NEW DELHI – Earlier this month, Shehla Rashid's voice rose with the fervor of a preacher as she railed against the Modi government at a rally organized in the national capital by youth leaders and fronted by Jignesh Mevani, the newly-elected Dalit leader from Gujarat.
Rashid was the only woman standing on a stage full of men that day, but that is not why she made an impression. On display was the persistence of the 29-year-old political activist who showed no signs of withering in the face of thousands of security personnel armed with water cannons and tear gas. Anyone who has followed Rashid's political trajectory is probably familiar with her iron resolve -- abused regularly on social media by far-right Hindutva supporters and verbally attacked by them offline, Rashid has always stood her ground and taken the opposition in her stride.
On 9 January, in a rally organised in Delhi, a diverse group of young leaders challenged issues like rising religious intolerance, the incarceration of Bhim Army leader Chandrasekhar under the draconian National Security Act (NSA), the high number of farmer suicides, unemployment and growing economic disparities.
While their critics had declared them irrelevant compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's might and mocked the turn-out at the rally, Rashid was undaunted. The political activist continued reaching out to people through Twitter, urging them to join the motley gathering on Parliament Street. She was spotted sharing a mobile number the group had designated for people to get in touch with them to know more about their politics.
Almost a week after the rally, Rashid, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in "internet policy" at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), insisted that the rally on 9 January was not a flash in the pan. On the contrary, the former vice president of the JNU Students' Union told me that she and her "comrades" were planning to rollout a nationwide youth movement ahead of the 2019 election. "We are in uncharted territory. Never before have student leaders been so relevant outside of the university. Never before has student politics been so mainstream," she said, during an interview with HuffPost India.
The Kashmiri Muslim, who hails from Srinagar, is likely to contest the Lok Sabha polls. "We (youth leaders) would want to get elected but it has to be the byproduct of a larger campaign where we manage to change the narrative," she said. "If we can't bring a tad bit of honesty, some kind of change to the political discourse, then we might as well just stay at home."
Never before have student leaders been so relevant outside of the university. Never before has student politics been so mainstream.
Rashid came into the national limelight after the JNU row in February, 2016, when she led the movement against the arrest of her fellow-students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya on charges of sedition.
On the one hand, Rashid's considerable clout on Twitter has empowered her to question and criticize the Hindutva nationalists perpetually railing against minorities and promoting both hate and fake news. On the other hand, like many women who speak their mind on social media, Rashid has been at the receiving end of misogynistic, xenophobic abuse from an army of trolls. They have threatened her with rape, attacked her with hate speech and even morphed her face onto the image of bikini-clad woman.
In our recent conversation, Rashid talked about what's it like to be a Kashmiri Muslim woman immersed in political activism and how she survives on Twitter, a social media platform besieged by divisiveness.
I'm a Kashmiri Muslim woman and a JNUite. There is abuse along each of those lines.
You've been using Twitter for political activism for many years. How has it changed?
I was an active Twitter user before 2012 and no one used to dare to defend the Gujarat riots before 2012 and I'm talking about organic Twitter users. However, when Narendra Modi started to project himself as the prime ministerial candidate, there were an army of trolls on the Internet, who would issue rape threats and silence people. And that's when people like myself started to self-censor. You don't want to wake up to a thousand rape threats. It is very depressing. It took a while for people to realize that these are paid trolls, it's not an organic response. So, Twitter changed from a place that you couldn't defend the Gujarat riots to a place where you couldn't say anything about Modi.
Are you still self-censoring?
I always have to think. I never use the word "Hindu" in my tweets. Everything that I say is qualified by the fact that I'm a Muslim. So, if I say practically anything, electoral bonds, if I were tweeting a song, if I were saying anything about Mary Kom, the responses that I always get are "you are a Muslim". If I talk about the Gujarat riots, the response I get is that you are communal, you are anti-Hindu, you are anti-national. But they can celebrate Shaurya Divas on Twitter on December 6 (when the Babri Masjid was demolished) and that isn't counted as communal or divisive.
