Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur first came to news during the February 2017 clash between members of the All India Students Federation (AISF) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the national capital. The violence between the two groups erupted on the Ramjas College campus after the lectures of JNU students Umar Khalid and Sheila Rashid were cancelled following the ABVP’s protest. Kaur was caught in the eye of the storm when she opposed the violence. The daughter of an army officer who was killed in the 1999 Kargil War, Kaur took to social media to condemn the violence, saying famously: “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him”. But she received severe backlash, with some even labelling her anti-national.
Small Acts of Freedom presents the 21-year-old’s side of the story. As Kaur breaks into the narrative of what prompted her to write this book, readers get a glimpse into the infamous clash of 2017. Interwoven with statements from news reports on the incident and personal anecdotes, the writer draws a picture of an ideological war, one that the country is still fighting.
Of all the insults directed at her, the label of being anti-national didn’t sit well with this daughter of a martyr, who calls herself a free speech advocate born out of the need to defend those who have been silenced.
Kaur also delves into her childhood, revealing that she first encountered the concepts of death, war and patriotism at the age of three years with the death of her father. While most childhood stories evoke nostalgia, Kaur’s family story brings to focus the strong women she grew up with. Be it her grandmother Amarjeet who had to flee Pakistan in 1947 with her children in tow even as her husband was killed, or Kaur’s mother Raji who lost her husband to the Kargil War—the women in Kaur’s family are all fighters.
These characters, who form the core of the author’s understanding of war, are also her protectors and teachers, leading her from a place of misdirected hatred at the supposed enemy to the understanding of the gratuitousness of war. It’s hard not to be moved by the vulnerability with which Kaur, who addresses her younger self by her nickname ‘Gulgul’, navigates through the confusion, grief and isolation post her father’s death.
Small Acts of Freedom is a heartfelt account from the pen of an idealist. It’s about the influences in Kaur’s life that shaped her into who she is today. It’s also an endeavour, Kaur’s own small act of freedom, to describe the courage it took for the women in her life to come into their own.
By Ananya Banerjee