How to be illogically ‘Activist’

Hey, I have nothing against activism or activists. Activists are a great part of civil society and democracy – they’re what keeps the system going, but still, when someone has an opinion; it irks me that they don’t think it all the way through.

Sample some writing by two such activist types.

The first is an open letter to Amitabh Bacchan written by Mallika Sarabhai about his endorsement of Gujarat, the second is a review of ‘My Name is Khan’ by Jawed Naqvi. Take a look at the article by clicking on the link and I’ve reproduced Mallika’s letter below:

Greetings from a Gujarati.

You are indeed a fine actor. You are an intelligent man and a shrewd businessman. But should I believe in your endorsements?

Let’s take a brief look at what you proclaim you believe in (albeit for huge sums of money). BPL, ICICI, Parker and Luxor pens, Maruti Versa, Cadbury chocolates. Nerolac paints. Dabur, Emami, Eveready, Sahara City Homes, D’damas, Binani Cement and Reliance.

And now Gujarat .

I wonder how you decide what to endorse. Is your house built with Binani Cement? Do you really like Cadbury’s chocolates or do you have to resort to Dabar’s hajmola (whose efficacy you have earlier checked) after eating them?

And having endorsed two pens, one very upmarket and one rather down, which one do you use? Have you, except perhaps for the shooting of the ad, ever driven or been driven in a Versa? Do you know whether the Nerolac paint in your home (you do use it don’t you?) has lead in it that can poison you slowly as it does so many people? Or are the decisions entirely monetary?

It has been reported that no direct fee will be paid to you for being my Brand Ambassador. So, with no monetary decision to guide you, how did you decide to say yes? Did you check on the state of the State? I doubt it, for the decision and the announcement came from one single meeting. And I somehow doubt that you have been following the news on Gujarat closely.

So, as a Gujarati, permit me to introduce my State to you.

Everyone knows of our vibrancy, of the billions and trillions pouring into our State through the two yearly jamborees called Vibrant Gujarat. But did you know that by the government’s own admission no more than 23% of these have actually moved beyond the MOU stage? That while huge subsidies are being granted to our richest business houses, over 75000 small and medium businesses have shut down rendering one million more people jobless?

You know of Gujarat ’s fast paced growth and the FDI pouring in, you have no doubt seen pictures of the Czars of the business world lining up to pour money to develop us. To develop whom? Did you know that our poor are getting poorer? That while the all India reduction in poverty between ’93 and 2005 is 8.5%, in Gujarat it is a mere 2.8%? That we have entire farmer families committing suicide, not just the male head of the household?

You have heard of how some mealy mouthed NGO types have been blocking the progress of the Narmada project, how the government has prevailed, and water is pouring down every thirsty mouth and every bit of thirsty land. But did you know that in the 49 years since it was started, and in spite of the Rs.29,000 crores spent on it, only 29% of the work is complete?

That the construction is so poor (lots of sand added to the you- know- which cement perhaps) that over the last 9 years there have been 308 breaches, ruining lakhs of farmers whose fields were flooded, ruining the poorest salt farmers whose salt was washed away? That whereas in 1999, 4743 of Gujarat ’s villages were without drinking water, within two years that figure had gone up to 11,390 villages ? (I can not even begin to project those figures for today – but do know that the figure has gone up dramatically rather than down.)

With our CM, hailed as the CEO of Gujarat, we have once again achieved number one status – in indebtedness. In 2001 the State debt was Rs.14000 crores. This was before the State became a multinational company. Today it stands at Rs.1,05,000 crores. And to service this debt we pay a whopping Rs7000 crores a year, 25% of our annual budget.

Meanwhile our spending on education is down, no new public hospitals for the poor are being built, fishermen are going a begging as the seas turn turgid with effluents, more mothers die at birth per thousand than in the rest of India , and our general performance on the Human Development Index is nearly the first – from the bottom. One rape a day, 17 cases of violence against women, and , over the last ten years, 8802 suicides and 18152 “accidental “ deaths of women are officially reported. You can imagine the real figures.

You have said that you are our Ambassador because we have Somnath and Gandhi. Somnath was built for people. Gandhiji was a man of the people. Do the people of this State matter to you? If they do, perhaps your decision will be different. I hope you will read this letter and decide.

In warmth and friendship,


So let’s begin with Mallika’s letter.

Amitabh Bacchan is a well known actor, he endorses a range of products on television. I’m not going to contest the list – but here is the rub, Mallika asks – should she (and also the people of Gujarat) believe in his endorsements? I have a problem with the framing of this question.

