In the wake of police action against students of New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia as they were protesting against the Citizen Amendment Act on Sunday and against demonstrators in Aligarh Muslim University a few hours later, people and groups across the country issued statements condemning the brutality and the Narendra Modi government’s attitude to dissent.
Among them, surprisingly, were celebrities who had been silent about previous egregious state actions – or who had been seen as supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Leading them was writer Chetan Bhagat, whose newspaper columns frequently provide justifications for controversial decisions by the Modi government. In a tweet after the Jamia and Aligarh incident, Bhagat was uncharacteristically sharp.
Support for the students arrived from the world of cricket as well, with Aakash Chopra and Irfan Pathan tweeting their criticism of the action. With rare exceptions, sportspeople have steered away from commenting on political matters in recent times.
Even more uncharacteristic was the number of Hindi film personalities who took to Twitter to express their disapproval of the assaults on the students and the new Citizenship Amendment Act that sparked the university protests.
A vociferous government critic, Anurag Kashyap, who had disappeared from Twitter in August saying his family was being threatened for his views, returned to the platform after the incidents at Jamia. Others who tweeted in support of the protesting students or criticised the Citizenship Amendment Act included Richa Chadha, Renuka Shahane, Parineeti Chopra, Kubbra Sait, Alankrita Srivastava, Anubhav Sinha, Huma Qureshi, Swara Bhaskar, Gulshan Devaiah, Jim Sarbh, Pulkit Samrat and Sidharth Malhotra, among others.
Even as these film figures stood up to be counted, the silence of prominent A-list stars was also noted. Shah Rukh Khan, a graduate of Jamia Millia Islamia, was singled out for not saying anything.
Actor Sayani Gupta said that there is no option at this point but to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the planned National Register of Citizens, which many believe discriminate against India’s Muslims. “What India needs is to grow economically, be a country where people can live peacefully and have equality, and most importantly, be able to dissent,” she said.
The police actions at Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University left no room for ambiguity, she said. “With the Kashmir issue [with the government revoking the special status granted to the territory under the Constitution in August], no one had all the information and people in the industry were not sure about the right thing to say,” she said. “But this time, people saw how students simply reading in a library or praying inside Jamia were tear-gassed and lathi-charged”
She added: “If we don’t speak up now, we will lose our meaning, purpose, freedom, society, democracy, individuality, and the Constitution itself.”
Filmmaker Aamir Bashir said that the tipping point had been reached. “People finally got a real picture of the state acting out,” Bashir said. “...The fear is real. It’s not like the politics of this regime has changed. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has always said it wants to change the Constitution. People have finally woken up to it.”
Best-selling author Ravinder Singh has received criticism on social media from some of his fans for expressing his support for the student protests, but he said that the very future of India is at stake. “This is not just an issue of Jamia, but every right-thinking Indian who believe in secularism,” he said. “You stop being a secular, developed democracy the day you decide you are taking people in or letting them go in the name of faith. People have realised that which is why call campuses across India are protesting.”
A heavy price
But even those who came out to criticise the government’s actions recognised that there is a price to pay for dissent. Among them is actor Sushant Singh. After joining students’ protests at the Kalina campus of Mumbai University on Monday, he tweeted the next day that he has been fired from the Star Bharat series he was a host of, Savdhaan India.
In another tweet, Singh wrote this was a “very small price” to pay.
Filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan shared a personal experience: “During the protests against Padmavat in 2017, I had said that if someone can announce a Rs 5 crore bounty for cutting Deepika Padukone’s head and get away with it, I am ashamed of being a citizen of the country. Immediately, the Right-wing section of the media began showing, I am ashamed to be an India. The troll army attacked me mercilessly, but it is hard to see 200 mentions full of abuses coming up in five minutes. No matter how brave you are it breaks you.”
He noted that there were practical considerations in avoiding public comment. Film projects depend on government permissions for location shoots, for instance, and on the Central Board of Film Certification for a movie to be released. Besides, there have been organised campaigns by Hindutva supporters to downvote film ratings online, which could dissuade producers from picking potentially controversial themes.
“You being picked out is one thing but when 400 people’s careers depend on you, it’s difficult to speak up,” said Ghaywan.
While the majority of the Hindi film and television industry, barring a handful like Sushant Singh, limited their dissent to social media, members of the Malayalam film industry and the Assamese film industry took bolder steps.
Zakariya Mohammed, director of Sudani from Nigeria, which has won the National Film Award for Best Malayalam Film, announced on Facebook that he and his team will boycott the awards ceremony scheduled for December 23 to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC. Singer Papon cancelled a show in Delhi while Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua withdrew his film Bhoga Khirikee (Broken Window) from the eighth Assam State Film Awards.
“I never do something like withdrawing films from awards after submitting,” Barua said. “I am pained by the CAA decision and did this to stand by the Assamese people. I wanted to strengthen the nature of my protest.”
Asked about Assamese artists putting more on the line than their counterparts from the Hindi film industry, filmmaker Utpal Borpujari noted that Assamese intellectuals have always been in the forefront of social movements. “When the Assamese-Bengali conflict happened, Assam’s Bhupen Hazarika and Bengal’s Hemanga Biswas toured across Assam singing songs of communal harmony,” he said.
In Assam, he said, artists are not connected to one party or another, unlike in Mumbai. “We know how the actors who spoke out against fuel prices during the previous government’s regime are silent now,” Borpujari said. “In Bombay, artists speak out on basis of who’s in power.”
Perhaps Mumbai celebrities will still prove him wrong.