Why must celebrities endorse protest movements?
Why must a popular movement with branches and spinoffs across several public and private universities across the country wait upon the endorsement from a celebrity?
India is burning. Several protest campaigns are raging across various parts of India. The string of protests across the country against the assault by the police against students in a university in New Delhi is currently attracting the most attention. The police not only pelted the students with tear gas shells but invaded the university library and allegedly fired on unarmed students.
Enough has already been said or written about what the protests were, and are, about. Briefly, the students, and many others across the country, have taken to the streets against a new Act passed by the union government. As it stands, the Act offers Indian citizenship to refugees from three neighbouring countries if they happen to face religious persecution in their home countries. It leaves out Muslims, the largest minority community in India, from the ambit of this act, ostensibly because the countries in question are majority Muslim countries. It is as though Muslims cannot face religious discrimination.
This is interpreted as an instance of discrimination on the ground of religion concerning Indian citizenship, and a clear violation of the Indian constitution. The Indian constitution provides for professing, preaching and practising of religion as such as a Fundamental Right of every citizen. It is interpreted by most protesters as discrimination against Indian Muslims. Yet others perceive the act as a precursor to the conversion of India into a Hindu nation. They are concerned that the ruling party may soon enough enact an amendment in the constitution abolishing the secular character of the Indian state. Given that the ruling BJP is proud to project itself as a Hindu nationalist party, the protests appear to move along the simple equation that the passage of this act amounts to discrimination against the Muslims in India as if they are already reduced to second class citizens.
I wish to highlight one particular aspect of the movement against the police assault on defenceless students. It is the active solicitation of endorsement from celebrities in the social media, as though the silence of a particular celebrity amounts to complicity or guilt. Within minutes or perhaps an hour of the news of assault coming out in the social media, commentators started wondering why Shahrukh Khan or Virender Sehwag did not explicitly condemn the brutality of the police. The online crowd swiftly reached a consensus that these two are the most famous alumni of Jamia Milia Islamia alive and that their words against the police brutality would, therefore, carry greater weight.
Within minutes, the purported silence of these two became a major concern for online discussions among supporters of the protests. Virender Sehwag was quickly dismissed as a supporter of the ruling party, and therefore unlikely to speak against the ham-handed conduct of the police. Shahrukh Khan, who in addition to being an alumnus of Jamia Milia is also a Muslim by religion, was not so lucky. As I write, speculations have been going on for a couple of days about exactly what has kept Mr Khan silent. Some believe that he is quiet because he is afraid of a hostile response from the supporters of the ruling party. The last time he appeared to criticize some excesses of this government, a few years ago, there was an active campaign to discourage viewers from watching his films. One of his films which released in the middle of that controversy fared disastrously. Its failure cannot entirely be attributed to Hindu reactions to his words at the time. But it cannot in all fairness be ignored either. Another famous Muslim actor, Amir Khan, too has had to face a similar fate more than once in the past. In other words, if Shahrukh Khan is not speaking now, it may well be because he is cautious. In any case, he is free, as a citizen, to choose his causes unless the protesters too choose to do a Hindu reactionary and refuse to see his films because he did not speak out. In these days of utter fluidity in the dynamics of internet bred solidarities, that too cannot be ruled out. If that comes to pass, Khan will probably be the first major public figure in India to be damned for his eloquence as well as silence.
Yet, why must a popular movement with branches and spinoffs across several public and private universities across the country wait upon the endorsement from a celebrity, even if he is the most famous actor in India? What is it that is lacking in a movement which is already supported by hundreds and thousands who have taken to the streets in so many campuses and cities and towns in India? What is it that the collective voice of so many thousands online in solidarity cannot yet bring to the movement? What is it that so many pieces written in defence of the values that the movement seeks to uphold cannot yet carry across to those it seeks to talk to? What is it that cannot be happy talking about the support the movement has generated so swiftly and across so many divisions but keeps regretting that one famous individual has not yet publicly endorsed it? What is this perceived deficiency with which the lack of endorsement by a celebrity afflicts a movement of students and common people across the country? What additional political or moral capital or legitimacy can Shahrukh Khan bring to a movement which has already spread so far and brought forth so much spontaneous support?
