New Delhi, India – As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek re-election, a cross section of Indian celebrities and intellectuals has started campaigns in a bid to prevent a repeat of the 2014 elections.
Over 150 scientists issued a statement last week appealing people to “reject those who lynch or assault people, those who discriminate against people because of religion, caste, gender, language or region”.
Although circumspect about directly naming either Modi or the BJP, their messaging left little room for confusion. “An atmosphere in which scientists, activists and rationalists are hounded, harassed, intimidated, censored, jailed, or worse, murdered, is not the future the country deserves. It is not the future we want to give our youth,” a public statement by leading members of India’s research community read.
The signatories, whose number has reached 220 now, say that “we cannot endorse a politics that divides us, creates fears, and marginalises a large fraction of our society – women, Dalits [communities facing discrimination due to their so-called low castes], Adivasis [indigenous people], religious minorities, the persons with disabilities or the poor”.
“Diversity is our democracy’s greatest strength; discrimination and non-inclusivity strike at its very foundation,” they said.
The scientists said they want the Indian youth to awaken to a country that sees science as a means of democratic empowerment through sceptical, open-minded questioning, rather than just a commercial enterprise.
“Many of the developments over the years have really not been conducive to cultivate a scientific temper and, more recently, one might even say that it is difficult to cultivate a scientific temper,” Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, told Al Jazeera.
He said the decision to not specifically name a party was deliberate and the only thing the scientists wanted was for people to vote “rationally”.
The move was soon followed by many celebrities from the film and theatre world. Over 800 artistes issued a statement on artistuniteindia.com and appealed the Indian people to vote out “divisive politics”.
They minced no words in their statement which called people to “vote against the BJP and its allies” and vote for “love and compassion, for equality and social justice, and to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism”.
The statement was signed by many celebrities, including Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Anurag Kashyap and Lillette Dubey.
In their statement, the artistes said that for over 150 years, they have helped create the imagination of a “secular, democratic, inclusive and just India” with compelling human stories garnished with “song and dance, humour and pathos”.
“Today, that very idea of India is under threat. Today, song, dance, laughter is under threat…our beloved Constitution is under threat. The institutions that have to nurture argument, debate and dissent have been suffocated. To question, to call out lies, to speak the truth, is branded ‘anti-national’. The seeds of hatred have entered our food, prayers and festivals. The ways in which this hatred has seeped into our daily fabric are alarming, and it has to STOP,” their statement said.
Anand Patwardhan, an award-winning Indian filmmaker and a signatory to the statement, told Al Jazeera that people in his fraternity were feeling very frustrated at the takeover of electronic and print media by India’s largest corporations. “These corporates fully back this ultra-right-wing government, which is headed towards fascism.”
He accused the Modi government of targeting minorities, destroying the economy and assuming a dictatorial attitude.
Exercise your right to choose who will lead us towards a better tomorrow … pic.twitter.com/UeBkQtEyEu
— Soni Razdan (@Soni_Razdan) April 9, 2019
“People are being told lies. People who are brave enough to speak against this situation should get together and speak loudly so that others will also get encouraged to speak out,” he said.
Urmilesh, political analyst and former executive editor of Rajya Sabha TV, says that such statements by intellectuals and artistes are not new in the Indian politics. He said, “People came out with such statements in 2014 also and in the elections after 1975 emergency as well.”
The veteran journalist, however, believes that such statements “will have an impact on the ground”. “People will think why such people have come out and spoken so courageously,” he added.
BJP national spokesman Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, however, dismissed the campaign as ineffective. “BJP will win this election and Narendra Modi will be the prime minister,” he said.
Veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, a known Modi supporter, tweeted: “So some people from my fraternity have issued a letter for public to vote out the present constitutionally elected government in the coming elections. In other words they are officially campaigning for opposition parties. Good!! At least there are no pretensions here. Great.”