The Twitter war between celebs regarding the farmer’s movement in India exposes some bitter truths
For much of my adult life, disappointment and disenchantment have been common themes. Over and over again, I have had to process the knowledge that my childhood heroes are mere flesh and blood. Some have perished to illness. For them at least, I still get to recollect purely fond memories. For many others, I have had to come to terms with the fact that they are mere humans, often in the most base sense. They are driven by insecurity, greed, and can be hypocrites, just as much as the person next door. At this rate, there will be no heroes left.
These thoughts are foremost on my mind for the past few weeks, because of the situation in India with the farmers. Honestly, I am not too disappointed with the government. Unbridled capitalism is simply doing what it is supposed to, oppress the common man and prioritize the capital gains of the upper class. I am disappointed with the ordinary Indian. I am disappointed that a nation that was once a model of standing up for the moral right of the oppressed to be treated better, has become an oppressor writ large. As I often find myself telling peers, it is one thing to know that monsters exist. It is quite another, and a far more disheartening experience, to find out someone you have known and admired is one.
I think everyone knows by now what has been happening in India. It has been in the news since late November, if not earlier. Given the number of Indian peers I know, my social media timeline has also been heavily dominated by discussion of the situation. Looking back, I realize something now. Few if any celebrities and media personalities made any public statements one way or another about the situation.
You might think that this is normal or expected, and I would strenuously disagree. To me, artists and entertainers have an innate responsibility to serve as a spokesperson for those whose voices we do not usually hear. Note that I am not saying they have to be the moral compass. But they do have to help disseminate the voice of the oppressed and use their positions of relative advantage to demand that a nation must do better. Historically, many artists have played this role. The history of our own country is replete with examples of this. In more recent times, many will recall the role Hollywood personalities played in getting US citizens to go out and vote for change. Unfortunately, this dimension seems to be missing in the recent farmer protests in India. I have not seen a lot of India’s internationally famous celebrities say anything on the issue. If anything, some seem to have taken the baffling if not abhorrent stance of questioning the intentions of the indigent farmers.
Maybe to address this deafening silence, international figures like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg have recently spoken up, asking the world to take heed of what is happening in India. In case the pandemic did not make it clear to everyone, we live in a supremely connected world, and they are well within their rights to draw attention to the self-avowed largest democracy in the world is less than democratic. However, this has not gone down well with jingoistic Indian nationals. In a recent social media post, actress Jameela Jamil explains how she has chosen to not speak out too frequently about India because each comment from her on the matter brings more death and rape threats to her private messages. Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, who has inexplicably become a champion of all the undemocratic actions of the BJP government, hit back at Rihanna, as did former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Both of them have the same core argument -- that foreign celebrities should not comment on India’s internal matters. While such an expectation is completely nonsensical, at least they did not threaten international celebrities with bodily harm. If only some of their countrymen and fellow party loyalists could do the same.
This brings me to my earlier point. Maybe I was naive when growing up in South Asia, but I seem to remember a different India. An India that helped the people of Bangladesh in their struggle for independence. An India that represented respect for democracy and good governance that is often missing in many other countries in the region. To be a tad more cynical, an India that has made an entire film industry that often capitalizes feelings of compassion and respect for the underdog. And yet, when their own government is setting the police to assault the underdog farmers who just want to get a fair price, members of this film industry are silent. Worse, they are only vocal in their protests of someone else who is saying something for the farmers and their struggles. With the completely absurd demand that only Indians can speak about India. The same nation that literally asked other nations for support in their struggle for independence from the British Empire. At best this is a complete lack of knowledge of history. At worst, it is hypocritical.
To be very clear, I do not think India was wrong in asking for help for their independence. We live in a globalized world. From a purely utilitarian perspective, what happens to farmers in one country affects the entire economy of another country. From a less cynical perspective, all humanity is connected. Rihanna, or Greta Thunberg, or anyone who chooses to care about the oppressed and downtrodden anywhere in the world, is well within their right to do so. I would even say, given the audience they can reach, they have a moral obligation to do so. Indian nationalists need to reflect whether what bothers them is that foreign nationals speak about India, or that what they are saying about India failing its own people makes a lot of sense.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens