By Kawalpreet Kaur:
“Do I look like a terrorist to you?”
“Ma’am we have orders.”
These words still haunt me at night. I am often surprised by the intensity of the emotions that it can evoke. I fail to categorize, recognize and give a name to it. First, there was anger, then shame, and now it has left an enormous sense of purposeful realization within me.
It’s been almost three weeks since I have been fighting this revolting feeling within me. On the 23rd of January, as I was coming back after a regular day to board the metro at G.T.B Nagar station, I had to go about the all-too-familiar routine of putting my bag on the counter for checking, standing in the ladies line, waiting for my turn, and then boarding the metro in order to reach home. I felt an urgency to be quick. It was already 8:30 PM and my mom likes to put that as ‘late’. I was looking around casually when I noticed that there had been a change in the setup. Although not explicitly, but it could be felt in the mannerisms of the people around me. There were a lot of police personnel at the station, and I suddenly realized that the then impending Obama visit might have had something to do with the sudden spike in the number of security guards and a general sense of alertness that was being conveyed by them.
When my turn for checking came, I didn’t know that the step I was going to take would change my perspective on the nature of our Democracy itself. I was detained. I was made to explain why I was carrying “those things” in my bag. And what were ‘those things’? Many questions were racing through my mind, which gave way to fear, and then a sense of helplessness overwhelmed me. I could sense the hostility of the public around me. I could hear the panic in my voice. I was shivering but it was not due to the cold. It was invoked by the treatment that was meted out to me.
The lady guard looked at me with suspicion, and asked for the last month edition of ‘Frontline‘ that I had been holding in my hand. The article that I was reading discussed the connection between RSS and Italian fascism. It was titled ‘RSS AND SIKHS’. It was as if she had already convicted me in her mind when she saw the lines that I had underlined in that edition. Those lines only served to prove her suspicions. She instructed me to get my bag; confused, I handed it to her.
She quickly emptied my bag by turning it inside out, and as a result, my wallet, followed by an empty tiffin box, books, and assignments, were spilled onto the floor. This time, I was hit by a wave of panic. The lady picked up and scrutinized the three books she had found on the floor. She asked me not to touch anything and wait. I was made to stand in a distant corner since I had been blocking the way. When she returned, she was accompanied by four male officers, carrying guns. They signaled her to go back, and she obeyed with a smile. One of them approached me and uttered, “Why are you carrying this?”, ‘What?’ I asked trying to contain my shivering. They pointed at my books and said,”this“. One of the books was on Kashmir violence, another was on Hindu extremism and the third was titled, ‘Understanding Jihad‘.
It was as if, at least to the guards, the books suggested that I was a terrorist.
I had to remove my long boots, and go through an elaborate security check twice. I bore all this with a deep sense of humiliation. The taller one amongst them turned and politely asked me to show a valid ID and leave. I was shocked. I had done nothing. When had reading something become a crime? In the heart of the capital city, the State had rendered me helpless. The statements and arguments of the guards were aimed at identifying my religion. Once they realized that I was not a Muslim, they felt no need for further proceedings. That day my religion had saved me.
On the way back, I realized that I could have saved 45 minutes of my time had I shown them my college Id before all the trouble began. I have been struggling with all the ethos of democracy that have been grilled into me. I will always remember that night. I was shivering, perplexed, and shocked at the turn of events. My family still felt threatened by the phone call that the security guards had made. My parents asked me not to read such things in public. Everyone was trying to console me by saying that freedom of expression is limited, that reading about Jihad is controversial. Some were justifying the acts of the police by saying that the guards were acting in national interest. No one paused to define what this national interest was, or how should it be protected. People seemed threatened by the idea that we could question the actions of our guards, policemen, and leaders. The next day, when I entered college, I was supposed to be a part of the celebration of democracy in the name of Republic Day. And I found myself rammed by contradictions. I went to the podium after that function was over and tried to talk about what I had been through. I started speaking about the previous night, but was hounded by protests. They asked me to follow procedures. They accused me of not informing them about the content of my speech before speaking. Their fear strengthened my resolve to speak, for I knew that they were threatened by my truth. They fear that it will unravel the mockery that democracy has come to represent. But I also felt weak due to the contradictions of my own thoughts and feelings.
I was filled with a profound realisation that democracy is failing thousands of people daily. Some people have been harassed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), some by the capitalistic policies, by religious bigotry, by AFSPA. The violence against women, children, and LGBTQI that is meted out by our state officials is heart wrenching.
What does the freedom of our country even mean when we are made to think and follow accepted notions like a herd? We are controlled through State sponsored self-censorship of our thoughts.
On the one hand, the Modi Sarkar openly endorses ‘Ghar Vapsi’ and ‘love Jihad’, and any voice of dissent is deemed anti-national, can I say “aache din” are here? It seems like switching to Dinanath Batra’s books and the bandwagon of Modi bhakts are the only “safe” options! Can I exercise the freedom that has been guaranteed to me in the Constitution? That night has made me a proud dissenter. However, a nebulous sense of hope still remains. The hope that guided our forefathers has taught me to have faith in the Constitution, and most importantly, in the citizens of the Republic.