Most of the time, we don't even talk about Kashmir. Before the 9 February in episode 2016 when Kanhaiya and all were arrested, you might have noticed that there used to be a lot of discussion on Kashmir. Now, no one even talks about the human rights situation.
What kind of abuse do you face?
I'm a Kashmiri Muslim woman and a JNUite. There is abuse along each of those lines.
First, there is the "you should be raped". Even when it is not rape threats, the abuse is very graphic, very sexualized in nature. There will always be a picture of the Prophet of Islam with a minor. If you follow my tweets, you'll see those are the responses and they are in the thousands. A lot of these trolls have me on notification alert, so as soon as I post something, one kind of response would be "JNU, Bharat tede tukde tukde honge". The other one will be that "you should teach this to Mohammad". Then, there is a "Kashmiri, you are a terrorist," this-that. It's a whole bouquet of abuses.
It's a whole bouquet of abuses.
Why do you think women are threatened with sexual violence?
They know they can demoralize you and you do get demoralized. It would be very dishonest for me to say that I don't get affected. I'm human, not a rock.
Recently, someone morphed an image of mine onto a bikini clad woman's image. They feel they can scare you with that violence of body privacy, body integrity. That becomes doubly crucial in case of women. Then, I kind of quote-tweeted it and said that 'I think I look pretty damn hot in it.' I took away their power to shame me.
It's not that the response came spontaneously or I was being playful about it. I spent the whole night thinking about what I should do? Should I file a police complaint because it was very annoying and disgraceful. Then I decided against it and just quote-tweeted. That whole power to abuse you comes with association of shame with the body, shame with nudity.
One of the hangups of having a Muslim upbringing is that you can't lie. So, I won't lie: I actually like this picture. I think I look pretty damn hot in it.
— Shehla Rashid (@Shehla_Rashid) November 27, 2017
Do the trolls link you with the men you work with? How do you handle it?
Ya, that's all the time. All these trolls will say you should go and marry Kanhaiya, you should go and marry Umar, you should go and marry Jignesh, basically all of my male comrades. They can't imagine any other association between men and women.
It does seem very bizarre because Kanhaiya and I have an extremely formal relationship. We have been in the Union (JNU Students' Union) together. So, I find it very uncomfortable. If I post something on Love Jihad, they say why don't you go and marry Jignesh, so it gets very uncomfortable. The other day, there was someone called "Yamla Jaat" who wrote to me saying that "you are a goat and these azadi f***ers use you for group fun". But that's very standard. You know it's like your garden variety abuse.
Dear @twitterindia, I reported several targeted tweets from this person, including this one, and I get a response saying that this is not abuse. Really? If this doesn't violate your abusive content rules, what does? https://t.co/Q3VDX5UoOV
— Shehla Rashid (@Shehla_Rashid) December 29, 2017
(Yamla Jaat's account was eventually suspended).
How do you deal with the abuse?
Normally, I don't read my mentions. I've spent a lot of days depressed because of it and now I just don't read my mentions. That's a problem because you miss out on the good ones, the encouragement and support that comes in.
What's the worst kind of abuse you have faced?
I would say that what affects you most are the rape threats. Those are the most disturbing.
How do you react to a rape threat now as compared to your formative years on Twitter? Or do you just feel numb?
In 2012, when it started happening, I would take screenshots. Now, I don't have any screenshots because it's become so mundane. Social media has become synonymous with abuse. There have been times when Twitter has been forced to response.
There was this time when Abhijeet called me a prostitute (The singer had tweeted, "There is rumour she took money for two hours and didn't satisfy the client... big racket"). Then, Twitter actually suspended his account. Actually, I was surprised when they suspended his account because for me it had become so routine. Then, Sonu Nigam closed his account in solidarity with Abhijeet.
