Thursday, April 20, 2006


Aamir Khan paid attention to the plight of those displaced (and those in peril of being displaced) by the Narmada dam.  Apparently this made the Gujarat BJP very very angry.  Nor are they the only ones: see here and here and here and here, for instance.

To which I say (yup folks, I feel a rant coming on):

In general, it's a weak argument to say that one's credibility is compromised because one doesn't "speak up" on all issues that one could speak up about. By this logic, should people who speak up on behalf of Muslim victims of the Gujarat violence or displaced Kashmiri pundits be criticized and their views disregarded because they don't typically have anything to say about the 100,000 or so people displaced in Tripura?

Nor is this simply a question of fairness: for a variety of reasons, one tends to be better informed on some issues as opposed to others; if I were to shoot my mouth off on everything under the sun, most of what I'd have to say would be rather superficial (e.g. I know very little about displacement of persons in Tripura, and beyond "it's sad/bad/awful" I am not sure what I could say). Certainly some situations are so juxtaposed that to comment on one and not on the other fairly raises suspcions of hypocrisy (classic e.g.: if I were to talk about Partition-era violence, and only focus on violence by one religious community against another, one would be hard-pressed to explain how that could possibly be a debate in good faith given the nature and scale of the violence in question).

The fact of the matter is that people attempt to use arguments along the lines of "why didn't you complain about x or y?" to try and de-legitimate someone taking a view they are uncomfortable with. Thus Mr. Pandit wonders where Aamir was when the question was (is, in fact) of Kashmiri Pundits; but where was Mr. Pandit when it's a question of Tripura, or violence against adivasis, or [fill in any number of issues here]. How is anyone better off if people in Aamir Khan's privileged position stay silent on every issue.

One should never forget that Aamir remains the exception. Most Bollywood actors seem quite oblivious to the society/politics around them, or perhaps they don't wish to take any risk by courting controversy. I don't judge them for that, but can't help admiring an actor who has chosen to go the other route (even if I don't always agree with him: I do on Narmada, but had reservations about some of his comments in a generally fantastic recent interview of his).

By this logic we should criticize people like Ash and Bachchan for lending their star power to animal rights campaigns (on the grounds that they never have to campaigns against child labor). Such critiques do not serve to expose hypocrisy as much as they attempt to paralyse political engagement, thereby producing the very cynicism and apathy that we all complain of.

On a somewhat different note, the Gahilote piece begs the question when it suggests that Aamir's actions would have been less cynical had he been making these statements from the Central Indian ground zero of the Narmada movement, as opposed to from Delhi (and in English to boot). This criticism rests on a misunderstanding of what people like Aamir Khan "bring to" a political group/issue such as that championed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan ("NBA"). That is, the NBA does not need Aamir to sow someone's field, give money, or generally "help" displaced adivasis-- all of which others can do as well as or better than Aamir can; the NBA needs Aamir to bring to the table that which only celebrities like Aamir can bring: publicity, the weight of their name and social acceptability, etc. Thus Aamir's presence in Delhi is not indicative of him being a mere publicity hound, but is exactly what the NBA would want him to do-- since presumably they want him for the publicity factor, and not for his critique of big dams. Heck, that's precisely why NBA activists are themselves at Jantar Mantar, and not "merely" at the site of the displacement.

Underlying Gahilote's piece is a rather offensive condescension toward the displaced who are the subject of this agitation. Nor is she alone in this: all too often the debate is framed in terms of people like Aamir or Medha Patkar or whoever "using" the plight of the displaced to advance their own agendas; pious sentiments to the effect that "of course" one wants to"help" these people, but that the manner of help afforded by these famous names is all wrong, exploitative, "out of touch" with the very people they claim to help, etc. The notion that the displaced might have their own political agendas, and that these agendas are advanced by their use of celebrities, seems to be foreign to many of India's English-language journalists and political observers. The "poor adivasi" is not being marginalized by Aamir's statements to the English-language media, but instead Aamir's access and currency with that media is the precise reason he has been approached. To put it another way, when we say that it is all too convenient for Aamir to make such statements after the success of "Rang de Basanti", we forget that there were no reports of the NBA wishing to engage him prior to RDB-- likely because the NBA cannily realizes that basking in the after-glow of Aamir's recent film has given him, and can lend them, greater legitimacy. It is precisely those with whom the likes of Aamir have especial currency-- youths, urban Indians-- that the NBA wants to have on board, and who better to reach out them than one who speaks their language. Who is "exploiting" whom?  And who's complaining?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh really! I thought Aamir's interview was extremely naive. His observations on the media appears like a school girl's belief on how the world ought to be. I did not find it intellectually stimulating. Instead I found myself wondering when he would grew up to become someone in touch with the world around.