Gurpreet Singh: Swara Bhaskar restores confidence in Bollywood by spearheading campaign for political prisoners

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      The Indian cinema industry has largely disappointed its audience either by remaining silent to the growing public dissent or allying with the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi.

      During the ongoing farmers' agitation in India that drew massive global support, there were high hopes that Bollywood stars would show solidarity with the peasants who are fighting against unjust farm laws.

      However, barring a very few, most of the big names either remained indifferent or came out to shamelessly express faith in the government, sparking outrage and calls for boycotting Bollywood.

      Amid all this, one actor, Swara Bhaskar, continued to speak out in support of the farmers. Her Twitter handle picture shows her standing in front of a banner raised by the agitating farmers with her right fist up in the air.

      Bhaskar, who has acted in more than a dozen Bollywood films, is a rare voice who has been critical of the current government’s divisive politics.

      This is despite the fact that she continues to be trolled by supporters of the ruling BJP that is turning India into an intolerant Hindu theocracy where minorities and political dissidents are under constant risk.

      Video: Swara Bhaskar explains why she lends her voice to various causes.

      Bhaskar helped victims of 2002 massacre

      She has been actively following politics since 2002 when thousands of Muslims were murdered under the watch of the present prime minister, Narendra Modi, in Gujarat.

      Modi was chief minister of the state back then and is widely blamed for orchestrating violence against Muslims following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 people had died in the incident that was blamed on Muslims by Modi. He was never charged in connection with what happened.

      Bhaskar worked in relief camps of the survivors at the age of 16 or 17 and saw firsthand the effects of the bloodshed. She is thus an activist-turned-actor, who has been consistently raising her voice against growing anti-minority violence since Modi came to power in 2014.

      So much so, an unfazed Bhaskar has created a few videos in which she mocks BJP supporters and remains steadfast in her criticism of ultra-nationalism.

      Not to be buckled under pressure from power—unlike many of her costars—she has now amplified a petition asking for the release of political prisoners because of COVID-19. The pandemic has brought India to second place after the U.S. with more than 200,000 deaths.

      Since Indian jails are heavily overcrowded, these prisoners remain highly vulnerable. Notably, a former Delhi University professor, G.N. Saibaba, who is disabled below the waist, contracted COVID 19 in jail.

      Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba remains in jail.

      Saibaba was arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges for standing up against the repression of the poor and marginalized. In spite of many calls for his release on humanitarian grounds, the government has remained adamant.

      He is among the prisoners identified in the petition being promoted by Bhaskar. Her initiative coincides with the seventh anniversary of his arrest on May 9, 2014.

      It takes lot of courage on part of a movie star to take up such a cause, as this might make one highly unpopular in a polarized political environment. This may also annoy film producers who mostly want to remain in the good books of the government for their survival.

      Hopefully, others in the film industry open their eyes and join the crusade that Bhaskar is fighting all by herself.

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