The courage of the unnamed citizen

Gandhiji believed that true courage was not about being fearless, but about facing and overcoming fear. And his entire long political career proved that

Harini CalamurUpdated: Friday, December 30, 2022, 11:12 PM IST
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The Salt March | Wikimedia

As a school student, one of the most inspirational scenes in cinema, for me, was from the movie Gandhi. It centred around unarmed satyagrahis facing batons and bullets, with calmness, as they protested the unjust salt laws. It ignited a lifelong interest in the freedom movement and the role of ordinary people in it. P Sainath’s recent book The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom tells us these stories — ordinary people, farmers, labourers, students, the unknown Indians who showed incredible courage in defying the Imperial power that ruled us.

In 2022, we should not need to show such courage; and yet, in pockets around the world — and even in India — that courage shines through as a beacon of inspiration for many of us. After two years of lockdowns designed to beat Covid, 2022 was the year in which much of the world got back on its feet and out of the house; a year where many of us hoped for the mundane normalcy of uneventfulness. But it was not to be. This was a year characterised by war and protest, revolt and rebellion. It was a year where one of the oldest values, which inspires most of us, was out on full display — unimaginable courage in the face of adversity, in different parts of the world. Courage that has moved most of us to tears.

It started with the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people against a brutal invader. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 this year, most experts thought that the war would be over by the first week of March, with Russia as the decisive victor. But the fortitude of the Ukrainians led by President Zelensky has proven to be phenomenal. Ten months later, it is Russia that is talking about a negotiated settlement, as Ukraine’s tiny population defended their freedoms against the larger aggressor. Visuals of women and men fighting side by side to defend their nation, defend their independence, and defend it all costs are inspiring. In another age, Zelensky in his battle fatigues — and his people — would be immortalised in verse, and odes. In today’s day and age, we rely on images on the internet.

The second example comes from the people of Iran. Since the killing of Mahsa Amini for not covering her head, the people of Iran have been revolting against their brutal regime. Iran has been under a theocratic, oppressive regime for almost half a century. Run by a puritanical Shia Islamist clergy, the ‘guardians’ of Iran have imposed a strict code of behaviour on women, including an oppressive dress code. Women not adhering to it are punished. Mahsa Amini’s execution was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and people of all ages began protesting in Iran, for the basic right to be. Calls of “Jin, jiyan, azadi!” or “Woman, life, freedom!” resonate through Iran, as unarmed young and old, women and men take on the brutal system. In the recently concluded football World Cup, the Iranian team showed their support for the protests by remaining silent during the playing of the national anthem. The Iranian regime has unleashed a series of reprisals including executions, bulldozing homes, and opening fire on unarmed protestors. But the protests that started in September show no signs of abating.

In Afghanistan, as the Taliban tightens its control on the nation, its target remains women. Recently they banned women from higher education. And, in protest, their male classmates walked out of class. In a country where acts of defiance like this can invite summary execution, the courage shown is extraordinary. Both in Iran and in Afghanistan, the allyship shown by men to support women’s right to be free has been extraordinary. In years to come we will hold up these examples to explain how men can be true allies.

In India, Prof Roop Rekha Verma, former VC of Lucknow University, stood surety for Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, showing a younger generation what courage means. In a country where lawyers refuse to represent accused, for her to risk her social capital and her personal safety is to be lauded.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the conquest of it.” Gandhiji believed that true courage was not about being fearless, but about facing and overcoming fear. And his entire long political career proved that. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience, satyagraha, was based on the idea that it takes courage to stand up for what is right. When ordinary unarmed Indians faced the British with clubs and guns at Dandi, or during the Quit India Movement, or any of the other hallmark events of Indian Independence, you saw raw courage on display. Courage that inspires us even today. And, in 2022 we saw the courage of the ordinary person, the unnamed citizen, on full display. Here is hoping that this is not needed in 2023.

The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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