When Celebs Call Out For A Cause!

Football came by accident. I was more interested in politics. I always had my eyes turned to the social injustices in the country. I just happened to be good at football, which gave me entrance to a very different and privileged environment…If people do not have the power to say things, then I will say it for them.
–Socrates, Brazilian soccer legend

Do celebrities, writers, artists, filmmakers, celluloid superstars, sports icons, among others, have a special social and political responsibility towards their life and times? Are they located in history despite their wealth, success and fame? Can their fame, success and prosperity make their own societies, and their own world, a better place?

This uncanny question came back with its bitter ritualism soon after pop star Rihanna Tweeted only six words, referring to a CNN report on the peaceful, relentless farmers’ struggle in India. Her six words were amplified by a 100 million fan base, and reamplified by tens of thousands. The global sky virtually opened up with social media messages backing the farmers. The medium became the message.

This was followed by Greta Thunberg’s tweet, along with a forthright message by lawyer and author Meena Harris, the niece of American Vice President Kamala Harris.

The ruling establishment in Delhi was rattled beyond words. This led to an avalanche by its troll army using all predictable means: vile, foul, sexist, vicious threats, including against a British female MP. Two other jarring notes quickly followed, both leaving a bad taste in bad faith, as a sycophantic public spectacle.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a long-winding statement in response to Rihanna’s Tweet, replete with nationalistic, ‘bureaucratese’, with the hashtag #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. This was followed by a handful of Bollywood actors and Indian cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, putting out identical hashtags and look-alike statements.

Sachin wrote: India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India. Let’s remain united as a nation.

In the first instance, seasoned journalists who have covered the MEA would be utterly shocked! How come the ministry chose to react with such a lengthy, burdensome response, to a six-word post by an American pop star – this is unprecedented! Does it reflect the abject loss of diplomatic finesse and protocol in terms of foreign policy, or, indeed, is the ground beneath their feet really slipping?

Since Sachin is an icon, he faced the brunt of public criticism. It all became more jarring because of his ‘speechless’ record in the Rajya Sabha as an MP, and his eternal refusal to utter one word ever on any public or controversial issue in the past.

The farmers were hurt: how come Sachin had not spoken about their non-violent struggle, the 200 dead under the open-sky, the internet ban, concrete barricades, the siege, the long nights for over two months in this freezing cold? How come his love for India and its sovereignty did not include the thousands of farmers and their families peacefully protesting, while he chose to ride the ruling regime’s hashtag bandwagon?

ALSO READ: ‘Rihanna, Greta Amplified Voice Of Farmers’

It is bitter realism that most Indian celluloid superstars and sports icons, with their huge fan-following, either keep wilfully mum during a national crisis, never take up a cause for public interest, express no angst or anger against gross injustice or human suffering, or, instead, choose to toe the pro-establishment line. Their silence often borders on complicity. For our cricket heroes, former and current, apart from cricketing jargon, the cat seems to have got their tongue in all circumstances.

Compare this to those who inevitably stand up to the powers-that-be, speak the truth, take public positions, aware of the risks involved, unafraid of the consequences – the likes of the (late) UR Ananthamurthy, Mahasweta Devi, Rajendra Yadav, Soumitra Chatterjee or Girish Karnad, among other greats. Or, Sharmila Tagore, Amol Palekar, Aparna Sen, Anurag Kashyap and Naseeruddin Shah, among others. Even Deepika Padukone, a mega star, had the guts to stand in silence and solidarity with student protesters in JNU, after they were brutally assaulted by the armed goons of BJP’s youth wing, with cops watching in tacit alliance.

This follows a noble tradition among the greats in the Indian artistic domain, including cinema. Salil Chaudhury, Ritwik Ghatak, Kaifi Azmi, Munshi Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Sahir Ludhianvi, Balraj Sahni, Utpal Dutt, stars of our aesthetic firmament, firmly stood against fascism, and injustice, and aligned with the poorest of the poor. This was reflected also in their cinema, literature, music and lyrics. During the Emergency, Kishore Kumar and Dev Anand openly defied Sanjay Gandhi’s diktats and Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship.

Outside India, Socrates lived his political life as a soccer legend in full defiance of the military dictatorship; Diego Maradona openly flaunted the tattoos of Che Guevara on his body, as well his comradeship with Fidel Castro; Pablo Neruda became ill after his close friend, Salvador Allende, elected president of Chile, was killed in a CIA-backed military coup; Vaclav Havel led the Prague spring against the ossified ‘Communist’ dictatorship; Mohammad Ali defied the US government and refused to go to war and kill the people of Vietnam. This is a long and illustrious history.

