By Manik Sharma Jun. 01, 2020
Celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor and Disha Patani lent their social media clout to the American protests over George Floyd’s killing. Not one has spoken about the atrocities against minorities or the hounding of anti-CAA protestors in their own backyard. It’s a brand of activism that’s convenient and hollow.
America finds itself at a familiar socio-political crossroads. It arrives here once every few years, unable on each occasion to decisively leave. On May 25, 46-year-old African-American man George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer while being apprehended. The widespread rage and anger that has followed, though condemnable in certain cases, is understandable. It’s a tragically familiar script after all, one that continues to ironically play out in a country that likes to project itself through its social leaps rather than the missteps it simply cannot rid itself of.
There’s widespread support from around the world for American protestors. Twitter is overwhelmed by videos of police brutality, and allegations that the American media refuses to look at the excesses of their forces. However, of the solidarity and support that America’s minorities are being extended from around the world, perhaps the most laughable is the kind being offered by Indian celebrities.
“We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves,” Priyanka Chopra has claimed on her Insta page, with a visual of “I can’t breathe”, Floyd’s last words. Kareena Kapoor put up the famous TIME cover from 2015, while Disha Patani, an ambassador of multiple fairness products shared a poster claiming “All colours are Beautiful”. Sonam Kapoor used a quote from Black Panther. Unsurprisingly, Twitter users took it upon themselves to expose the hypocrisy of all of the above actresses, who have endorsed fairness products. Support from celebrities who have played a significant role in glorifying fairness in this country is pointless, not to mention disgracefully opportunistic.
India’s upper-caste upper-class folks are as complicit in the exploitation of minorities as they are in creating them.
Not only is it opportunistic, it is performative and cherry-picking of causes. So many of these stars have lived through the Delhi riots, the anti-CAA protests, the demonising and lynchings of our minority populations, and have refused to engage, or even look at atrocities in their own backyard. Because it is convenient being an activist in America, but not in India, where there might be actual consequences. This is wilful, co-opted blindness of a casteist, racist population that wants to buy a low-cost ticket to a journey it won’t even consider taking back home.
Like all American culture, even its crises manage to recruit more support than lesser countries or cultures facing relatively bigger problems. You haven’t seen similar grandstanding by the world for protestors in Hong Kong or political refugees of the Israel-Palestine conflict, or even the Rohingya crisis unfolding in the subcontinent. The Indian obsession with whiteness ensures we eagerly wait to pay lip service to anything that hints at the slightest participation of white men.
Not too long ago, the chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission was ambushed for flagging India’s recent history of lynchings. After he put out a Facebook post, supporting the long due blowback Indians residing in the Middle East received for their Islamophobia, Zafarul Islam Khan was booked by the Delhi Police and forced to apologise. That even the chair of a body, with the singular role of pointing at atrocities against minorities was snubbed, with little support, evidences the extent to which the system itself is compromised.
Fighting the easy fight is no fight, really.
India’s upper-caste upper-class folks are as complicit in the exploitation of minorities as they are in creating them. We are pioneers in looking away. While the US may have only just exploded, students and activists at home continue to be hounded and harassed by the government even in the middle of a pandemic. Activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, of Pinjra Tod, a women’s collective based in Delhi, have been arrested thrice within the space of a few days for alleged links to scattered cases of violence in February and December. The anti-CAA protests, the attack on students inside JNU and other incidents unveiled a draconian side to India’s law establishment that, with the exception of a handful, wasn’t as aggressively condemned by India’s most popular faces.
Indians are as racist as Americans think they are liberal. You don’t have to look too far to see the treatment people here meted out to their fellow citizens from the Northeast – a few weeks ago, a Manipuri woman was spat upon by a man who also called her “Corona”, implying that it was “Chinese” citizens like her who were spreading the virus. You don’t need to look too far to see what upscale neighbourhoods think of Kashmiri migrants or Muslim tenants, or Muslim citizens in general. Yet, the performative outrage shown for fires burning in a foreign country don’t even compare to the tiny fictitious sparks people probably exchange behind closed doors.
Because it is much much easier to feign care for America’s struggles because most of our liberal heroes – Hollywood – do not mince their words. America allows its people the freedom of speech. That freedom, however, hasn’t been handed to them the way we want moral leverage handed to us – without making the required sacrifice of fighting for it. Indians want to participate in an exercise that recuses them from any guilt or realisation they might have about the condition of their own neighbourhood, the one they might not torch, but wouldn’t save either.
It is convenient being an activist in America, but not in India, where there might be actual consequences.
We have no foot to stand on if we add our voice to a conversation about minorities abroad, but continue to allow the treatment they are meted out in our own backyards. Extending support or showing distant solidarity is all well, but does that absolve us from confronting the role we continue to play in the dehumanisation of people within our borders? Be it caste, colour, language, class, sex, geography or politics Indians are swift to find a way to distance themselves from people they, conveniently, do not wish to claim.
The history of the Indian caste system pre-dates slavery in the West. So there isn’t exactly a lack of issues to throw your weight behind. Perhaps only a lack of motivation or worse, sensitivity. Activism is traditionally frowned upon in this country, because nobody wants established, malignant hierarchies to be disturbed.
Fighting the easy fight is no fight, really. Punch up, not sideways as they say. Rather than address the elephant in someone’s mansion, address the one sitting in your cramped living room. Be vocal for local.