It matters because for every Zaira, who at least got the platform to initiate a conversation on this subject, there might be thousands of Zairas similarly silenced, threatened, bullied and abused.
It matters because the pusillanimity of liberals emboldens the Islamists.
Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher from the nineteenth century, once wrote:
“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
If the recent response by the filmmaking fraternity in the Zaira Wasim forced apology episode was anything to go by, it is clear that the Indian liberal community refuses to associate themselves with the struggle against radical extremism.
Zaira Wasim, the 16-year-old Srinagar resident, who portrayed wrestler Geeta Phogat as a teenager in the recent blockbuster Dangal, met the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti. The extremist bigots took strong exception to this, and filled the young artist’s social media feed with abuse, insults and threats. Zaira, quite possibly fearing for her personal safety, posted an apology for ‘hurting the sentiments’ of those abusing her.
To start with, let’s make something clear. Zaira herself has, in all likelihood, given the apology keeping her and her family’s safety in mind. She is a resident of Srinagar, and she is an actress. In future, her actions might be guided by her desire to stay safe and stay employed.
The response from the Bollywood fraternity, however, is another matter altogether.
Considering how, barely a week before this incident, Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe awards was applauded by many from Bollywood, the expectation was that Zaira’s fellow actors and filmmakers would condemn this bullying of a young girl in no unequivocal terms. After all, many from this industry had taken to an open letter asking voters not to vote for Narendra Modi’s BJP in 2014. This was the industry that had solidly stood behind the agitation in FTII in the same year after the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan. Bollywood’s ‘liberal’ values would dictate automatically that those who bully a young woman over a simple meeting with her state’s Chief Minister have to be condemned in no uncertain terms, we thought.
We were wrong.
There was hardly a message condemning Zaira’s online bullies. And when this hypocrisy was called out, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap went to the old ‘offence as the best defence’ tactic. Kashyap who had tweeted that Bollywood needs to stand with those who speak up at the time of the Streep speech, bracketed Opindia co-founder Rahul Raj along with those threatening and abusing a young girl, and said he condemns both. Seems like equating violent religious extremists with your ideological opponents on social media is Kashyap’s idea of being fair and balanced.
As he predictably got slammed on social media for his blatantly false equivalences, Kashyap decided that the real threat to democracy and free speech were those criticising him, whom he breezily referred as ‘troll’. He went to the extent of asking the Prime Minister if he gave private tuitions on how to troll. Then he mentioned his new year’s resolution as trolling the Prime Minister.
Oh Anurag, creating original content and supporting free speech unconditionally would have been good resolutions too.
As noted by several people online, it was uncanny how cleverly Kashyap managed to divert the attention from the issue at hand, i.e. religious extremists threatening a young actor, and made it about the usual liberal-right wing online rivalry. Any neutral observer is bound to have a paranoid moment and wonder “Did he take one for the team in this?”
Even if you see no conscious conspiracy in it, (I for one lean away from all conspiracy theories as a rule), Kashyap’s bizarre behaviour is the most egregious example of the narcissism exhibited by a lot of showbiz people. The filmmaker could not stand that the issue was not about him. In the bargain, the discussion about the measures needed to keep a young woman safe without encroaching on her liberties got side-lined, well that is exactly what his ego needed.
The other response that worried me greatly came from the lead actor of Zaira’s film, Aamir Khan. In a message, where he applauded the young actor’s courage and hailed her as a role model, Khan also asked all of us to leave her alone and let a 16-year-old girl deal with her life.
This reminded me of what is known in certain conservative circles in America as “Clinton defence - nothing to see here. Move along folks”. Remember Bill Maher comparing Benghazi with Seinfeld as “a serial about nothing”? Why otherwise, Khan, who used to claim he was coming to wake up our conscience through his TV show Satyamev Jayate, would want to terminate a public discourse on an issue as important as religious extremists threatening the dignity and the safety of a young woman? Since Khan is a powerful actor and producer in the industry, where Zaira has just tasted success, his message might also discourage her from participating in any future discussion over this issue. In either case, Khan’s response has been appalling. The fact that senior television personalities have supported Khan’s message only adds to the overwhelming cover-up job going on.
It is also worth noting that many prominent activists who support the so called ‘right of self-determination’ of Kashmiri people’, are completely silent over this increasing Talibanisation of the separatist movement. The gang that chanted about ‘bandook ke dum pe azadi’ seems okay with the fact that this peculiar version of azadi will actually end up subjugating women even further.
Why should it matter to all of us then?
It matters because for every Zaira, who at least got the platform to initiate a conversation on this subject, there might be hundreds, even thousands of Zairas similarly silenced, threatened, bullied and abused. It matters because the pusillanimity of people like Bollywood liberals emboldens the extremists. They now know that not only can they get away with threats and abuse, but in fact their Talibanisation will be enabled by liberals eager to settle political scores at every opportunity.
The advertisement of George Clooney’s biopic about the McCarthy blacklists and Edward R Murrow’s courageous response to it ‘Good night and Good luck” used to read - In a nation terrorized by its own government, six extraordinary Americans dared to tell the truth!
It is indeed unfortunate that we live in an age where while the government is waging a half decent battle against extremism, those who should be standing up and telling the truth are working overtime to suppress it instead.