"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Rishi Kapoor’s death is a setback to secularist forces in India Featured

Gurpreet Singh 

The passing away of a well-known Hindi movie star when India is witnessing growing attacks on religious minorities has left a void that cannot be filled easily.

Rishi Kapoor, who was battling with cancer, died at the age of 67. 

The right wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose watch Muslims in particular are being blatantly targeted with impunity, expressed his condolences over the loss of a Bollywood celebrity, but Kapoor was a die-hard secularist who believed in pluralist India. 

Apart from acting on the silver screen, he was a vocal critic of religious extremism and frequently battled with right wing trolls on social media.  

He once criticised the banning of beef in India and described himself as a beef eating Hindu on Twitter, much to the annoyance of Modi supporters. Many devout Hindus consider the cow as sacred and won’t eat beef. Ever since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, self-styled cow vigilantes have intensified violent activities against Muslims, accusing them of consuming beef.

Kapoor had also advised Modi and his cabinet colleagues to provide people with basic services rather than indulging in divisive politics.

He had come under attack for playing the role of a Muslim victim of police repression in Mulk, which was released in 2018. It was one of his last movies, worth watching to understand what India is going through under the current regime. Muslims are constantly intimidated by the police in the event of any bombing incident, and are treated as potential terrorists. In an eventuality of arrest they find it hard to get a lawyer to defend them in the courts.. Kapoor had played the role as a Muslim patriarch who is harassed and humiliated by the police and the prosecution, and by the wider society, because of the involvement of a family member in terrorist activities. Unsurprisingly, the film angered Modi loyalists, by exposing the existence of Islamophobia in India.

This is not to suggest that he was perfect. Like most of us, he also erred at times and history will judge him accordingly. He had applauded the former Punjab Police Chief KPS Gill on his death in 2017. Gill was a controversial police officer who was complicit in the repression of Sikhs in Punjab. In the name of the "war on terror" against insurgents struggling for a separate homeland for the Sikhs, the Punjab police had kidnapped many Sikh men, including political activists, and killed them through extra judicial means. Women were also subjected to custodial rapes during this period. Since the Sikh separatists were also involved in violent killings of Hindus and their political critics, many saw Gill as a saviour, and glossed over the power abuse by Punjab police. Perhaps, Kapoor was among those who believed in what most Indians were made to believe by the mainstream media in relation to Sikh separatism in Punjab and the state response to this challenge. Nevertheless, he never supported extremism of Hindu groups either, and the example of his tweets against cow policing is before us. 

It is pertinent to mention that Kapoor had questioned the naming of New Delhi Airport after Indira Gandhi, the late Prime Minister who had ordered the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar in June, 1984. 

Aimed to rid the place of worship from Sikh militants, the ill conceived army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead, and important buildings inside heavily destroyed. This was done to whip up emotions against Sikhs to win the forthcoming general elections with the help of the Hindu majority. This outraged Sikhs all over the world and galvanized the movement for a separate state. As a result of this incident, Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, following which thousands of innocent Sikhs were targeted across India by mobs led by the slain leader’s so called secular Congress party activists.

Kapoor had asked on twitter why the New Delhi airport should not be named after more undisputed and respectable historical figures instead of Indira Gandhi.

Let’s not put him on pedestal, and be objective about his political positions and give credit where it belongs. His death isn’t just a loss to the film industry, but to a country that has gone to the dogs. Today when most Bollywood stars remain silent to the misdeeds of Modi and some are willing to please him, Kapoor will always be missed.  He was after all one of those rare individuals who can dare to stand up against majoritarianism. 

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