This article originally appeared on FirstPost.com
On January 5th, the night that JNU was attacked, I was at my parents’ home, visiting them for New Years’. My usual news-tracking method is to lie in bed with my phone pulled close to my face, refreshing Twitter. But my parents own something I don’t, something terrible: a television. So while muscle memory hunted updates on my phone every minute, I sat up in simultaneous worship of the news on TV, spotlit by flashing graphics for what felt like hours, forgetting again and again to breathe. The rule of law’s brutal coming apart: now a two-screen experience.
Even as the objective truth screamed from behind JNU’s locked gates, the two screens broadcasted endless different versions of it. #LeftAttacksJNU and #ABVPGoons and #SOSJNU jostled to climb Twitter’s trending column, each with a different story in tow.
At maybe 2am, when the attackers had left campus, when Twitter updates had slowed to a trickle and WhatsApps from Delhi had deescalated to “I’m home, I’m ok”, I tore myself away from both screens and wandered, seeking stillness, to an old bookshelf. My fingers ran across the wrinkled spines of childhood favourites and one title called most sharply – a young person’s first-person account of life under a violent, divisive, authoritarian regime, The Diary of a Young Girl. I pulled the book out and flipped through spotty, yellowed pages, looking for who knows what.
Anne Frank offers a lot. Meditations on self-knowledge, advice for self-soothing the jitters from overheard gunshots (run up and down stairs loudly to distract yourself and drown out the sound), the simple gut-punches of life through a genocide (“Women return from shopping to find their houses sealed, their families gone.”).
I remembered now, standing again in her familiar annexe, how it had felt to read her at 13. I remembered the greatest gut-punch of all: that the book trails off rather than ends. Her arrest, her journey into concentration camps, and her death hover close after its final pages, left unwritten or unpreserved. I remembered how the cold facts from history class – the death toll, the way Jews were identified by their clothes – had come alive, become emotionally unforgettable, when they came to me in the real voice of a real girl.
History has two stewards, I think – record-keepers who guard the veracity of detail, and storytellers, who breathe moral life into factual record. Learning about Nazi Germany from textbooks is to know what happened. Reading ‘The Diary Of a Young Girl’ is to understand, in a bone-deep way, why nothing like it should ever happen again.
State machineries flex to keep accurate record of the present day from the clutches of history. The media distorts reality. Police break into homes demanding that social media posts be taken down. Where it can’t silence dissent with violence, the state shuts down the internet altogether. It is telling that India’s long-promised digital dawn sits punctuated by patches of pitch black. For over five months, Kashmir’s bloodied pleas and calls for freedom have bounced off a dome of virtual silence.
But where young people can document their lived political experiences, they keep evocative, morally true histories alive for posterity. And young people in 2020 have a lot more ways to document their truths than diaries and pens.
Like our ruling party, India’s students are storytelling experts, digital natives adept at attention-capture. They know to photograph everything – the injuries in close-up, the shattered glass, the bloodstains on campus floors. Their instinct when masked goons are rushing towards them, shovels poised for blows, is to hit Record. They start telling their stories to camera while blood is still trickling from their foreheads.
History will see Aishe Ghosh, bloodied and breaking down, saying, “I have been brutally beaten up.” It will hear the screams of children, ringing clear through thundering footfall, as cops chase them through the streets lashing lathis on the backs of their knees and heads. When future generations learn about the Revolt of 2020, we will be able to show them, on whatever 4D holographic devices we’re using then, how Delhi Police set off tear gas in a college library, how students at Jamia and then around the nation were interrupted in their studying by blows, broken in the place they came to be built, attacked by the men meant to protect them.
The footage flies so fast that on the night of the JNU attacks, multiple college campuses around the country had broken into spontaneous midnight solidarity protests, while goons were still inside JNU. Apathy is harder to rely on in the age of the youth-mobilised internet. So, I think, is amnesia.
Too many bruises have been Instagrammed already. The sound of glass shattering in classrooms has already been forwarded thousands of times. Thousands of young Indians, the historians and writers and decision-makers of tomorrow (not to mention, the voters of today), will forevermore traverse their political lives with the memory of being shoved and grabbed and lifted into police buses for their crime of holding up placards, and with photos to prove it. To quote poet Aamir Aziz’s haunting refrain, “Sab yaad rakha jayega”. All of this will be remembered.
Chandrashekhar Azad will be remembered, emerging through the throng at Jama Masjid, a constitution held high over his head, Babasaheb watching from its cover. The women of Shaheen Bagh will sit forever in smiling resistance, babies in arms, voices raised in “Azadi” or “Hum Honge Kamyab,” depending on the time of night. We will always be able to click Play and summon the roar that is thousands of patriotic, proud Indians chanting the preamble in unison at India Gate and August Kranti, or a nation humming “Hum Dekhenge” softly for days.
“I don’t want to have lived in vain,” Anne Frank wrote. “I want to be useful to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death.” And so you did. And so will we.