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Aparna Sen & Ramachandra Guha should know sending letters to Modi only makes him look good

Populist leaders like Modi thrive on victimhood. And can easily turn people against celebrities, who they project as Westernised and far removed.

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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.

Also read: Celebrities’ letter to Modi shows selective outrage: Prasoon, Kangana & 59 others hit back

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 filmmakerswriters, 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.

Also read: Arnab Goswami screams at Aparna Sen but she was conducting a press conference

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.

Also read: Narendra Modi and the art of being a Right-wing messiah and left populist

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.

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  1. Dear Asim,
    Thank you for your insights! It is an eye-opener for dissenting artists and gives an idea on how to deal with authoritarian rule and populist politics of the right wing that is rising with ferocity.
    Cheers from Pakistan

  2. Why does the writer beat about the bush and resort to half truths to promote his false narrative about alleged intolerance and lynching. Has he been able to refute any one of the assertions made by the opposite side which has trashed the allegations of the so called 49 intellectuals. Why is Vij, who seems to be a spurious left liberal, quiet about the vicious attacks on Hindus by the jihadis in West Bengal by Didi’s fanatical goons and those by the Commies in Kerala. Please read the chilling report by Robert Spenser
    dated July 29 and headlined:’ The massive jihad poisoning plot in India is nothing new.’ It almost happened in hate spewing Anurag Kashyap’s own city, Mumbai. Maybe others of his ilk would dismiss it as a fake report. Aparna Sen could not answer any question about her selective silence when a powerful News Anchor flung them at her. Wake up Faux liberals. You have irreparably damaged the country.

  3. Can this group of 49 tell us if they have honestly accounted for every rupee of their income and paid their income tax correctly? The reason why the letter was written was to get 15 minutes of fame for those who are past they sell buy dates.

  4. Most artists I know are self serving & a egoistic class . The political art they produce & propound is a desperate attempt to use a medium to focus attention on their feeble artistic self’s. So pl stop viewing them from the false creative hallowed perspective.

  5. The way writer has shown is good. Populist Govt like Modi’s will have blinded supporters from all walks of Life. Most of people do love political leader who voives their opinion , regardless whether those opinions are fact base or true. And populist govt supporter like RSS have mastered the art of Making people’s opinions in hindutva way. So dissent should acknowledge fear of those who are against violence but also burdened by their grieves whoch they should know can not be solved by Populist govt at all.

  6. Why is it that everytime someone obliquely is critical of a political party and there is a furore about how wrong they are? If they are really wrong, it will be proved with time so why the hulla.bulla, name calling, vicious personal attacks…. Doesn’t the country have better things to do?
    2ndly, Ok, so Kashmiri pandits were attacked by muslims . They need to be punished. In the same way, people who attacked Sikhs also need to be punished but how does it justify Lynching which is happening right now? Will dwelling on the past and not acting on the present lead to a better India?
    3. As far as I know, Lynching is a crowd behaviour, which is complex and difficult to analyse. Who on earth want or support Hindus become lynchers??? Because Muslims are violent and intolerant must we become like them??
    4. What is the RSS ideology? A uniform India. Is that really positive? Where is our unity in diversity?
    5. Not only that , the lynchers use the name of Ram.. what is the difference between them and the terrorists who shout Allah hu Akbar and kill?
    6. Why must Arnab Goswami shout down some one to make his point? Why other journalists do not shout? Are they less capable?
    7. What is a pseudo intellectual? Who is a true intellectual? Some one who do not meddle with politics. Or some one who supports the BJP.
    8. The BJP has got the peoples mandate.. so does that mean it cannot be criticised?
    9. So trump is good because he takes bull by the horn. Does he really? Are all Americans proud of him? Is he doing EVERYTHING right? Then Modi ji should surely copy him..
    In a country where Hindu daughters are still killed over dowry or just because they are daughters, where children die due to malnourishment, where girls as young as 2-3years old are raped, where girls as young as 12 are married off, where pollution is increasing day by day, population explosion….does it matter so much what Aparna Sen has written??
    Muslims are bad. I am not proud of what we Hindu s are becoming..

    • Just one point – about punishing perpetrators of Pandit genocide. You agreed that it should be done. Good so far. But please cite articles written by Arundhati, Aparna, RamAchandra (he prefers that) etc condemning perpetrators or blaming the then dispensations (like they did for Gujarat riots 2002) or returned / refused to accept awards. I havent come across any. Kindly oblige.

      Rest points to be addressed after you or Asim have satisfacrorily answered the above with real verifiable citations.

    • Excellent. You said it. But sadly a large section of Hindus don’t like to be shown the mirror. Hindus’ ability to live in denials and self aggrandisement is legendry.

  7. Oh dear! Another piece of woe from the sullen and surly member of the religion of peace and the “true” religion. Individual and mob acts are not looked upon as criminal endeavors but are attributed to the Hindus in general and the BJP in particular. Did the advent of Narendra Modi pave the way for GAU warriors and others? Perhaps. As disgusting as it is to be lynched for your livelihood as acts are criminal in nature and not, as the author seems to imply, some grand conspiratorial scheme by the Hindus. Wake up and smell the coffee. The bulk of people who voted for the Narendra Modi are not interested in these criminal acts. They want their country to be normal; a clean and prosperous land as other nations that inhabit this planet.

  8. Aaahhhh please u 49 just leave us, the public alone…we don’t see any intolerance anywhere…don’t pretend like ur our annadaata, Hume bachanewale types… honestly we have gone past all these tricks the last time u gang returned ur awards…so please spare us…n if u want to that award vaapsi naatak go ahead n we don’t care coz we don’t even know u received one in the first place…🙏🙏

  9. Mr. Gopal Vaidya, your analysis is perfect. Unfortunately left educated people have always projected hindus for all ills & keeping mum on other ills. Shabana Azmi was proud award winner during emergency & now talks about freedom.
    Majority of Indians were tolerating these left wing elites as there was no option. Modi gave them strong option. The way left elite supported JNU slogans, ridiculed army, questioned surgical strike & praised Imran for release of Abhinandan (despite it was clear that it was international pressure exerted by Indian govt) means these elites rightfully lost trust of silent majority.
    Entire opposition also joined those left liberals thus silent majority got behind Modi firmly. Good example is Raj Thackaray & Arvind Kejrival, Chandrababu Naidu & Mamta Banerjee. Raj Thackaray & Kejrival were shown on Pak media for questioning surgical strike. Mamta also questioned army action. Chandrababu , Kejrival & Raj Thackaray who were strong anti congress plank & thus anti congress vote bank behind them thought that this vote bank will support them as they joined hand with congress. This anti congress vote bank chose strong anti congress option which was only Modi.

  10. 1. I can understand feelings of those individuals who wrote a letter to PM Narendra Modi expressing concern about lynching incidents and hate crime of the extreme right groups. These signatories of the letter have their own views on RSS; perhaps they are all opposed to RSS ideology and BJP’s politics. All this is acceptable. All of them may claim that their idea of India is entirely different than that of RSS & BJP. This is perfectly okay. 2. I believe that just as politicians like Narendra Modi, with their RSS background, need to build bridges with leaders of minorities and with many groups of intellectuals, including the signatories, the well-educated critics of RSS and politicians too have to make sincere efforts to understand the RSS ideology. 3. I am aware of fact that many politicians (Leftists, former socialists and senior Congressmen) either ridicule RSS and its work or dismiss RSS as a fascist anti-democracy organization. This attitude on part of these individuals has resulted in a quite shift in attitude of a big section of the educated middle class. Incidentally, I also think that indifference of Congress leaders, socialists and Leftists means that they have failed to recognise that RSS has silently created an alternative rightist party in form of BJP. 4. How many of these signatories are ready to accept that merely criticising RSS and BJP their Hindutva ideology does not really serve any good purpose unless they stand-up to counter such ideology? 5. It is not that democratic rights are in danger in India alone. In good many European countries, and even in USA, rightist parties and groups have become popular. They have been campaigning and want curbs to be imposed on democratic freedom of people, particularly of people of Islamic faith, again in ‘national interest’. Question then is this: are left-oriented and other activists in India ready to accept the ground reality and what would they wish to do to strengthen democracy?

  11. Mr.Mani Ratnam has already informed that his signature was forged or the signature contained in the letter is not his signature and he is not aware of such a letter.A balanced person like me, a neutral person, will ask these people, why they did not raise their voices against the persecution of Kashmiri Pundits, why they are not questioning the method of worshipping on the roads by Muslims, blocking the traffic, why we are disturbed by regular Azan of early mornings from nearby mosques…..I am just a normal Indian, will never be swayed away by Modi or Rahul but I will vote according to the rquirement of the country at a particular time. The real problem lies in Minority Appeasing..Let us be normal human beings, equal in every respect, honest, value based.

  12. As a Tamilian, I’m disappointed to learn my favorite director Mani Ratnam is part of this selective outrage gang,
    What makes them think their artistic talent allows them to advertise their political bias ?

    The author of this article would also like to side step the reality Hindus are constantly vilified and are demanded different standards.

  13. These artists selectively cry and write letters, gives an impression that they are biased and highly selective in their utterances, no one can deny their ideological position, therefore a suspect in public eye. I will refrain from calling them eminent, as that sort of acceptance is not their on their work

  14. This is a tone deaf article that continues to ignore real concerns. The objection to the letter had nothing to do with populism. Many who support Modi aren’t votaries of Hindutva. Most Modi supporters don’t condone lynchings but they do object to the attempt to lay the blame of every lynching on Hindus. The objection to the letter was that it is selective. Lynchings is mob violence that sometimes lead to the death of thieves, rapists, criminals and even innocent people. Sadly these lynchings have been going on for a long time and most of them have nothing to do with religion but our press keeps trying to pin it on Hindus.

    The selective highlighting is not just in the case of lynchings but it’s part of a larger trend that has been going on for decades. For example, thousands of articles have been written about Gujrat riots and, yet, most of those articles don’t even mention Godhra burnings. When the destruction of Babri Masjid is mentioned, nobody points out the temples that were damaged all over India or completely destroyed in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Dubai. None of this means that people want riots or the destruction of mosques. However, what is missing is an acknowledgment of the crimes that have been committed by Muslims as well.

    Ultimately what lies at the root of these issues is the destruction of Indian history and culture at the hands of our left wing “pseudo secular” elites. Today both Hindus and Muslims perceive themselves as victims. This is another deaf article that misses the crux of the matter.

  15. What motivated Prasoon Joshi and Kangana Ranaut to pen their thoughts one cannot say, but Ms Aparna Sen and Shri Ramachandra Guha are very highly regarded for both their professional attainments and their integrity. What they say deserves to be heard with utmost respect, even by those who do not agree with them.

    • You should change your screen name to tone deaf Ashok.
      You missed the memo! You don’t get what the author and the commenters have said.
      I have been reading your sicular and biased posts with amusement. Sometimes wonder you must be Ramachandra Guha:)

      • I must make a confession, sir. Quite often, reading just the heading and the name of the columnist, figure out what the score is and append my two cents.

  16. So the answer is capitulation? No. Citizens must give vent to their feelings openly whether they are celebrities or commoners. It may take time but it will finally be demonstrated that India believes in secularism. And that all religions being practised in India are equal

  17. Who gave them certificates as eminent? They are artists and showmen from film industry doesn’t mean they are part of elite intellectual club. The more they talk, it is better. Like in Hollywood, the more they talk against Trump, the better and stronger he becomes. Unlike past President, Trump is different and take bull by horn and I am sure Trust is going to win again. Same will happen in India. Modi will be unstoppable, in spite of all these bickering by award wapsi gang. They lost their credibility, whatever little they had.

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