This is probably the first time that a popular political or moral popular movement in India, both offline and online, is actively soliciting endorsement by a celebrity. Indeed, this is probably also the first time in India that the endorsement from so many celebrities has been so forcefully highlighted. Newscasters such as Arnab Goswami or writers such as Chetan Bhagat, both known to be unapologetic supporters of the ruling formations in India, have surprisingly emerged as critics of the Act and the police brutality. Several film actors, mostly the younger ones, including those who recently had a group photo taken with the Prime Minister, have on social media condemned the police action and offered solidarity to the students from a distance. Several women actors, such as Swara Bhaskar, Sayani Gupta and Richa Chadha in particular, have been speaking relentlessly. Ms Gupta and Ms Bhaskar, in particular, have acquired something of a reputation in the recent past as fierce critics of the ruling formations. But these actors and other celebrities in the past have all lent their weight to social or political causes largely on their own. They found, as responsible adults, positive worth in particular causes or political positions from time to time, and willingly decided to endorse them. As a matter of fact, many actors have in the past fought and won elections and served as members of parliament and ministers both at the national and the provincial level. Some have even been chief ministers. However, almost all of them participated in public service on their own volition, and none was required or forced by their fans or admirers to take sides in political debates. Their worth, as it were, was not judged on the basis of their opinion or the lack of it on a question of national interest, for instance. An actor or a musician or a writer or a painter was never particularly new to politics. In fact, they had been an active part of the independence movement and those among the left had built up an impressive legacy of popular mobilization by means of music and drama. The point is different from the fame or pull of an actor, which a political party or movement often seeks to capitalize on. That is old hat. Yet, never once was a famous actor or musician held to some kind of instant popular disapproval if he or she did not speak up on a question of topical interest, like Shahrukh Khan appears to be, right now.
This resentment against a celebrity for not speaking up, even if the movement is otherwise vast and well-grounded on popular participation and moral legitimacy, also exposes a perceived vulnerability of the popular movement as a sufficient means of protest. It is as though no amount of popular support for a movement is enough until a celebrity chooses to endorse it, even if he or she does not physically take part in it. One of my younger friends confessed that a celebrity carries more appeal than an average student and that his presence in a movement, for instance, can even save students from reckless police brutality. Another young friend posted on Facebook a spirited update by the eighteen-year-old daughter of a famous former cricketer, and contrasted her eloquence to the silence of her father, as though the father has a moral obligation to side with the striking students.
This must be treated as a distinctly new moment in the political history of contemporary India. In the past, famous actors have been targeted for their purportedly anti-government positions. But in this new moment, self-conscious participants in large and spontaneous popular movements confess to a felt inadequacy in their enterprise, unless it is endorsed by a major celebrity. They feel emasculated even if they assemble in large numbers or build up large and impressive demonstrations of felt or shared solidarities. Whether or not the cause is just or legitimate, or whether or not the popular mobilization is large enough, is overshadowed here by a resignation to the perceived might of a celebrity to somehow inject to the cause or movement an additional degree of decisive visibility or legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The intrinsic or substantive worth of the cause is confessed to be evidently less than the visibility quotient of a celebrity. This is where even radical moral or political promise of a just movement is indirectly rejected as insufficient to move the masses who vote or pass judgements, as it were. This is the moment of surrender and indeed of the delegitimization of popular politics as it used to be. It is a tacit confession that even students all over India cannot carry a popular movement forward without a celebrity to lend the weight of his visibility. It is the moment when popular mobilization is normalized as a brand that cannot produce an endorser from among the ranks of voluntary participants, that it must continue to seek additional weight from outside it in order to appear sufficiently credible to a sufficiently large audience. It is as though the silence of the supposedly most famous Jamila Milia Alumni somehow outweighs support from students of several prominent universities across the country, and across the whole world, apart from the spontaneous and felt solidarity from average reasonable Indians from everywhere around the world. This is a first of sorts in Indian politics. It is a major victory for Shahrukh Khan, but a terrible defeat for autonomous students’ politics in India.