Swara Bhasker recounts a formative moment from her childhood in the “Foreword” to Inquilab: A Decade Of Protest, a new book that maps the evolution of democracy in India and its culture of protests in the last decade. At the age of 10, the actor writes, shortly after watching Amitabh Bachchan’s character being denied entry to a club in Mard (“because of a sign saying ‘Indians and Dogs Not Allowed’”), she became aware of the discrimination practised in the apartment complex where she lived with her family in Delhi. The building had designated elevators and staircases for staff, barring them from accessing supposedly public space.
Although Bhasker’s “elevator satyagraha”, an attempt to rally support to end this discrimination, did not succeed , the experience instilled in her a passion for justice, manifest in all the speeches she has given in the last few years. Inquilab documents movements that changed the course of Indian politics, some of which Bhasker actively participated in (such as Shaheen Bagh and Not In My Name), and others that inspired her (like Anna Hazare’s Lokpal movement and the protests after student Rohith Vemula’s suicide). In these edited excerpts from an email interview, she speaks about what it means to live a politically aware life.
What was the effect of your “elevator satyagraha” on you as a child and in the subsequent years?
I think my failed “elevator satyagraha” was an early lesson that one should be engaged with the world we inhabit. That if one cares about something one should do something about it. That it’s important to build consensus for an issue, and build collective resistance. These are not realisations that I was conscious of in my growing years, but now, as I look back at all the “issues” I felt I should raise my voice about, I remember I felt the need to build collective consensus. The failure of my “elevator satyagraha” also proved to be an early reminder against guest-appearance participation in causes. It taught me that if you really care to make a change you must be ready to step out of your comfort zone.
There’s a vital lesson about the politics of participation and representation in that early experience of yours. How have you grappled with it over the years?
Back then, I was basically a well-intentioned but privileged do-gooder, and of course, a child. Over the years I have become more aware of the power structures and hierarchies we occupy and are born into. I learnt to become aware of my privilege and acknowledge it. I have come to realise the difference between a do-gooder attitude of charity or philanthropy and the potential of transformative activism. As I said in the foreword, for any cause to succeed, the movement must include, and be led by, those who are affected, not just by well-meaning but unaffected do-gooders.
While we must be alive to the politics of representation and the need for it, we must also retain our ability for nuanced thinking and empathy in any movement and moment of transformation. I have never been comfortable with any position that is senselessly and unkindly dogmatic. Our rational, critical and introspective faculties must be alert at all times.
You write about “intersectional solidarity” as key to imagining a new India. Yet generations of middle-class Indians have been told to keep the personal and political apart. Participation in student politics, for instance, has always been frowned upon, more so now. How do we overcome these logistical, intellectual and psychological blocks to build new networks of alliance?
We must start by acknowledging that what we think is the result of what someone taught us to think. We need to understand that there is no black and white, that life and social relations are nuanced and complex. We need to be open to the fact that just because we didn’t have a certain experience, it doesn’t mean no one did. We need to accept that there is no one India. We need to be open not just to learning new things, but unlearning old ideas. I don’t think intersectionality is about agreeing with each others’ concerns all the time. It’s about accepting that every marginalised voice deserves to be heard. It’s about accepting that even if a cause doesn’t directly concern you, it still may be valid. It’s important to accept that power structures and dynamics exist everywhere, even in movements that aim at social transformation. Protest movements are also an attempt to access power. It’s important that the power exercised by the movement does not end up adopting the stubborn hierarchy or existing inequalities they seek to overthrow.
As far as student participation in politics being frowned upon goes, earlier it was a less toxic disapproval, more like the typical parents-worried-for-future template. Now, we have the government vilifying student politics and in some cases criminalising peaceful dissent. We are in a state where eminent intellectuals and leading public figures are accused, vilified or jailed for dissent. The way to combat it is constant collective civil resistance both at the level of discourse and in peaceful collective action. We must keep persevering.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a pivotal presence in your life. Could you tell us what the institution means to you?