American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench while the US national anthem was being played in a pre-season game on August 26, 2016. Why? To protest against police brutality and racism. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” he said. Later, he started ‘taking the knee’, which has been followed by athletes, celebrities and ordinary people in support of the Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the murder of George Floyd when a cop suffocated him with his knee.

ALSO READ: Many Celebs Spoke For Indian Farmers

During the Vietnam War, a huge section of Hollywood marched with the anti-war protesters. George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, Matt Damon, Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, among others, opposed the Iraq war, calling the WMD scare fake. Award-giving ceremonies and public functions were used to protest against the Iraq War and George Bush. Said Gael Garcia Bernal, famous for his role of Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, “If Frida (Kahlo) were alive, she’d be on our side, against the war” even as he presented a song from the film about the famed Mexican artist.

In the contemporary era, the BLM movement has galvanised almost the entire Hollywood and entertainment fraternity, with celebrities like Michael B Jordon, Tyler Cameron, Matt James, Madonna, Sophie Turner, Jo Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens, Ben Affleck, among hosts of others, marching on the streets and taking categorical position against racism.

Jennifer Lopez wrote on Instagram: “Max (son) told me a few days ago: ‘You know mom, since you have a following like some of my YouTuber gamers and they ask us to support things and we do, you should do that for George Floyd.’… I said, ‘Funny you say that baby, I am planning a few things. Do you want to help by making a sign?’” The singer added: “And they did!! We talked about how if one person doesn’t have justice then no one does. That this country was built on the belief of freedom and justice for all. We must take a stand for what we believe in and fight against the injustices in this world. So, we continue to peacefully protest until there is change.”

‘Rihanna, Greta Have Amplified The Voice Of Farmers’

Neeraj Tyagi, a farmer leader from Mandola Village in Loni, Uttar Pradesh, says the Modi government which tried every trick in the book to suppress farmers’ voice is now worried about its global image

Galat ko galat, aur sahi ko sahi kahna, yehi ek insan ki pehchan hoti hai (A man of integrity will never be afraid of calling a spade a spade). I respect the fact that a global celebrity like Rihanna decided to speak up on the issue of Internet ban during farmers’ protest. I also respect the young child and environmental activist of mark, Greta Thunberg, who brought the matter to worldwide attention.

I think celebrity support, if given with good intent, helps engage people to look more deeply into a matter of public importance. Artists are sensitive, they feel deeply about other humans. We are all humans too, apart from being citizens of our respective countries.

When the largest democracy in the world is at risk, how long can people keep quiet? If Modiji and other leaders can comment on what is happening in other countries, why can’t international celebrities do it? As long as the language is not hateful and demeaning, people are within their right to raise their voice.

ALSO READ: Many Global Celebrities Spoke About Indian Farmers

The Indian celebrities who were sleeping while the farmers had been protesting, are now trying to defend the government, using a script drafted by the Ministry of External Affairs (#IndiaTogether #IndiaAgainstPropaganda).

Tyagi (far right) at a farmers’ protest site

Some are saying Greta Thunberg is a child and does not understand Central farm laws. I want to ask them: Do children not suffer during a crisis or disaster? It is in the interest of farmers that their issue are being talked about at global level. This will amplify the voice of the farmers and bring the government to the table for a meaningful dialogue.

Now, the government is concerned about its global image. Where was their concern when it was hammering nails on the road and barricading the border to stop farmers? Is a country’s image dented only when public figures question it and not how their leaders act?

ALSO READ: This Protest Is Modi Govt’s Biggest Test

Hasn’t this government come to power on the basis of sheer words? One of the major PR programmes during the 2014 elections was Chai pe Charcha; now it is shying away from charcha on matters of public importance. They brought in Farm Bills through ordinance, sidestepping any debate or dialogue.

This government tried to label anyone who questioned them as anti-national but now they are finding it difficult to suppress the voice of the farmers. The media too needs to stop taking sides and raise issue impartially rather than sensationalise them.

Discussion is the need of the hour. Parliament is a sacred place where even those who don’t have a voice, can find representation. The democracy is accountable to the people. And a democratically elected government should be able to answer when it is questioned.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh