These days all you have to do is speak up to be a hero, right? A few weeks ago, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah became my hero when he responded to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s bovine-related electoral posturing with these lines: “A lot of Hindus eat beef. If I want to eat, I will, who are they to tell me not to consume beef? I don’t eat beef only because I don’t like to.” In recent times at least, I can’t recall the head of any other Indian state speaking up for the freedom to decide what we put on our plate. I’m as vegetarian as the self-proclaimed “purest” Hindu but my politics is liberal—I believe nobody has the right to police what I eat/wear and whom I love—so you can understand why I was thrilled to hear him say this.
My criterion for identifying new heroes in an increasingly divided India is simple: Heroes spread love, not hate.
So the district magistrate of Bareilly, Raghvendra Vikram Singh, made the cut after a riot in Kasganj when he said: “Muslims living here are our brothers. We have the same blood running in our veins. We share the same DNA.” And I’m a fan of the 67 retired civil servants who wrote to the prime minister asking him to take “firm action against perpetrators of hate crimes”.
Back in the day, becoming a hero was hard work. It wasn’t enough to mouth a few dialogues that would make columnists such as myself happy. You actually had to do stuff. I’m writing this just after the 70th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Gandhi was on the side of love but he also had to invent a philosophy of non-violent resistance, help throw out the British, go on several hunger strikes, be imprisoned multiple times, brave mobs, walk 200 miles at a time and give his life in the service of the nation before we anointed him our hero.
Not many can compete with Gandhi, of course, but modern-day political heroes are lucky we focus more on what they say rather than what they do.
On a stage in Bengaluru last week, some of my new and old heroes gathered to commemorate the late activist Gauri Lankesh on her birthday. Lankesh, a fierce critic of Hindu extremists and editor of a Kannada weekly, was murdered at her Bengaluru home last September by as-yet unidentified people.
Old heroes on stage included 99-year-old H.S. Doreswamy, a freedom fighter who has been speaking up against the establishment since before 1947. “We should not allow the Bharatiya Janata Party to win Karnataka. This is the time for all secular forces to unite to defeat our common enemy,” he told the gathering. The other, pre-digital-era heroes present that day included Irom Sharmila, who made it to our consciousness because she protested against Afspa (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in Manipur by going on a hunger strike for 16 years, and Teesta Setalvad, whose work after the 2002 Gujarat riots has resulted in more than 120 convictions. All good old-fashioned doers who toiled hard to be our heroes.
Then there was the new, vocal gang described by a friend as “the real opposition” because they are certainly more outspoken critics of the government than the assorted representatives of other political parties that sit in Parliament. The motley group of dissenters has been termed anti-national by many, but they were clearly heroes in that room. Heroes who have the ability to go viral.
There was Kanhaiya Kumar and his compatriots Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid. Kumar’s historic speech on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus one night in 2016 was telecast live by most television channels and upstaged the prime minister’s speech in newspaper headlines the next day. That night, Kumar riffed on the idea of azadi and said, famously, “We are not seeking freedom from India but in India.”
There was Kannada actor and dissenter Prakash Raj, who has spoken out on everything from Padmaavat to the gruesome murder of a Muslim man in Rajsamand. He has often said that he only started speaking after his friend was murdered. “When Gauri is killed, I am created. Why me? I knew Gauri for 35 years. But when they killed her, I realized I didn’t know her,” he said on her birthday.
Jignesh Mevani, who went from vocal critic to political opposition when he recently contested and won in the Gujarat assembly polls, said he would work to consolidate the Dalit vote in Karnataka and reiterated the most popular message in that auditorium: Unite and fight the BJP. That day, the new heroes did what they are best at—give fiery, anti-establishment speeches about brotherhood and defeating divisive forces.
So, is it a good thing or a bad thing that to be a hero in our eyes these days all you have to do is speak up for personal freedom or against hate? Speak up against hate narratives, Siddaramaiah recently told his party members, break your silence.
Surely it’s easier to speak than actually do stuff? You don’t even have to be original; just quote from the national pledge: “All Indians are my brothers and sisters.”
If it’s so easy to be a hero in new India, why aren’t we all heroes?
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani