The letter sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by a group of eminent citizens, including Aparna Sen, Mani Ratnam and Ramachandra Guha, against intolerance is an example of how courage and good intention can be disastrous when removed from judgement.
Nothing spells bad judgement than doing the same futile thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. That, according to Einstein, is insanity. The truth is that well-intentioned protests like these, far from weakening the politics of intolerance, reinforces it. This is because these protests misconceive the nature of the ruling BJP dispensation under Modi.
The letter expresses concern over “religious identity-based hate crimes” and states that “Jai Shri Ram” has become a war-cry associated with several lynchings.
But what these artists and historians are missing is this: we are ruled by a populist government, whose politics is entirely based on mobilising the ‘real’ people against the elites, particularly the literary and cultural elites. It’s based on victimhood, the notion that the ‘Westernised’ cultural elites look down with scorn on the people of the country, their culture and their religion. So, when the ruling regime sees writers, actors and filmmakers protesting against them, it’s safe to assume they feel more excited than threatened. In fact, it’s exactly the grist to their populist mill that they require from time to time.
We have been here before. And we learned nothing from it.
Voters don’t listen to celebrities
In 2015, scores of writers and poets returned their awards to protest against communal violence in the country. The same year, Aamir Khan sparked off a controversy by saying that Kiran Rao was considering whether to move out of the country with their child due to the prevalence of an atmosphere of “intolerance”. After a backlash, Aamir swiftly caved in, claiming that his comments were twisted and neither he and his wife could ever think of leaving India.
More recently, Naseeruddin Shah claimed that he fears for the safety of his children in the India of today. And just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, hundreds of filmmakers, writers, and theatre personalities signed separate petitions asking voters to defeat the BJP, and their politics of hate. As it turned out, the BJP returned with an even bigger majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
That voters don’t listen to celebrities is clear enough. But by taking part in the BJP’s morality play of ‘rootless elites’, sullying the good name of the nation, versus the good people of India, the celebrities enable their politics. In a sense, they are like the people Arnab Goswami brings every night to shout at. They achieve no purpose, other than being a punching bag of populist rage, but without them, there could be no show.
Revolting against populists
It is true that historically, artists have stood out as a powerful force against authoritarianism, going back to the French Revolution. From Rabindranath Tagore to Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Vaclav Havel, poets and playwrights have played a central role in the struggle against repressive regimes. However, the voices of artists are mainly powerful in an authoritarian state based on repression, where they inspire people to rise up against an already unpopular regime. In contrast, populist authoritarians derive their power from popular consensus, and, therefore, tend to be immune to the protests of artists, which they skilfully portray as against the popular will.
We see a similar dynamic playing out in the United States, led by another populist. Donald Trump relishes the fact that most of Hollywood is vocally against him, and loves feuding with Hollywood celebrities such as Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. According to Californian professor Valerie O’Regan, such feuds with Hollywood stars benefit Trump, reinforcing his brand as “the voice of the little people against the liberal elite”. Michael Cobb, a political science professor who has studied the impact of celebrity endorsements on politics, also reckons celebrity opposition to Trump is “likely to be wasted”. Cobb concludes that not only are celebrities not persuasive in changing political attitudes, but people find them “less likeable and less credible” after learning they hold opposing political views.
Let the art speak
It would, of course, be legitimate here to ask what is the alternative? Should artists be mute spectators while people are being lynched in the streets in the face of a silent government? This is not a call for apathy, but for a more strategic course of action.
A stronger approach would be for artists to speak against the unjust order through their art. People would be more receptive to their literature, artwork and films, if they are not explicitly politicised. For instance, the parallel cinema of the 70s and 80s, led by directors such as Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, and Shyam Benegal, strongly propagated progressive values by focusing a realist lens on social issues. And they did that without being drawn into the quagmire of immediate partisan politics. More recently, movies like Mulk and Article 15 by Anubhav Sinha, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer by Aparna Sen, and Newton by Amit Masurkar have provided a biting commentary on the prevailing state of affairs.
The most powerful political propaganda, as the Right-wing knows better, is that which does not appear to be political propaganda at all.
Populists delegitimise dissent by assigning motives to any contrary opinion. By writing protest letters, artists make themselves easy targets to be painted as “serial Modi haters” and “peshewar nirashawadis” (professional pessimists) bent on bringing down the popularly elected government.
So, it is imperative for artists to “appear” above the immediate, partisan political fray. This would then give them the credibility and the moral authority to powerfully speak against contemporary injustices through their art. It is finally time the dissenting artists ditch the letters and the speeches, and let their art do the talking.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.