Questions that hurt

Questions that hurt

25th June 2021 0 By Nandini

As a teacher, I can tell you a thing or two about questions. If you are the only one in the classroom asking them, you’re not doing a very good job. If your students are asking them, you’re doing better. If they are asking ones that make you uncomfortable, because you either:

  1. don’t know your stuff
  2. know your stuff, but the answer is hurtful

then maybe it’s time to take a breather and reflect on yourself as a role model.


I thought about this because I recently read an interview with a young man, a student, who was jailed for protesting against an act passed by the present regime in India. The act requires every Indian citizen to register themselves, according to their religious identity, with the government. The motivations for the act were made clear before it was passed. It is necessary, according to the regime, to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat are Hindus – you belong to India. The chaff are Muslims – you don’t belong to India.

Like many other citizens – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, animists, atheists and agnostics alike, this student wanted to know: how does which god I worship (or don’t) determine whether I belong to India or not?

That’s the question that the student asked.

Asif Iqbal Tanha after his release in New Delhi

The answer, apparently, belongs in category 2 above. The regime knows its stuff. But the question was so hurtful to it, that he, along with two other students, who have the same terrible habit of questioning, had to be picked up and locked up. No taking of breathers and reflections necessary. To be a role model, you have to be bold and decisive. You have to shut them up by arresting them under the ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act’. It is unlawful to ask questions that hurt. Full stop.

Asif was released along with Natasha and Devangana, after a year in the most terrifying prison of all, on the 21st of June 2021. And what did he say on his release? He said that the regime had thrown them into the dustbin of society, called them terrorists in order to shut them up and shut them off. But the High Court, where their case came up for hearing, decided that the regime was a bit mixed up, and that questioning, or protesting was not a form of hurting the state. His university had taught him to question, he said, and he planned to continue along those lines.

About five years ago, I had a conversation with a friend, a professor of mathematics in the city of Pune in India , who participates in an exchange programme. He spends a few months every year teaching in Berlin, while his German colleague teaches his students in Pune. Over a cup of coffee in a Berlin café, I asked him what the difference was between his Indian and European students. And this is what he told me: he said that when it comes to studying, his Indian students did well. When it comes to questioning, or thinking out of the box, his German students did well.

So I ask myself if things have changed in the last five years in India…. are many more young people, and university students in particular, questioning? Perhaps another way to look at this question is to fall back on the mantra that I always repeat to clients when I give intercultural trainings on India: there is no one India. Which India are we looking at here? University students in Delhi?

Whatever the answer to that question of whether there has been change or not… I know what I have to do to cheer myself up. I have to pull up the images of these young students, so full of the force of life flowing through their veins.

I have to say, thank you for being who you are. For asking questions that hurt.


Links to relevant news items:

High Court Statement in The Times of India

More about these students in msn news

More about these students in The Hindu