India's Gurmehar Kaur has been featured in Time magazine as one of its 10 Next Generation leaders for 2017. The iconic publication hailed her as a “free-speech warrior”.
The October 12 issue of Time magazine profiles “10 young men and women making a difference in the world”. "Free-speech warrior" Gurmehar is right up at the second spot. Her name is featured with the likes of John Boyega, an American film star of Nigerian origin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, an NBA basketball player, El Arbi, a Belgian Moroccan filmmaker, and Richard Casper, an American Iraq war veteran.
The 20-year-old English literature student from Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College was first catapulted into a national debate on free speech and dissent after her 'Save DU' campaign, where she opposed the violence by members of right wing student party Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at Delhi University’s Ramjas College in February this year.
She was trolled on social media by those opposing her views. A video of hers from 2016 was raked up and a picture of her from the video was circulated. In the picture, she holds a placard with the pacifist slogan, "Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him", after which she was threatened with rape and death.
The feisty 20-year-old from Jalandhar is the daughter of an army officer who was killed in an encounter with militants in Kashmir in 1999 when she was two years old. He was one of the seven personnel killed in the attack.
The 2016 video posted on Facebook page 'Voice of Ram' was part of an online campaign #ProfileForPeace to promote peace between India and Pakistan, where people were urged to take selfies with a message of peace written on a piece of paper and share it on social media.
If there was no war between us, my father would still be here,” she said in the viral video. Gurmehar asked both governments to “stop pretending” and “solve the problem”. She said, “I am questioning the caliber of leadership of both nations; we cannot dream of becoming a first world country with third world leadership.”
The video posted by Voice of Ram:
The Hindustan Times, who had nominated Gurmehar as one of its “Top 30 under 30” stars in May this year, quoted her as saying to Time, “Why should I keep quiet? While I never asked for it, I was pushed to the forefront. I realised that people listen to what I say. And if I have something positive to say, why shouldn’t I say it?”
Time says, “But still she refuses to be silenced, and has a memoir, Small Acts of Freedom, that is due to be published next year.”
Gurmehar Kaur was targeted on social media after she and other Delhi University students launched the 'Save DU' campaign following protests by ABVP supporters outside Ramjas College against a campus event that featured Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid. The student activists and PhD scholars from Jawaharlal Nehru University, who were arrested on charges of sedition last year, were to be speakers at the event. The ABVP protests turned violent.
At the time, Gurmehar posted a photo of herself on social media holding a placard which read, "I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone." She was even forced to leave Delhi for a short period as a result of threats by online bullies.
Kaur had later tweeted that she was withdrawing from the 'Save DU' campaign as she had ‘gone through enough’. She tweeted, “I’m withdrawing from the campaign. Congratulations everyone. I request to be left alone. I said what I had to say.. I have been through a lot and this is all my 20 year self could take :)”.
Gurmehar Kaur is also the ambassador for Postcards for Peace, a charitable organisation that helps eliminate any form of discrimination.
Various political leaders had waded into the controversy following the 'save DU ' campaign. Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju had asked: “Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?”
On the other hand, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had praised Kaur and said that for every voice suppressed, there will be a Gurmehar Kaur.
Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda suggested that Kaur was being used as a pawn, while cricketer Virender Sehwag took a potshot at the placard Gurmehar had held up for the #ProfileForPeace campaign video. He posted a picture of himself holding a placard saying, "I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did."
In May this year, she was once again the victim of online trolls after a video -- purported to be of hers -- singing and dancing in a car was circulated on social media. Several Twitter users were quick to believe the girl was Gurmehar Kaur and posted nasty, sexist comments. It became yet another Left VS ABVP 'war'.
Gurmehar responded in a tweet.
The girl in the car wasn't me. But whether she was or she wasn't.. was it okay to shame her like that? #swachhthoughts— Gurmehar Kaur (@mehartweets) March 4, 2017