It's a little off topic but I also felt a little sad that day because all these singers like Sonu Nigam and Abhijeet, I've grown up hearing them. When we used to fill up all those memory diaries in childhood, we would write their names as favorite singers and then you have your role models say these kinds of nasty things about you. I loved Sonu Nigam quite a lot. I never thought I would meet him, I never thought he would know me ever, he's a celebrity. As a child, I would have liked to meet this guy but he left Twitter because of me. It was actually a very sad and bizarre thing for me.
As a child, I would have liked to meet this guy but he left Twitter because of me. It was actually a very sad and bizarre thing for me.
What about Muslim men? Do you get hate from them as well?
It depends on what you are saying. It's not like rape threats but it's more like 'shame on you' if you say anything against religious conservatives. In many cases, there have been rape threats as well. Remember Pragaash, there was an all-girl rock band, just class 10 students, they got rape threats. I mean Muslims do it too. It just depends on what you are saying.
So, no difference?
There is one. When Muslim men do it, it is organic but when you get images from people with Hindu goddesses, or proud NaMo follower, it is systematic. BJP does it systematically, that's the big difference. You have 500 people saying the same thing. That can't be a coincidence.
Still, you continue to use social media?
I don't talk to a lot of media outlets. I have to use something to get my word out. There was a time when people would dismiss social media as not being grassroots. I think social media is the new grassroots. The only thing is that we don't have internet penetration. But I meet people in real life who say, 'hey, I follow you on Twitter.' So, I know that there are people out there who are reading me and I have to put my word out.
See, first of all, it's not a matter of conscious PR strategy. I started using Twitter just for fun. Just like the people of the next generation use Snapchat. I'm not on Snapchat because I'm way older than that. I use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. We're not exactly digital natives, we are digital migrants, but social media is our way of being.
We're not exactly digital natives, we are digital migrants, but social media is our way of being.
Twitter is such a polarized place right now. Do you think your tweets add to the divisiveness? Is it possible to find middle ground?
I feel that engagement you are talking about happens more on Facebook. It doesn't happen on Twitter, I don't think it can happen on Twitter. Many people are just leaving Twitter because it's so abusive. I think Twitter India needs to do much more. Just like they have suspended accounts of white supremacists in the US, they need to suspend accounts of Hindu supremacists. I would say my views on Facebook are much more malleable. I would even say that I'm a different person on Twitter because I'm so braced up for all this abuse. I just say what I have to say and don't check who is writing what.
How does your family feel about the abuse? Are they worried for your safety?
My mother gets very concerned when she sees all this abuse on Twitter. I've had to explain to her over and over again that this is not organic. That it is very systematic. I've given her stuff to read on how all this is manufactured. This would be disturbing for any mother. Your daughter getting so many abusive comments. It's not a pretty thing. It's just that anyone whoever does activism today, they're parents will have to understand. If you get too disturbed by this, you can't function.
My mother gets very concerned when she sees all this abuse on Twitter. I've had to explain to her over and over again that this is not organic.
Has your mother asked you leave activism?
Many times. When the JNU thing happened, my mother was crying because there was this environment in the country against us. She was very concerned. She actually asked me to resign from the Union. She says that you should not write too much against anyone. I guess, there are fears that she has. I wouldn't say they are unfounded. People have been murdered in this country for their political views.
Do you see yourself getting into politics, contesting an election?
Yeah, sure. I think this is the time that we have to be in politics. We can't leave our politics to the vultures and then complain that our politics is bad. But standing for elections alone doesn't change anything. We (youth leaders) would want to get elected but it has to be the byproduct of a larger campaign where we manage to change the narrative. If we are not able to bring anything new to politics, then it is not enough to just get elected.
And the overall process is important. Do you get to Parliament by making divisive speeches to divide Hindus and Muslims? Or do you get to Parliament by putting forward a progressive agenda? Getting elected is important, but we need to figure out the route we are taking.
