Two days ago, Priyanka Chopra described on Instagram, with great precision, how George Floyd was pinned down by white cops in Minneapolis as he gasped for breath and died. Black lives matter, her post seemed to emphasise, echoing the sentiments of most people with basic empathy across the world.
A pandemic, as many of us have experienced in the past few weeks, has brought death so close to us that it has almost become just a numbing statistic. For many people, this has meant that all deaths, even those that have occurred due to political missteps, are apolitical. Blame the disease, not the governments that bungled and made callous decisions that left millions of people struggling to survive. At the end of the day, since the death certificates list the cause as COVID-19, government cheerleaders insist that “we are all in this together”. How many deaths do we mourn? How many broken families do we comfort? How many shattered people do we help? We are humans, we are alive, we have limited material and emotional resources and we have to get on with our lives, right?
Floyd’s death, however, was poke-in-the-eye political. The widely shared visual pointed out a clear aggressor and a victim. It robbed from most of us a little more of our waning faith in humanity. It also robbed the rich, powerful and apolitical for profit a curtain to hide behind. Thus came out the ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogans on the Instagram stories and posts of people you would least expect to be ‘political’. In India, it wouldn’t be completely wrong to say that condemning fascism in another nation is quietly profitable for some people’s public image.
Argh-these-influencers-only-talk-about-vacays-and-lippies-and-don’t-care-about-anything-political-oh-heyyyyy-they-do! About ‘Black lives’. For many Indian influencers who are adamantly tightlipped about caste and religious violence in India, ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a bumper giveaway for woke points. Trust me, I agonised over softening this statement for a while, but nope, there’s no perceivable way to sugarcoat this kind of opportunism.
Muslim lifestyle influencers told HuffPost India earlier how speaking up against atrocities against minorities cost them work and followers, where as a majority of their community which virtually thrives on ‘love’ and ‘positive vibes’ kept peddling mothballed captions about optimism, and did not either back or speak up for their own colleagues. It is, however, a whole different story when it comes to racism in America, like we have seen. The influencer conscience, hitherto hidden under sunshine, immunity boosting chai and homemade gluten-free bread, has finally reared its pleasant head.
Chopra, who—legitimately—always talks about her struggles as a woman of colour in America, condemned the police action on another person of colour. “End this race war here in the US, and around the world,” she said.
Rightly so. The image of Floyd being killed was terrifying, outrageous and unpardonable. In India too, we have seen some brutal, indefensible visuals over the past few weeks. There was the video of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother on a railway platform in India. Or the photo of a man, his mask slipping off his face, weeping on the sidewalk into an inexpensive mobile phone. Or the photos of the chapatis that 16 labourers had packed for their long walk home from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, before they fell asleep on railway tracks and were run over by a train. But Chopra and her clan barely spared a word, forget a moving note, for these images.
What was the difference? The perpetrator of these atrocities — in this case, the government — was physically not present in these visuals. What ultimately killed the child’s mother? Hunger. What killed the sleeping migrants? A train. What left the man weeping on the roadside? The lack of vehicles to take him home. What led to all this suffering? An ill-planned, callous lockdown that did not acknowledge 80% of the country’s population and how they live. Who did this? Ah, they-who-should-not-be-named-on-star-Instagram-posts.
In fact, they are only to be named when the organised public relations cartel, as revealed by our entertainment editor Ankur Pathak, ‘invites’ Bollywood for photo op calls with BJP leaders.
So is this — calling out a clique or rich, privileged influencers and celebrities for protesting a brutal crime — a form of whataboutery that we could perhaps spare them this time? Not this time, in this country. Their obstinate silence on absolutely similar systemic oppression, government-backed violence in their own country simply suggests that all this sudden echoing of ‘Black Lives Matter’ from them is an unsubtle appropriation of the courageous, challenging work done by Black activists in America. While the activists face tear gas their country, our influencers here have nothing to lose, fear or risk by joining the chorus from their Instagram handles. All’s well that ends woke. Needless to point out here, that oppressive regimes and political groups across countries draw sustenance from each other’s success, and selective, safe outrage helps no one.
A few months ago, there was another set of visuals that once again didn’t find any space on most celebrities’ pages — police parading Jamia students like they are criminals, vandalising a library, a mob surrounding a bloodied man in Delhi. But then there was a question to hide behind. Who actually started the riots?
Chopra and her celebrity clan who have spoken up on Floyd — Kareena Kapoor Khan among them — are no strangers to right-wing Hindutva bile. Chopra was harassed on social media for scenes in her TV series Quantico and for not wearing a long enough dress to meet the PM. Kapoor has been made a poster woman of ‘love jihad’ for Hindutva groups and got trolled relentlessly just after giving birth for naming her son Taimur. Anushka Sharma is now facing a troll army who allege that Pataal Lok — a series she produced on Amazon Prime Video — is Hinduphobic. When Deepika Padukone turned up at a JNU protest, people demanded that her film Chhapaak be boycotted. You might want to say, why take the trouble again?
But here’s the thing: people like Safoora Zargar, Umar Khalid and the Pinjra Tod members don’t have the privileges that these stars have. Will Priyanka Chopra lose much if she spoke about what exactly led to the death of so many poor migrants, including children, considering she is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and someone who works for underprivileged children? Maybe a film here or a brand endorsement there. Her PR team may have to deal with a couple of days of trolling. Maybe a random person will file a random FIR which will get quashed before it sees a court date. Safoora Zargar, who is currently in jail amid a pandemic, is pregnant and has a world to lose. Why did she take the trouble of speaking up for minorities?
There are journalists, often paid very little, putting their safety at risk to bring to the likes of Chopra visuals of migrants marching to their homes, tired, hungry and lost. Many of them are now at risk of being fired by their employers too. Why are they taking the trouble?
There are aid workers, who have none of Chopra and her clan’s clout, running around cities distributing food to labourers, relentlessly condemning the government’s brutality and protesting at the same time. What do they have to lose? As the last few years have proved, their independence for criticising the government, physical health and the peace of mind of their families. Why are they taking the trouble?
“Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color,” Chopra said. But as her song goes, what about ‘her city’?
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.