Gurpreet Singh: Rishi Kapoor’s death is a setback to secularist forces in India

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      The passing of a well-known Hindi movie star has left a void that cannot be filled easily.

      Rishi Kapoor, who was battling with cancer, died at the age of 67 on April 30. It happened just as India is witnessing growing attacks on religious minorities

      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—even though 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 had once criticized the banning of beef in India, a cause célèbre of the extremists, describing himself as beef-eating Hindu on Twitter, much to the annoyance of Modi's supporters.

      Many devout Hindus consider the cow as sacred and won’t eat beef. Ever since Modi became the prime minister in 2014, self-styled "cow vigilantes" have intensified violent activities against Muslims, accusing them of consuming beef.

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

      He came 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, which is worth watching to understand what India is going through under current regime.

      Muslims are constantly intimidated by the police in the event of any bombing incident, and are treated as potential terrorists. If they are eventually arrested, they find it hard to get a lawyer to defend them in the courts.

      Kapoor's character in Mulk is a Muslim patriarch who is harassed and humiliated by the police and the prosecution and cast out of society because of the involvement of one of the family members in terrorist activities.

      Unsurprisingly, this film that exposed the existence of Islamophobia in India angered Modi loyalists.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Mulk, starring Rishi Kapoor.

      This is not to suggest that Kapoor was perfect. Like most of us, he erred at times and history will judge him accordingly.

      He applauded the former Punjab police chief, K.P.S. Gill, on his death in 2017. Gill was a controversial police officer complicit in the repression of Sikhs in Punjab.

      In the name of a war on terror against insurgents struggling for a separate homeland for Sikhs, Punjab police had kidnapped many Sikh men, including political activists and killed them through extra-judicial means in the 1980s and 1990s.

      Women were also subjected to custodial rapes during this period. Since Sikh separatists were also involved in violent killings of Hindus and their political critics, many saw Gill as a saviour by glossing over the abuses of power 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 examples of his tweets against cow policing is before us. 

      It is pertinent to mention that [/tweet]Kapoor questioned the naming of New Delhi Airport after Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister who ordered the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, in June 1984. 

      This ill-conceived army operation—aimed to rid the place of worship of Sikh militants—left many innocent pilgrims dead and destroyed important buildings inside.

      This was done to whip up emotions against Sikhs to win the forthcoming general elections with the help of Hindu majority. That outraged the 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 asked on Twitter why the New Delhi airport should not be named after more undisputed and respectable historical figures instead of Indira Gandhi.

      In the aftermath of his passing, let's not put Kapoor on a pedestal. We must 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 could dare to stand up against majoritarianism.

      Gurpreet Singh is a cofounder of Radical Desi and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.