramjas college campus on 22 February. Her message sought solidarity, not polarisation.
But by repeatedly being dismissed as a "pawn", and therefore reduced to perhaps a tool in the hands of men in power, these celebrity trolls opposed to Kaur, endorsed the worst form of patronisation that women suffer every day — that of being conduits for the male ego.
But Kaur hit back. Of course.
— Gurmehar Kaur (@mehartweets) February 26, 2017
She later told ANI "I will not be scared or be cowed down, my father took a bullet for the country and I am also ready to take bullet for the country, I also have the courage to take a bullet for the nation. I want all students to raise their voices against the violence and say that they will not tolerate this."
Is there a solution?
The more women call out this brand of misogyny, in large numbers, despite the personal threats from abusers, the easier the path will be for the next one who expresses an unpopular opinion. Even if you do not agree with a woman's point of view, support her right to be heard. There's safety in numbers. The more women do this, band together to support each other, the easier they will perhaps find it to be heard.
As one Twitter user pointed out, "If you spot a tweet that is an attack on someone — to discredit, corner, intimidate, and to generally punish them for speaking freely, disagree, disrupt. Don't let it stand. An example is the hate on
@mehartweets today. You see a fraction of the attack. She gets (the) full dose. And it can be overwhelming. But what would happen if 100 hate tweets were lost among 1000 tweets in support? That is what you can contribute to, if you think what is going on is wrong. Disagree. Disrupt. Participate on the tag/handle, change tone."
Read her thread here.