Have you ever experienced the terror of being surrounded by a mob? When someone asks for proof of your patriotism, or threatens you to leave your country? Amusement, irritation, the chilling impotence of your anger—standing helplessly in the face of a rowdy crowd makes you shrink with fear.
I had only heard or seen instances of fellow journalists, artistes and activists facing such situations during the past four or five years. People like Ravish Kumar, Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt underwent this trauma, verbal or physical. The coordinated instigation of a mob was something that had only happened to others—till last Sunday.
It was the anniversary of the Nirbhaya rape case. A seminar was organised at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts. The National Commission for Women Chairperson Rekha Sharma and psychiatrist Dr Soumiya Mudgal were part of a panel invited to discuss women’s freedom and empowerment. Also present on the stage was Shriniwas, the National Joint Organising Secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Some of his remarks were unambiguously against women’s liberty and equality.
“Only a lioness can beget a lion, never a fox,” he quipped at one point.
“But a lioness can bear a lioness,” another panellist objected.
“That is what I meant,” he replied, fumbling. But this didn’t halt his regressive rant. “Women also need to pay attention to what they eat. They often take medicines to maintain a size zero figure. It only harms them. Such women can never give birth to healthy children. They need to remain healthy to engender a lion. The Western lifestyle is misleading them,” Shriniwas continued until Rekha Sharma interjected.
The panel discussion was followed by a round of questions from the audience, during which I expressed my disagreement with what Shriniwas had said. I said, “Are you not imposing the same pedantic ideology on women by insinuating that they fail to procreate because of their desire for a size zero figure? After all, there might be women who don’t wish to become mothers or genuinely want a size zero figure. Shouldn’t this choice be left to their free will?”
Shriniwas was visibly flustered. He interrupted me, clarifying that he was only worried about women’s health.
Viewing women merely as a medium to produce babies or imagining only lions and not lionesses as children reeks of a patriarchal mindset. This is at the core of male chauvinism. ABVP rookies try to sugarcoat this mentality through terms like “matrishakti” (the feminine power), and Shriniwas leads them.
The programme concluded with the national anthem. Everybody stood up. While departing, this writer was confronted by Shriniwas just outside the auditorium. He was accompanied by 15-20 young men.
“You have disrespected the national anthem, my friend. This is not right,” he said.
Caught unawares, I decided to take this as light banter and replied, “Sir, you cannot put this blame on me. I can recite the entire national anthem to you in 52 seconds. You might take more than 53 seconds, but I will finish it in the exact prescribed duration.”
Shriniwas did not expect my flippancy. He insisted, “I have seen you disrespecting the national anthem. I have evidence.”
“Well, you had your hands behind your back. I have photographed [it].”
There was not a grain of truth in what he said. I neither had any intention nor any reason to dishonour the national anthem so I tried to reason with him. “If I was standing with my hands at my back when the national anthem was being played, you were busy taking my photograph. Are you also not guilty of the same offence then? Even if what you are saying is true, it was totally unintentional.”
My levity added to Shriniwas’s growing anger. “I got the photograph taken by a photographer. We cannot tolerate such treatment to our national anthem. You better leave this country if you can’t respect it.”
The commotion had started to build now. People were shouting at me from all directions—telling me to remain silent, to stay in my “limits”, to get lost. The youths supporting Shriniwas were ABVP activists, and my standing up to his bullying was angering them further. In a level tone, I replied, “Don’t teach me patriotism, sir. I know very well how to respect the national anthem. I need not learn it from you.”
Shriniwas’s fury at this was palpable. How could he be confronted in this manner in front of his followers? His language changed from the more respectable “aap” in Hindi to the outrightly insolent “tu”. “What do you want to show me? I have the evidence. I can lodge a complaint against you.”
I replied: “Go ahead, I am ready to bear the consequences.”
My response was the tipping point. Several of his supporters charged towards me. One of them shouted, “Mind your language!” The organisers—some of whom were my friends and seniors—intervened, and I took courage from their presence and stood my ground.
Meanwhile, Shriniwas was spluttering with rage. “I don’t need to file any complaint. I can teach you a lesson, here and now. If you are a legitimate son of your parents…”
Nothing was comprehensible now, the ruckus had reached such a level. This was a man who, 10 short minutes ago, had been waxing lyrical about women’s liberty and dignity. His supporters surrounded me, fists raised, invectives hurled. It was almost impossible not to lose my temper now. “Stop this nonsense. Do whatever you like,” I responded.
The organisers came to the rescue. One of them separated Shriniwas from me while a few others told me to leave. I was a little afraid. I had courted the animosity of a man who heads an organisation that is infamous for violence and hooliganism. Yet, I decided to hold my ground. With sangfroid, I said, “I will not go anywhere. Nobody should have the misconception that they can stop a person from expressing his or her views through such tactics or make them run away.”
This was putting the organisers—some of whom were my friends—in a precarious situation. They deserve my apologies since I was only part of the invited audience, whereas Shriniwas was one of the main speakers. But I stood firm. Five minutes, 10 minutes, eventually 15 minutes passed. Shriniwas and his goons dispersed and I felt my own fear dissipate.
I headed home, my head held high.
Yet, my mind was teeming with thoughts. Had I really disrespected the national anthem? My heart was convinced it was inadvertent. Does the law punish such errors? Does it also hold those accountable who are inspecting others instead of respecting the anthem themselves? Does it give them the space to pick fights, take their photographs? Can we expect such people to really respect our national symbols?
In hindsight, my choosing to hold my ground for 15 minutes was nothing short of foolishness. It could have led to worse consequences. It was not merely recalcitrance but outright childishness. Then again, as the story goes, darr ke aage jeet hai. Beyond fear lies victory.