Letter to a Student

On December 18, 2019 by admin

Dear Iqra, I have seen you in classes and in the Arts Faculty corridors. Yesterday I read your helpless and yet immensely brave note after being attacked on the North Campus of Delhi University in broad daylight, simply for being a Muslim woman in hijab, as you wrote. It took me back to February 2017 when I was attacked in a similar manner on campus, not very far from where you were attacked yesterday. The legal case for that is still on and I receive calls from the authorities to depose before them from time to time. To be absolutely honest, I am just an ordinary teacher who had been on the road that bisects Ramjas College and Old Law Faculty that fateful day purely by instinct and in solidarity. I was not and am not an activist unlike many of my colleagues at the university who are far more conscious, and politically far more astute and courageous.  That February afternoon I was just standing on the footpath at a demonstration and suddenly received a heavy punch on my head out of nowhere. In a split second—and it is impossible to tell whether it was a conscious decision or merely an instinct—I retaliated with a punch. And then I felt a torrent of punches and kicks all over me. I was being choked with my own scarf. I realized much later that I had been dragged quite a distance even as I was beaten. Genuinely helpful and far more daring colleagues and students came to my rescue at that time. You, Iqra, are far braver since you also mobilize and take active part in campus and national politics along with your studies. Besides, as a woman and as a Muslim, you are at a completely different level of social and political vulnerability today than where I was and am, as a privileged teacher working within the metropolitan academic system.

Yet I thought I will write this letter to you. For two reasons. One, to tell you that your ordeal actually starts now. See, this your anger, sadness, helplessness and resolve—this confused yet resolute state of mind will be only yours to stay with you. The personal side of it will never go away as you rightly say. Yesterday’s incident will form you, like the many incidents in the past few years that are constantly forming and re-forming our ever malleable selves. The question of solidarity is a tricky one though. The experience of being physically assaulted or psychologically lynched by an irate and irrational mob leaves a lasting impression. It alters our perspective on reality and gives real clarity about people whom we call and think of as friends and fellow beings. Your real test, Iqra, is not as a victim of an assault but actually lies beyond the experiential nature of the trauma that you are now undergoing. It is to transform that experience of pain and resolve into thinking, analyzing and acting much later, many days after yesterday’s incident. The rest of the test will unfold gradually as you will see your immediate ordeal is, in fact, a long and lasting battle of attrition. This battle of attrition will often be exhausting and despairing. It may also be boring. But our steeling of resolve is tested only when we act with and mobilize groups who are not paranoid in the long run. I am not talking about being an even-handed pragmatic humanist who will skirt the issue for his whole life and be a chameleon, of course. But I am talking about staying clear of equal and opposite, paranoid and angry, reactions. Reaction is not political action.

This brings me to a second and related point. Many who are now championing you may not be there for you in the long haul. Not because what they now say is untrue. But because life will go on and they will have to take care of their own matters and their own little ways of living, exactly as you and I would do. Indeed, everyone is with you now, as they were with me in February 2017. But many left me at the slightest opportunity without any verification of truth. Why? Because most people ‘feel empathy’ at the level of sociability. And most also show righteous anger in that same manner. Actually, most people feel secure in performing camaraderie and being safe themselves. Some people who rally around one most vocally and visibly in a time of assault begin to fade into the horizon when another call beckons. That is not the real test of solidarity. Solidarity is a strange word, perhaps coming with an intuitive sense of being with solid and steadfast comrades who are lovingly together for a collective and visionary political utopia. Solidarity burns slow, through long nights of misery and steely resolve. Solidarity is not always politically correct, but politically daring.

See, I am rambling Iqra. This is the problem with teachers! But I came to write this note to you not as a teacher really. I felt this urgent, if illogical, need not just to assure you of the solidarities that you must take strength from, but also to strike a small note of caution about solidarities that may become less visible, suddenly or slowly, as life goes on and other things happen. It is perhaps a good lesson that comes out of being assaulted, that no solidarity may be taken permanently for granted. I wish you to keep this at the back of your mind, not to be suspicious of the hundreds who will rally around you now at all, but so that you may continue to find strength in your own resolve and in those who stick around (there will be many) when the field empties of the hordes you may see now. From what I gather in your spirited yet sensitive response yesterday, you possess that courage and conviction. Hold on to it! It was only this that I tried to tell my young daughter today in a simpler way, as I was driving her to school.


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