Getting elected is important, but we need to figure out the route we are taking.
You are thinking of contesting in 2019?
Yeah. Frankly, I wasn't thinking about this. But last year, wherever I went, in the country or abroad, this is the one question that people would keep asking me – 'would you run?' And I would just dismiss the question. I'm not a member of a party. Jignesh had a constituency, he was grounded in Gujarat. I don't work in Kashmir or anywhere I call home. I study here and that's why I'm in Delhi. So, the question didn't occur naturally to me. But there is a lot of figuring out to do.
From Kashmir or Delhi, perhaps?
I'm not sure. Delhi is an urban constituency, it takes much more money. Ideally, I would like to get elected from Kashmir, everyone wants to get elected from their hometown (Srinagar). It's just that it is such a terribly complicated constituency. First, only 20 percent people vote. People who win actually have people on the ground. It's not actually voting on the basis of charisma or anything like that. And then, I would not want to impose my politics on anyone. If people want to buy into my politics, that's great.
Kashmir also has a separatist discourse which everyone has to engage with during election time. So, the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) has to put forward some kind of soft separatist agenda which they then betray after allying with BJP. National Conference (NC), also. So, everyone has to do it but I think there is a need to engage more honestly. I wouldn't want to lie about where I stand.
Kashmir also has a separatist discourse which everyone has to engage with during election time.
And where do you stand?
I think it's kind of clear. I don't talk about the Kashmir conflict much. I'm not on the ground, taking bullets. I would not want to speak on behalf of a movement or impose a Leftist interpretation on a movement that doesn't identify as Leftist. But if people are able to identify with the kinds of things we talk about - pluralism, gender justice, employment, equality - that's great.
So, what do you plan for the immediate future?
I expect 2018 to be very turbulent. There is some kind of momentum that you already see. Many people expect that there will be early elections. 2019 might be the last election that we have. There is a lot of anxiety. The last few years have involved all these discussions on how to unite people under a common agenda. I feel that common agenda is taking place now.
2019 might be the last election that we have.
What is that common agenda?
I see that common agenda centering around social justice, gender justice, employment and education rights. We should be able to unite people around these parameters that have been particular failures out of the Modi government.
Why did you say the 2019 election might be the last one we have?
It's about how the Modi government is perceived, how it's attempt to dilute the Constitution is perceived. These are seen as attempts to ultimately abolish the Constitution. They have been very unequivocal in saying that we want a Hindu nation and we are Hindu nationalists which shouldn't be acceptable but somehow, they get away with saying all this. Anant Kumar Hegde said that we want to change the Constitution. Sushma Swaraj at one point said that we should make the Gita the national book. What you see in their symbolism is a saffron flag which is very antithetical to the idea of India. And what we saw recently in the Udaipur court - Shambhu Lal supporters hoisted a saffron flag on the court premises. (Shambu Lal Regar, a man from Rajasthan, uploaded a video of himself hacking and burning a Muslim man).
People who lived through Indira Gandhi's Emergency will tell you that what was particular to that time was that fascism was in the air. If you were sitting on a bus, you couldn't speak against the ruler. And there is a similar environment right now - you feel scared talking about Modi. You don't know what his supporters will do. You don't know who is sitting next to you in a train after the Junaid incident especially. I mean you don't want to disclose your identity on a train. All that has become very scary and betrays a very poor impression of the government.
People who lived through Indira Gandhi's Emergency will tell you that what was particular to that time was that fascism was in the air.
How do you reconcile with the popular support that Modi enjoys?
The day that Modi came to power, 16th May, 2014, I remember the day very clearly. We were hoping that people would not vote for them, vote for the Aam Aadmi Party or regional parties instead. Even we didn't want the Congress which had become a top heavy corrupt machinery by then. But that day, I was kind of made to feel like a Muslim for the first time. I felt so immediately aware of my identity because Modi is seen as the 'Hindu hriday ka samrat,' some kind of messiah for Hindus who will put Muslims in their place.
