NEW DELHI: A slip of a girl, with courage written all over her forehead. Shehla Rashid walks in for a conversation, with a broad happy smile on her face. I look for signs of the ‘violent anti-national’ stereotype that Jawaharlal Nehru University students have been turned into by a relentless ugly campaign by the ruling party and its affiliates, and can find only a charming young student leader, full of idealism, a serious face that becomes very attractive with an infectious smile, and a passion for politics that is evident when even answers to personal questions move into the political domain.

Through the course of the conversation, having seen the state in its violent avataars in long decades of reporting conflict, one cannot help but wonder at a government and its affiliates who declare the young, honest, earnest, committed students of India enemies just because they have views that differ, and a vision that is steeped in democracy and not its subversion.

Shehla comes from a very modest home in Kashmir. She is reluctant---and very understandably so---to talk about her family, that has been apolitical, has gone through hard days, and today is worried about their young daughter who has been virtually taking on the world through exemplary courage as an office bearer of the JNU Students Union. She studied in Kashmir, did her engineering, and came to JNU to do her Masters in Social Sciences. And here she found a brave new world, starting with the faculty. “I found value in education, and teachers who imparted knowledge,” she says recalling that the last time and perhaps, the only teacher who “made you feel the subject” was her Physics teacher when she was in Class 11-12 in Srinagar.

Always conscious of her female identity in Kashmir where the public space is more conservative than the personal often, Shehla found that in JNU the gender identities were so equal that “often you forgot you are a woman.” And this she found exhilarating, very liberating.

Shehla had never voted in her life before. She does not say it, but this could also be as voting in the Kashmir Valley in the elections is not part of a common person’s life, more so as the state has often tampered in the exercise of the ballot, and reversed peoples decisions in the past. This has led to disillusionment and young Shehla too, like many other young people brought up in conflict that has become a way of life in the Valley, never did feel the need to exercise her mandate.

JNU changed that and for the first time she voted in the JNU Students Union elections. And found the process exciting, and was made aware of the power of the vote when it is cast freely and fairly. “This was my first taste of electoral democracy” and along with it came the realisation that JNU did not just criticise the status quo--”as many allege, they say in JNU we just criticise we do not offer solutions”---but actually was the solution itself. “We are the solution, we have no violence against women, there are no violations of university laws and even where there are, there are strong mechanisms in place to deal with these, we do not need surveillance or CCTVs….”she says. Shehla finds that the mix of students coming from all over the country, the opportunities for all castes, for marginalised sections, for economically deprived young people “makes JNU a genuine democratic space.”

And in that space she has a space. In Kashmir she was interested in politics but felt she was a “misfit” of sorts. In that, politics is male dominated there and “unless you are a woman from an elite family you are suspect.” And as she adds, this is not only true of Jammu and Kashmir but in all states of India where women have a rough time being taken seriously in politics. This despite the fact that in Kashmir girls are better educated, at levels, than the boys.

When you go back home, are you seen as a celebrity, as someone who is not religious enough, a woman who should stay at home…? “I think a bit of all you have said. Some say I am too close to India, some feel I am not religious enough” she says pausing to think about this.

So what about your parents? Are they proud of you? “I am not sure,” Shehla responds, again with a pause and a tentative smile. “I think they are very worried for me as they have seen so much violence in Kashmir,” she said. Their worry clearly reached new heights during the first two days when the police entered the campus and threatened to arrest the student leaders. Shehla recalls speaking to her mother the second evening, and “she kept asking me to just leave the students union, to come back.” They were terrified.

And so was Shehla for those brief hours when the government ordered a crackdown on young students, as if they were enemies of the state. For that moment, this young girl from Kashmir like others on the campus felt that heat, and their own vulnerability. But she told her mother, that being in the JNUSU or not was not the issue, that the police would arrest whoever they had made up their mind to arrest anyways. And she came out of hiding, with a courageous, bold speech that went viral on the social media at the time. And helped not just the students to get back lost courage, but also helped Shehla to make her choices, and gather her courage to take the lead with her other colleagues by her side.

Shehla feels the pressure that her family is reacting to. In that the violence in Kashmir, the state machinations, are something that is part and parcel of the life of an ordinary Kashmiri or for that matter anyone living in conflict generated by both the state and non state actors. She says at one point of the conversation, “you know now I am not sure who is more politically mature. I or my parents and others who might not be politically articulate but have experienced life and know how the state can behave.” She adds, “I have never gone beyond breaking a barricade and now I realise how wrong I was in my belief that nothing could happen to me. The state can brand anyone a terrorist, as they have done to so many, an anti-national and arrest them, and finish their lives. My parents and the older generation has seen this happen to people they know, they know what the state can do or cannot do.”

So she has been forced to question the invincibility of youth, and realise that the state----as all of us reporters have seen over and over again in Assam, in Punjab, in Kashmir, in Gujarat, in Delhi---can create narratives, act on these, and justify the worst kind of violence as and when required.

Shehla saw this first hand now. Kanhaiya Kumar, JNUSU president, as she says did not even organise the event but was branded as a criminal and arrested and attacked. Umar Khalid was being branded a terrorist with the first news linking him to the Jaish e Mohammad. The media turned nationalist with a vengeance with celebrity anchors attacking the students when they went on to the shows on their invitation in the hope that their voices would be heard. One almost tried and hung Khalid; another asked Shehla to chant Bharat mata ki jai.

Shehla tried to alleviate her mothers worry by inviting her to attend a media conclave in Delhi, where she was speaking. She says that helped, as her mother realised that there was support and her daughter was not isolated and alone.

The social media, she says, has been the big game changer. Now students film everything on their mobile phones and upload it on YouTube to ensure that their narrative is out there in the public domain on video. To build the alternative and the honest narrative that they have succeeded, to a great extent, in doing.

“I think we have to thank Prime Minister Modi,” she says with her infectious smile. “He has given an opportunity to the world outside to actually see how beautiful JNU is.”

Politics is Shehla’s passion. Her weakness? Anger that she says she has overcome now.
“It doesn’t help, it is better to channelise the anger into productive activity,” she says earnestly, with a wisdom beyond her years. Where will you exercise this passion? Her face becomes serious again, “that is a difficult question, I don’t know as of now.” And then almost as if thinking aloud, “if they accept me in Kashmir, and understand then perhaps there. But right now it is difficult there between the state and non state actors….It is very dangerous as social trust has broken down.” That it has, in fact the stakeholders have worked hard to break it down.

So with a Que Sara Sara (whatever will be, will be), at least insofar as her passion for politics is concerned, Shehla walks back to her hostel, one of the many other students milling around. A bright, compassionate, idealist girl --- a student to be proud of.