A year ago, Gurmehar Kaur uploaded a picture on Facebook, that depicted her holding a placard that said, “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 (sic)”. The 21-year-old English Literature student, from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, was responding to the violence that had broken out at Ramjas College, Delhi, where students who were peacefully protesting the all-India Hindu nationalist student organisation, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), were roughed up by its members, with the aid of the police. Kaur didn’t imagine the wildfire of right-wing rage she would set off when she hit ‘upload’.
Almost immediately, she was labelled ‘anti-national’ by online trolls. Then a year-old video grab of her holding another sign, alluding to her father, a soldier who was killed on duty in Kargil, surfaced and stoked the Ames. It read, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him (sic)”. In an increasingly nationalistic India, these photos, depicting an open-minded, forthright young woman — a “martyr’s daughter”, no less — were unpalatable for many, and inspiring for still many others. Kaur became the subject of frenzied debates on nationalism and the rise of populism, everywhere, from newsfeeds to prime-time news.
Now, Kaur is out with her debut, Small Acts of Freedom (Penguin Random House; on stands now), an account of her eventful last year, and the personal family history that brought her to that moment. Told through a series of time-jumps, it covers her family’s escape from Pakistan during the Partition; the lives of her mother, Raji, and grandmother, Amarjeet, who she calls the source of her strength; and the life-changing loss of her father. In fact, it is this mise en scène that forms the opening chapter of her book.
Kaur revisits her three-year-old self on the day her family and friends gather at her home to await her father’s “return”, not understanding that it will be in a coffin, with a bandage over the spot which she “used to lean my tiny head against and sleep, listening to the rhythm of his heartbeat”. “I’ve wanted to write this book since I was 12,” says Kaur, who has pinned her very heart on its pages.
What’s next for the brave young woman who Time magazine last year crowned ‘Free Speech Warrior’ on its list of Next Generation Leaders for 2017? Kaur says she hopes for a future in academia, and is currently prepping for law school — but the lessons of last year have marked her indelibly, and she’s intent on using her newfound voice. “I grew up reading about India as a melting pot of cultures, where everyone lives in harmony, different religions nourish and grow, and the constitution upholds the idea of secularism. But what I see today is the exact opposite,” she says. “What happened changed my life. I’m a lot more aware of the power of words. There is now a more desperate need to have a conversation of love and peace.”