In Kashmir, before cable channels, Doordarshan would have two programs. One would have all the schemes of the central government. The next program would be Sarhad Ke Do Rukh and they would keep talking about how Pakistan is bad and communal. So, there was this claim of superiority on the basis that India is secular but Pakistan is communal, Pakistan is a theocracy but India is a pluralistic nation. I think we lost that claim when Modi came to power.
But that day, I was kind of made to feel like a Muslim for the first time.
What do you fear the most?
Frankly, I don't think anyone thought the hate mongering would be so blatant. Two weeks after the election, this guy in Pune, Mohsin Shaikh was lynched just because he looked like a Muslim. So that's how much these Hindutva elements - the so-called fringe - was empowered. A few days back, Devendra Fadnavis (chief minister of Maharashtra) and his wife were celebrating Christmas, these right-wing supporters with verified accounts on Twitter, they were trolling them for being closet Christians. They called them David and Amanda Fernandes. They have normalized hate.
It should not be acceptable for a minister like Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti to say an election is a battle between "Ramzade" and Haramzade", but it is acceptable. How is a guy (Shambhu Lal Raigar) able to circulate a video of a murder, I mean one normally would try to hide a murder not openly flaunt it? Fifty years ago, someone could have a made a dystopic sci-fi novel out of this but this is true. It is happening and it is happening with the latest gadgets, mobile phones and all of that.
Fifty years ago, someone could have a made a dystopic sci-fi novel out of this but this is true.
But then, BJP's had a close call in the Gujarat election. The agrarian crisis in Madhya Pradesh could hurt its chances in the upcoming state polls.
I'm not a pessimist. I'm an optimist and if you have to do activism then you need to have hope. Jignesh's victory, for example. Ever since Adityanath became chief minister (Uttar Pradesh), that has been the only ray of hope, the only boost. Otherwise, we have been very demoralized. How do you go from Akhilesh Yadav to Yogi Adityanath? But then, there are moments like Gujarat. If it has been cashed in more efficiently by the Congress, they could have won the state. That could have spiraled the downfall of BJP. There are moments of hope.
What is the youth movement that you're trying to build?
We're actually in unchartered territory. Who are we, are we a party, are we several parties? We're not office bearers in a party. We clearly don't represent organizations here. We represent social currents, I would say. So, different people associate with us for different reasons. Girls may associate with me for a different reason, Muslims may associate with me for a different reason. Dalits may associate with Jignesh, youth in general associate with him. Same goes for Kanhaiya. We represent social forces and we hope to create a youth movement.
How will you take the movement forward?
We are trying to build a network to establish direct contact with the youth. It will take time. One of the ways is SMS. The other way is to go throughout the country. There is no alternative to that. We have already been doing that, traveling throughout the country, but we want to do it in a manner that amounts to something. We want to make a concerted effort and project a unity of sorts. Our purpose is not to launch a party but put forward a youth agenda: 10 percent education budget, gender issues, technology, a genuine agenda of social justice that addresses the way people experience oppression.
What if it doesn't work or at least in time - 2019 isn't far?
We also want to change what politics means. We want to change the terms of politics. We don't just want to be cogs in the wheel. It's unfortunate that you can't win an election without doing a bit of Hindu and Muslim. I want both Hindus and Muslims to vote for me. We have seen how Medha Patkar lost elections, we have seen how Irom Sharmila lost elections. While that is scary, you also need to engage with politics. You can't also give up. There are enough political players. Why are we needed? If we can't bring a tad bit of honesty, some kind of change to the political discourse then we might as well just stay at home.
Why did you get into politics?
There is a point when you realize that you are political, and if you see an overt, covert or systematic injustice happening in front of you, you cannot keep quiet about it. There is that moment when you decide to speak up and I think that moment for me came very early on for me. If you are political you are political. You can't sit on the fence.
If you are political you are political. You can't sit on the fence.
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