Does the fact that Amitabh Bacchan endorses a bunch of products also mean that he has to believe in them? Let me explain. Acting is a trade, a business – models do commercials for money and so does Amitabh Bacchan. Unless you truly believe that Amitabh Bacchan also did every single film of his because he ‘subscribed’ to everything his character/role said/did on screen; this strikes me a ridiculous argument.

An advertisement is an advertisement; yes the media has great power to influence and all that; but does endorsing a product automatically translate into belief? (I’m not getting into the Nerolac question – lead poisoning, citation?)

Next, Amitabh Bacchan said he would endorse the ‘Gujarat campaign’ without any money, so? If Amitabh Bacchan felt that he wants to endorse Gujarat because of Somnath and Gandhi (note, not Modi) and without money; is there a problem with that intention?

Mallika also points out Gujarat is in a state of  indebtedness, this advertisement would have influenced tourism and income (positively) – strange then, that the rant is about Gujarat’s problems and the attack is on a minor effort to help. Most interestingly, if anyone has taken note of Amitabh Bacchan’s political inclinations – whatever they might be, they are certainly not Modiwards at any rate.

And while on the subject of endorsement, why not also attack Kiran Bedi for endorsing Fair and Lovely, surely that was a more upfront endorsement for colour-based discrimination by a woman icon of this county. Or is it that – Amitabh Bacchan supporting Gujarat’s tourism is a larger issue than fairness creams? Or maybe Kiran Bedi’s was an endorsement and Amitabh Bacchan’s was a carefully orchestrated mind game of support to Modi? I don’t about you – but to me this is far-fetched.

Mallika says Amitabh wanted a tax-free screening in Gujarat, a Rajyasabha seat for his wife, and free land for a film city. We don’t know the source of this information. Even if Amitabh wanted a tax free screening of Paa in Gujarat, so what? A lot of film stars request similar things from a bunch of CMs, is this any worse? Paa was a decent film. I don’t know about the other two claims, aside of the fact that it is hearsay. I have a problem with the wording and argumentation of this letter.

Moving on to Jawed Naqvi’s review of My Name Is Khan. MNIK is not a great film, it is barely a good film. The second half is longer than it should be  and stretches beyond imagination. The Khan has overacted and Kojol isn’t convincing. I’ve seen the film. However, MNIK is not a pro-saffron brigade film. That is my problem with Jawed Naqvi’s take on MNIK.

Second, Narendra Modi’s politics is not only about stereotypes. In fact, stereotypes are quite the secondary theme of his politics. The closest thing to stereotypes in Modi’s politics is xenophobia – a fear of the ‘Other’; which is a theme that MNIK manages to address fairly well. Modi’s politics is hate politics, it is an anti-minority stand that functions through many ways and stereotypes are one of those ways, certainly not the only way.

Thirdly, in the film – Khan does not let the FBI catch a bunch of angry muslims who were protesting Modi and Bush. He catches sight of a bunch of Islamist extremists.  I want to know – if you feel angry about the plight of Muslims in Gujarat, Palestinians or Kashmiri’s should you be plotting to blow up Americans or Hindus in India? Is that the answer?

Surely, Mr. Naqvi recognizes that as they are Modis so there are mullahs. Opposing Modi doesn’t mean you should not oppose a mullah.

Mr. Jawed’s next problem is oversimplification. Khan’s mother (in the film) tells him there are two types of people; good and bad. Yes there are. This has nothing to do with autism. This holds true for normal people too. In bad times, it is what people do with their anger (and shades of grey) that make them do good or bad things. You could be angry about Palestine and take up arms or you could join a peace movement. Go ahead – classify. Good or Bad?

Indeed it is nonsense that MNIK suggests that outrage against Palestine and the Gujarat pogrom is shared only by Muslims. The fact that the movie brings the journey of one Rizwan Khan to the media (in the movie) implies that the message “of peace and that all Muslims are not terrorists” goes out to those who watch television in general – unless in Mr. Naqvi’s world only Muslims watch television.

Why Mrs. Khan asks Naqvi – why not? All over India and the world many women out of choice adopt their husband’s last names. There is no indication in the movie, that Mandira (Kajol) does this out of anything but choice. If the argument is that women should not have to change their names, that is a valid argument for another day. A lot of much married women don’t change names and many do because they’d like to, or because tradition says so and they haven’t actively had a problem with that.

The problem with the Naqvi point of view is that it berates a brave film. A long, not very great – but still brave film.

It was in India that the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace was banned. Take a look at the progress – Karan Johar (a mainstream  family-drama film making director) makes a film about religious profiling.  I think that is great news. Just as Obama becoming president – sure Obama hasn’t done as much as he could about de-nuking the world and Karan didn’t make a perfect film. Does that mean we should turn away from the progress? I don’t think so.