As India goes to the polls, a few media outlets brought back memories of a year when Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan won a parliamentary election with a record-breaking margin.
Bachchan, who remains a towering figure in Indian cinema, was in the news when Prime Minister Narendra Modi persuaded him and other celebrities to encourage people to exercise their right to vote in the national elections.
Modi currently faces a tough election after coming to power with a majority in 2014. In fact, Bachchan captured headlines for voting on Election Day in Mumbai. National results are expected later this month.
In 1984, Bachchan contested the election as a candidate of the now opposition Congress party from Allahabad. Recent media reports revived the memories of his spectacular win, with the biggest margin of 187,895 votes.
Until 2014, Bachchan even had the record of securing maximum number of votes—a gigantic 2,97,461 ballots, according to these reports.
While these are undisputed facts, what remains missing in the reports is an explanation for such an unprecedented win.
Bachchan’s victory was the result of pro-Congress wave that brought to power his close friend and the then prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, with a heavy majority.
One cannot rule out Bachchan’s own popularity as a movie star in contributing to his election, but the Congress’s historic win had to do lot with the sympathy vote it received in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’s mother. As the previous prime minister, Indira Gandhi was shot by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
Her murder was in retaliation for ordering a military invasion in June 1984 on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine. The ill-conceived army operation was launched to deal with handful of religious extremists, and it resulted in many deaths of innocent worshipers and sacrilege of the temple. This outraged the Sikh community all over the world.
Indira Gandhi’s murder was followed by well-organized anti-Sikh massacres across the country. The mass murders of Sikh men and gang rapes of Sikh women by mobs were led by the Congress party activists. They had the the backing of police and the attacks were intended to polarize the Hindu majority in the 1984 election.
Ironically, Bachchan was born to a Sikh mother yet remained silent over the pogrom. On the contrary, he became a beneficiary of the bloodbath of the Sikh community. So much so, he was also in attendance when provocative slogans were raised by supporters of Congress party who had gathered to pay last respects to the slain leader when her body lay is state in New Delhi.
Bachchan never came out with a statement against the violence directed at innocent Sikhs, even though he claims to be a half-Sikh.
Media outlets that were quick to remind the readers about his electoral victory during election season simply glossed over the dark side of the story.
One can always argue that this is an old issue, but Bachchan has also been quiet over the recent incidents of violent attacks on religious minorities under a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Modi.
Violence against minorities has increased ever since Modi came to power. Even otherwise, Modi headed a party in Gujarat whose officials were involved in an anti-Muslim massacre of 2002. This was when he was chief minister.
Though Modi was never charged, human rights activists continue to allege his complicity in this pogrom, which resembled the 1984 attacks in many respects. It was prompted by the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
Over 50 people died in the incident, which was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by Modi and his supporters.
Despite that, Bachchan became a brand ambassador of Gujarat on the asking of Modi without raising questions about the massacre.
Notably, Bachchan starred in Dev, a film loosely based on the violence in Gujarat and released in 2004.
This only makes it obvious that he was not completely innocent to what happened in a state run by Modi before agreeing to become an ambassador for Gujarat tourism in 2012.
This year, he donated heavily to the families of dozens of Indian soldiers who were killed in a terror attack in Kashmir. The attack was blamed on Islamic extremists based in Pakistan.
However, Bachchan never publicly donated money for those Sikh soldiers who were brutally murdered by the mobs in 1984 or ever spoke out against repression of citizens, especially minorities, anywhere in the country by the Indian army. Clearly, he is being selective and knows which side to stand with.
Even though he has claimed to be a staunch secularist, his deafening silence over the ongoing violence by Modi supporters who wish to transform India into a Hindu theocracy explains everything.
But why just blame Bachchan? There is no dearth of people like him in Bollywood and it appears that star-stricken media outlets have no interest in such issues.
A comedy drama, Total Dhamaal, released this year gives an insight of the mindset behind Bollywood. Anil Kapoor—another big Bollywood celebrity—plays a Gujarati. In a dialogue with a tiger inside a zoo, he takes a dig at western powers that once denied visa to a Gujarati (Modi) and are now keen to invite him and serve him pizza.
It is pertinent to mention that Modi was denied visa by the U.S. and several European nations because of the carnage of 2002. Kapoor’s dialogue was therefore not funny.
How can one just disregard the context of visa being denied to Modi because of such a serious issue? It is also important to note that this film was released during the election year when Modi is trying to muster as much support he could from Bollywood starts to influence public opinion.
It is also no coincidence that host of Bollywood stars met him and posted their pictures with him on social media. Fortunately, an attempt to release his biopic before the start of election was stalled by efforts of civil society groups who knocked on the doors of the election commission.
It seems that Bollywood has been blinded by majoritarianism, which has already prejudiced many public institutions, including media houses under Modi.
Though some exceptions are there such as Swara Bhaskar, Aamir Khan, or Javed Akhtar who have time and again taken explicit position against growing intolerance and bigotry, most stars have either been shamelessly rubbing shoulders with Modi and promoting jingoism or have chosen to be silent about crimes against humanity.