Reactions to Deepika Padukone’s surprise visit to JNU were depressingly predictable; a BJP leader urged people to boycott her film Chhapaak while baiters relentlessly taunted her on Twitter. Union Minister Smriti Irani was especially contemptuous, not just of the actor but also of the students. “It’s her right to stand next to people who say Bharat tere tukde honge,” said Irani. It’s unlikely any of this fazes Padukone, who has enough experience dealing with whacky fringe elements.
I feel like taking umbrage with Deepika too, for making me feel like a fraud. If she could take time off her busy schedule to express solidarity with bleeding students who were attacked with iron rods and I haven’t, it makes me wonder if the righteous anger against people born with ingrained liberal privilege, isn’t a bit justified. By the mere act of showing up when the stakes are high (Padukone is also the producer of Chhapaak) she has quietly raised tough questions, besides lending huge credence to an alternate point of view. And shamed us ordinary folk, who feel for the students but don’t get around to doing anything about it. It is an important acknowledgment that life cannot go on elsewhere, whilst so many young countrymen feel threatened and unheard, their voices drowned in the din of anti-national rhetoric.
The violence in JNU is best understood by putting oneself in the shoes of those present there on that awfully cold January day. It bears repeating because clever spin-doctoring has baffled even those who keep up to date with the news. Imagine that your child is a student at a university, staying in a hostel. She’s immersed in the wondrous process of young adulthood, figuring out via books, the coursework and her environment, what, and who, she’s eventually going to become. The university, like the rest of the nation is tense, because for the last few years there has been an inexplicable suspicion, even repugnance for scholarship. As a parent, you dismiss perpetual worry about safety as one of the lesser perils of being Indian. Then you hear that masked men and women have unleashed havoc inside the college, injuring two dozen people , while people on the outside could not, or did nothing, to help. That parent could be you, it could be me.
Dissent or questioning the status quo is the whole point of student life and they don’t deserve to be vilified for it. One would have to be uniquely disengaged and apathetic not to be moved by visuals of injured students and teachers running for their lives in the Capital, a sight that should violate any human being’s sensibilities. Caught up in our own lives, indifference is the bane of modern living. Most of us don’t know whether we make good or bad citizens and by and large, we’re never sufficiently tested to find out. Right now, hiding behind the cynicism that protest is futile, is the cowardly way out.
With students from DU supporting JNU, there is hope that things can be different, even if an alternative is nowhere in sight. Padukone took an encouraging step forward that will, hopefully, urge the rest of us to resist looking away.