Less than a month after veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh, known for her strident criticism of right wing politics, was shot dead outside her house, actor Prakash Raj, who happened to be Lankesh's friend, has spoken out against the BJP, saying people like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath are "better actors" than him, and at times he feels like "giving his five national awards to them". He later clarified that he had no intention of returning his awards.
What's said...n what's not said. For all out there .. thank you pic.twitter.com/zIT7rnkFxb— Prakash Raj (@prakashraaj) October 2, 2017
Raj's comments have put him at the receiving end of a lot of venom on Twitter. Ironic, because the actor also spoke about the bile which dissenters in the present regime are subjected to on the social media.
"We don't know who killed my dear friend Gauri Lankesh, but we can see the people who are celebrating her murder. In my life, I have never seen so much abuse like what happens on social media. Some people followed by our Prime Minister on Twitter spew venom. And the Prime Minister turns a blind eye to this," Raj said.
While the political motives, or the lack thereof, in Raj's comments can be debated, the actor does make valid points. More importantly, the actor has shown courage in raising pertinent issues that hog headlines of the day, but don't get called out ever so often, and in as many words.
Moreover, Raj is quite unique among his fraternity at a time when prominent Bollywood faces make a beeline to feature in taxpayer-funded government campaigns. The more belligerent ones in Bollywood have found a second lease of life, specialising as Twitter trolls, issuing casual threats to those who speak up.
Dissent is under unprecedented attack in India. Anyone who has spoken out against the BJP government, even if it was to complain of petrol prices, has experienced vicious, personal attacks - in drawing rooms, on the social media, in WhatsApp groups.
Prakash Raj has been attacked on Twitter for his comments, a trend he spoke out against.
For those whose attacks are on bigger fora - books, newspapers, social gatherings - and on more crucial issues, such as Hindutva, the BJP's economic and foreign policies, the dangers increase proportionately, as proven by the murders of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, CPI leader Govind Pansare and writer MM Kalburgi. Raj is a public figure, and he has a lot to lose by angering the aggressive Right.
This is more worrying because of the implicit sanction that hate-mongers seem to enjoy from the government. After Lankesh's murder, Surat-based businessman Nikhil Dadhich tweeted that "she was a bitch who deserved to die". There was a row over the comment and the fact that he was followed by PM Modi on Twitter, even sparking off the #BlockNarendraModi campaign.
It's worth mentioning that Dadhich is still followed by Modi, along with BJP leaders Natendra Singh Tomar and Giriraj Singh.
Prakash Raj's comments are noteworthy also because he does not end them with blaming the establishment for all ills. He goes on to add that "the source of all problems is people's ignorance".
When a government comes to power by promising "Rs 15 lakh in every Indian's account" and sustains its popularity through polarisation and jingoism, this point cannot be highlighted enough. When opinions are based on lies forwarded in WhatsApp groups, someone needs to call out the ignorance that is being encouraged and capitalised upon.
The cinema fraternity has not remained untouched by the aggressive nationalism of our times. Karan Johar had to cut a deal with MNS goons - with Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis acting as broker - before his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan could be released. Shah Rukh Khan faced protests because his Raees featured the Pakistani actress Mahira Khan. A Rajput outfit, Karni Sena, who have been exposed as mercenaries out to do the dirty work for the highest bidder, vandalised the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati based on the mythical princess and slapped the filmmaker because the movie "hurt their pride".
In such a scenario, speaking out against the government, without mincing words, takes great courage. For performing his role as a responsible member of the civil society, Prakash Raj deserves commendation. Maybe, even an award?