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OP-ED: Kangana Ranaut…and ‘bheek mein mili azaadi’

  • Published at 01:41 am November 25th, 2021
Farm laws protest

The actor is being called out for her remarks on the farm laws being repealed

Kangana Ranaut is a fine actor in India, one among the more remarkable of thespians India has produced over the years. She becomes the character as it is sketched in the script, sedately acting out the role to popular satisfaction. All her movies have exercised the public mind. Every performance of hers has earned her plaudits across the spectrum. 

And yet of late, Ranaut has courted controversy, and not just once. Her political beliefs, unlike similar beliefs in her fellow actors, have consistently impelled her into making statements that have ignited controversy in India. Her recent foray into polemics has infuriated Indians across the board. She is upset that the farmers’ agitation in the country has led to the withdrawal of the farming laws the Modi government thought would be brought into force. 

That was all right, but then, Ranaut crossed a red line. She labelled the farmers, all Sikhs, as Khalistanis, who ought to have been dealt with in the way Indira Gandhi dealt with them. The actor, in language plainly incendiary, has made it known that Mrs Gandhi crushed the Khalistanis under her slippers, and that every Khalistani, even today, shudders at any mention of the late prime minister. 

The attitude is unbecoming of the powerful screen figure Ranaut is. A holder of the Padma Shri, she wonders why Gandhi did not save Bhagat Singh from execution.

Polemicists are not always to be condemned, for at various points in historical time, they have played a necessary role. The two significant instances we have had in our times are the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the triumph of Chinese Communism in 1949. In both instances -- before, during and after the revolutions -- polemics was a useful weapon in consolidating the gains made in the interest of the masses. 

But the polemicist in Kangana Ranaut is a different concept altogether, if it is a concept at all. Her understanding of India’s independence struggle is shockingly flawed or is a deliberate provocation. 

As she puts it in Hindi, India’s gaining independence in 1947 was “bheek mein mili azaadi” -- freedom as alms in the begging bowl. In what is clearly a statement that will shock all Indians, irrespective of the political opinions they hold, is her assertion that India achieved true independence in 2014. 

She thus equates the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 as the coming of freedom for her country. She asks, rather brazenly, why there was no war for freedom waged in 1947 in the way there was a war of independence in 1857.

Predictably, Ranaut has ruffled feathers almost everywhere. The Congress is up in arms against her. The Sikh political classes in the Punjab are riled, with some among them demanding that she be stripped of her Padma Shri and sent to prison. Cases and FIRs are being filed against her. 

And while all this furore goes on, Ranaut plays the lead in her forthcoming movie Emergency, which, as everyone can easily guess, is a recapitulation of the disastrous assault on Indian democracy by Indira Gandhi, and her ambitious and inordinately powerful younger son, Sanjay. One waits to see if, in the role of Indira Gandhi, Kangana Ranaut lionizes or vilifies the assassinated prime minister.

Actors, like everyone else, are certainly welcome to air their views on socio-political issues. Vanessa Redgrave once caused irritation to many by the political statement she made at the Oscar awards ceremony in 1978, but she was careful to stay away from engaging in any fireworks. 

In Bangladesh, actor Ilyas Kanchan has, in the past many years, bravely led a campaign for safe roads in spite of all the attacks that have been made on him by powerful political figures. 

In Greece, the actress Melina Mercouri was vocal against the colonels who seized power in 1967, and after the return of democracy to the country, played an admirable role as minister for culture. 

In the United States, the acclaimed actor Meryl Streep spoke out against the incendiary politics of Donald Trump. Robert de Niro thinks Trump is a “weird, twisted president who thinks he is a gangster.”

But, Kangana Ranaut does not fall into this camp. Her outburst against the farmers, Sikhs whom she tars with the brush of Khalistani separatism, is closer to the regular explosions of temper which the French actor Brigitte Bardot, gave expression to whenever the slaughter of cattle by Muslims rattled her. 

Bardot has been on trial no fewer than five times for insulting Muslims, and “inciting racial hatred.” She has often raised her voice against the “Islamization of France.” 

Ironically, Bardot was the recipient of respect from no less an individual of historic proportions than Charles de Gaulle. The late leader once had this to say at a news conference, “Gentlemen, Bardot is France.”

The problem with actors like Ranaut and Bardot is that they do not seem to understand that political statements can be made effectively without arousing dark passions among people. Ranaut’s problem is not just that through her sweeping statement about the agitating farmers, she has condemned all Sikhs as adherents of Khalistani secessionism. 

She has conveniently ignored, or does not know of the trauma Sikhs went through in the days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the riots as a natural corollary to the fall of a giant tree, the tree being his mother. 

Now Ranaut speaks of Mrs Gandhi crushing Khalistanis -- she sees little difference between Sikhs and Khalistanis -- under her slippers. No insult more demonizes humanity in the South Asian subcontinent than threatening to punish people through a liberal use of slippers.

One final point. If eminent people, indeed celebrities, are not fully conversant with history, they ought to exercise self-restraint and not go into it at all. Indian independence in 1947 was not freedom given as alms to the country by the British colonial power. It was not “bheek mein mili azaadi.” 

Kangana Ranaut’s twisted comprehension of history beggars belief. Or is it deliberate sensationalism she has been putting on display? 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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