It’s strange, actually. JNU is my alma mater but I only spent two years as a postgrad student pursuing a master’s degree in sociology. I was a day scholar, and those familiar with the student life and culture of JNU will understand the significance of that. I came to belong to JNU and JNU became part of my identity when in February 2016 I took a public position in support of the students after the arrest of Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban, Rama and other JNU students. The experience of being a student at JNU certainly shaped me as a person. I had never before had friends who came from different socioeconomic classes or castes. Just listening to stories about their growing up became an education and a journey for me.
The most important lesson JNU taught me was that there is no single lived experience of India. JNU taught me that to question is the basic step of learning. That to question is not dissent, and to dissent is not criminal or anti-national. Going to JNU didn’t just make me more aware as a person, I would like to believe it made me a better person.
What does it mean for you to live a politically aware existence? Do you feel it is your responsibility, especially as a public figure, to lend support to public causes? Are you worried about making yourself vulnerable to repercussions?
To live a politically aware existence means to be aware of the power dynamics of the world I inhabit and to be alert to the misuse or abuse of power around me. I speak because I must, because if I didn’t I wouldn’t be comfortable with myself. I don’t speak because I am a celebrity or a public figure. I speak when I believe in something. A cause is not important because a celebrity showed up to support it. A cause is important because of the lives it impacts.
As far as repercussions go, that has already happened. My actions come from conviction and when you come from a place of conviction, you are willing to fight for those convictions and pay a price if necessary. So I have lost work, maybe I don’t get cast in as many projects as I should but that’s okay. I made this choice when I refused to stay silent. Many from my industry are now speaking up and facing backlash but continuing to speak.
If we indeed become a society that punishes people for merely speaking their minds, all of us will face repercussions.
You point out the empowering qualities of social media, the robust platform of protest it can offer. But it also exposes the protesters to unbridled hatred. How do you cope with the barrage of hate that comes at you?
I deal with the hatred by knowing it’s not real. It’s paid, it’s organised, it has an ulterior motive and is agenda driven. I take solace in the fact that I am the reason that some jobless person is able to afford a meal! For the most part, I face the hate and call it out because I want young people to know that bullying is a form of cowardice and we should stand up to any kind of bullying. Always remember that the effort to shame women on public platforms is an effort to silence them. Sometimes I just make fun of the hate. It has now become part of my identity that I am the most trolled Bollywood actor, I just own it. But I have to add I have also received a lot of support. Some of the kindest words have been from strangers. And I am deeply grateful for that.
How do you feel about “cancel culture”?
“Cancelling” someone for a crime or for a hateful opinion that harms is fair, but to cancel—for example, (philosopher) Noam Chomsky—for a letter, that’s just silly and ultimately harmful. I have been “cancelled” a few times on social media. Sometimes it is right-wing trolling in response to my speaking up. Sometimes it’s for something I cannot control, like the caste I am born into.
Social media is an open platform where everyone should be able to air their opinion. I am open to learning, unlearning and to fair criticism but there is a lot of misdirected and inaccurate criticism and cancelling that doesn’t help any cause of transformative politics or social justice. Even radical movements and ideologies need to identify who the real enemy is, and not keep hating on allies. Even radical politics will eventually need broad-based alliances to succeed.
The question to ask is what is the ultimate aim: Is it for a society where everyone agrees with everyone else on everything? Or is it for a society where everyone has a voice? If it’s the latter, cancel culture is not going to help us achieve that.
What is your view of the India we are living through and hopes for the one that is emerging?
We are living through one of the most dismal periods of modern Indian history. Primarily because we have accepted hate as normal and lies as an “alternative truth”. We think that “numbers make wrongs right”. We are punishing people for identities they were born into, for being weak and poor or for raising their voices for the weak and the poor. What gives me hope is that a number of Indians continue to fight this at considerable personal risk. Every person who refuses to accept the logic of hate and division gives me hope and is giving our country a chance to save herself from a dismal state of affairs.