Why Indian celebrities find it hard to take a stand

Those who haven't spoken up on CAA are having their integrity questioned.

By R Krishnakumar

Published: Fri 27 Dec 2019, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 Dec 2019, 10:45 PM

Last week, as the agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was intensifying in different parts of India amid outrage over police excesses on student protesters in the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University in New Delhi, Rajinikanth was in Mumbai to launch the trailer of his new film, Darbar. When asked about the protests, the actor said he would not speak on them while promoting a film.

Rajinikanth, one of India's biggest movie stars, stands somewhere right of centre here, picking his time and place before speaking up. The superstar, now set for a long-in-the-works political career, has had his share of controversies over some of his statements construed as favouring India's ruling BJP and out of sync with popular sentiment.

Most of India's iconic public figures have chosen silence over dissent on protests against the Act which the United Nations Human Rights Office has called "fundamentally discriminatory". Protests are being held across the country against the Act which excludes Muslims from citizenship extended to persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Calls to take a stand on the issue, initially, had India's A-list celebrities on a sticky wicket but since the assault on students, many prominent filmmakers and actors - some of them criticised in the past for complicit silence on important issues including intolerance and mob vigilantism - have come out in support of the protesters. That's a sign of change in what is increasingly seen as a time defined by fear of speaking up, when silence comes with the perk of immunity from online bullying, from questions on political and ideological affiliations, from attention. Some of India's biggest heroes across fields, however, have remained non-committal. This is a familiar sub-plot in the high drama of Indian politics.

Expecting dissent against authority, even opinion on it, from people who stand to lose in the bargain can be a tall ask. Their silence, while rightful as a personal choice, also draws from a fear of alienating and antagonising people who can impact their careers.

We expect them to take a stand. If their position is not in line with ours, we hear them out and argue with them but whether to own up and face the people or dodge and look away is a choice they themselves have to make.

Those who haven't spoken up on CAA are having their integrity questioned. The outrage comes with stinging sarcasm, advices - "grow a spine" is standard poke - and Twitter hashtags like #ShameonBollywood. The indignation, instant and typical of social media, has also revived a self-righteous probing of commitment these men and women have, to the country and its people. This is the time to wonder, again, why we need the famous and the successful to speak for us.

Sure, these are citizens who cannot be insular to the collective moods of their country but where do we draw the line as we push for their opinion, when they choose to speak only about their trade - film, art, sport or other? What do we seek to validate with their opinion which is, ultimately, personal? Some of the celebrities who backed the anti-CAA protests refrained from addressing the Central Government and blunted their statements with nice-sounding generalities about peace and brotherhood. Rajinikanth himself, in a tweet, has condemned the violence without stating where he stands on CAA.

Is that fair, pushing them to be influencers we want them to be when they don't? This is also a time of auditing the apolitical celeb. Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan and Virender Sehwag - Khan and Sehwag are JMI alumni - are among those under this scrutiny.

A tweet by India cricketer Irfan Pathan about his concern for the JMI students set off a trail of comments, some abusive, against his "biased" take on the situation. Filmmaker-actor Farhan Akhtar who tweeted urging people to assemble for a protest was told by a senior Indian Police Service officer that he had "committed an offence". The officer did not forget to advise Akhtar to think of the nation which had given him everything in his life.

That's the kind of tutoring most of Akhtar's industry colleagues would want to avoid. Ask Akshay Kumar. The actor had to issue a clarification for having "liked" a tweet justifying the police crackdown in JMI. He said he had accidentally clicked the 'like' icon but soon "unliked" it. The clarification by Kumar, seen as close to the ruling dispensation, was an attempt to revert to silent mode but a round of slugfests was already over. The critics did mention the spine, or the lack of it.

The backlash some of these celebrities are facing is invariably tagged with pointers to Hollywood where top actors and filmmakers have taken strong anti-government positions, even at high-profile award functions. This is not always the right example to describe the situation in India where taking such positions could leave the dissenters exposed to vindictive politics.

Actor Sushant Singh had to leave a TV show he was associated with since 2012. He hasn't confirmed if his exit from the show is linked to his support for the anti-CAA protests but said it was a "small price" to pay. Singh sums it up here; the question, really, is about what they stand to lose, or gain. As we shame the silent with Twitter hashtags, it's only fair that we ask ourselves as well - "What are we willing to pay?"
- R Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, India

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