In this episode of UpFront, we challenge Lencho Bati, an adviser to the office of the Ethiopian prime minister about Abiy Ahmed‘s controversial handling of protests and ask why the Nobel laureate is so media-shy.
And we talk to two Bollywood legends about why so many celebrities in India are not speaking out against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hardline brand of Hindu nationalism.
Did Ethiopia’s Abiy get the Nobel Prize too soon?
In addition to sweeping political and economic reforms, Abiy released political prisoners and made a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, ending two decades of hostility. For this, he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
But under his government, protesters have been jailed, the internet has been blocked and a new law has just been passed that could jail people whose online posts stir unrest.
However, Lencho Bati, a senior adviser to the office of the prime minister, says the government of Abiy has done nothing wrong.
“All oppositions, armed and peaceful, are invited back, so the political space is wide and everybody is in the country, registering and campaigning,” Bati said.
Abiy’s tenure has also been plagued by ethnic conflict, with hundreds of thousands of people being internally displaced. Yet Bati says that the current government is not to blame.
“Ethiopian people used to live together peacefully. This is politically masterminded, agitated from behind in order to sabotage the reforms,” Bati said.
“The overthrown elites, the people who were enjoying privilege for 27 years, they want to make sure this process is sabotaged,” he added.
Perhaps the most radical of Abiy’s reforms is the dissolution of the governing coalition and the merging of several parties to form the Prosperity Party.
The Prosperity Party has its critics, among them, some of Abiy’s own allies: His own defence minister, Lemma Megersa, said the creation of the party is “not timely as there are many dangers”.
But Bati says the creation of the Prosperity Party is a positive move.
“Peace and stability is the burning issue, there is no question about that. The prime minister liberalised the political space, all oppositions are invited in, including those who are in armed struggle. Those who were in prison were released and now the political space is free,” Lencho said.
This week’s headliner is senior adviser to the office of the prime minister of Ethiopia, Lencho Bati.
Is Bollywood complicit in pushing Modi’s right-wing agenda?
The mainstreaming of a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism, mob lynchings, attacks on students, and an escalation in hate crimes: These have all become features of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.
However, most celebrities have been reluctant to speak out against the prime minister’s politics. Bollywood songwriter and poet Javed Akhtar is one of the few who is raising his voice.
He believes Modi is a fascist.
“Of course he is, I mean fascists don’t have horns on their head,” Akhtar said. “The moment you hate people in wholesale, you’re a fascist,” he added.
Bollywood director and producer Mahesh Bhatt says Muslims and other minorities in India have never felt more insecure and believes the media has played a key role in fueling anti-Muslim sentiment.
“I mean, that kind of a fear has been crafted, been structured day in and day out … the pliable channels are working around the clock to create, the ‘other’,” he said.
But when it comes to Bollywood and Modi, many stars appear to support the prime minister, or at least refuse to criticise him. Bhatt says that fear is to blame.
“They feel very vulnerable, but the explosive silence speaks for itself, that these people are frightened to speak their minds, even if they feel completely different to what they are posturing privately,” he said.
Akhtar agrees that people are scared to speak out, but he also says that the influence Bollywood has is highly exaggerated.
“Theatre or cinema’s influence is highly exaggerated. No country can claim that a revolution or a great social change came into that society because of a film,” Akhtar said.
Bhatt said if books or films could change a nation, India would have become a paradise by now.
“On the ground, I think there are other more serious things which ultimately decide which particular party will rule us. And filmmakers or actors and actresses … have a very limited role to play in creating the atmospherics,” Bhatt said.
On this week’s UpFront, Bollywood heavyweights Mahesh Bhatt and Javed Akhtar discuss the film industry’s role in speaking out against hardline Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India.