April 1, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
As the social and political turmoil in India increases, a range of people have raised their voices in protest – from social activists to economists and students to lay people. What I find disturbing is the silence of most celebrities, from actors to cricketers, business leaders and others, who have chosen to stay silent about what is going on. Very few have spoken out. Voices like Naseeruddin Shah, Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha, Mahesh Bhatt and others are among the rare ones to have planted a flag. This is in sharp contrast to the West, where a large number of famous people have used their social media handles as well as high-profile events, such as sports matches and awards shows, to speak up. One example of this is the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by policemen; celebrities expressed their outrage and that gave momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement. That sort of impact is conspicuous by its absence in India. Do celebrities have a duty to speak out on social and political issues?
I believe in Stan Lee’s line for Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Celebrities have power, influence, wealth – all achieved from this very society. They must become supporters for change that is good or be on the right side of issues. An article in ‘Forbes’ magazine pointed out that celebrity endorsement can boost product sales by 4% almost immediately. Think of how much awareness and positive social transformation they could spark.
These people have massive followings on social and mainstream media. What they say matters. Their silence on national issues is arguably a betrayal of the very people that got them to where they are.
I fully agree with actress Deepika Padukone who said in an interview once that it is important for celebrities to use their influence and power to spark change in society. She said: “It is extremely important for them to speak up about whatever issue it might be.”
What happened when protestors swarmed onto streets across the country when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, was passed? Very few of our so-called national icons spoke up. What happened when there was an epidemic of cow-related lynchings? Utter silence from most. Our icons play a large role in shaping the national discourse and perception, and their silence strengthens the hands of the oppressors.
This is why Deepika’s visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University to express solidarity with students who were attacked by thugs was important. It showed she was willing to stand with those branded anti-national by the BJP government. After her visit, some film folk gathered in Mumbai to protest the attack and speak against CAA. Among them were filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anubhav Sinha and Hansal Mehta, and actors Richa Chadha, Rahul Bose and Dia Mirza. Many of them have faced vicious attacks on social media for their brave stand and some have even faced trouble from the censor board, which tried to stall or alter their films.
I am fully conscious of the fact that there is a lot at stake when it comes to celebrities. There are major investments, the potential for disruption of their work and the livelihoods of those associated with it, and so on. It’s true of film actors and it’s true of corporate leaders.
However, their position also means that no one is better placed than them to make a difference because their fame also provides a level of insulation. They are far better placed to manage whatever setbacks lie in the way than the lay people who are actually taking a stand.
Yes, the West is far more tolerant, especially these days, of famous people questioning the establishment. Yes, their institutions will ensure they are not victimised. However, if leaders in any field feel strongly about what is unjust or dangerous for society, they must step forward to assume responsibility. They have benefited from this society and it is their duty to create a better one.
Instead, we have celebrities fawning over those in power – which lands up enabling them further.
Celebrity silence speaks volumes.
When the well-known stay silent, they are making a choice to condone systematic oppression of certain sections or abuse of the democratic process. To the people at large, it says it’s OK to not speak up. Look at what’s happening in the country; it’s not okay to be silent. If you have a platform, you ought to take a stand. You can’t forget that your followers look up to you as leaders. They take cues from what you say as well as your silence.
It’s not just a political issue, but a moral issue.
The farmer protests, the anti-CAA protests and the whole host of agitations happening across India are not just political. They are an outcry against injustice. I repeat, these are moral issues.
It’s a moral issue that India did not have enough ventilators and people were allowed to die from COVID. It is a moral issue that the poorest of the poor were abandoned and left to walk hundreds of kilometres because of the world’s most draconian lockdown. It is a moral issue that they were run over by trains after they collapsed from exhaustion on tracks. It is a moral issue that victims of lynchings face false cases. It is a moral issue that rapists of Bilkis Bano are set free and then share a stage with BJP lawmakers.
Staying silent because you don’t want to take a political stand essentially means you are turning a blind eye to the morality of these issues.
I guess we also need to choose our icons more wisely. If they are not willing to stand up for us, should we elevate them to the heights they now occupy?
I repeat, if you have a platform, you have a responsibility.
India is at an inflection point. Actors, sportspersons, business leaders and influencers of all types have a responsibility to speak up. In my view, that’s the bare minimum they can do.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.