Sai Pallavi is a Tamil actor whose mother tongue is Badaga and who primarily acts in Telugu movies. However, she recently in English, Hindi, Marathi, and many other languages for her comments on the religious violence in India, while also drawing the ire (and nastiness) of some social media users.
So, what did Pallavi say and why did it put her in the cross hairs of Hindutva nationalists? Pallavi ahead of the release of her film Virata Parvam, which is set in the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in Telangana in the 1990s. When asked about the influence of the left-wing movement in her personal life, she said:
“I grew up in a neutral family where I was taught to be a good human being. I was taught I should protect the ones who are being hurt. The oppressed should be protected. Irrespective of their stature. I have heard about the left-wing and the right-wing. But, we can never surely tell who’s wrong and who’s right.”
This part of the answer was ignored by social media users. Instead, what she said next was clipped in a short shareable video, put on images with large fonts, made into memes, and circulated widely. The tweets pouring in in support as well as opposing her stance ensured that the hashtag #SaiPallavi was soon trending on Twitter.
Here are the remarks that attracted the right-wing Twitterati’s attention:
“'The Kashmiri Files' showed how Kashmiri Pandits were killed at the time. If you are taking the issue as a religious conflict, recently a Muslim driver, who was transporting cows, was beaten up and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram.’ So where’s the difference between these two incidents? We have to be good human beings. If we are good ones, we won’t hurt others.”Sai Pallavi, Actor
‘Both Are Not Same’, but…
Is it wrong to pick up guns and kill Kashmiri Pandits in retaliation for perceived grievances against the Indian state? Yes. Is it wrong to take law in your hands and beat and kill Muslims on the allegations of smuggling or slaughtering cows? Any ordinary person’s answer would be yes. However, the right-wing nationalists didn’t like the fact that Pallavi mentioned Kashmiri Pandits and victims of cow vigilantism in the same sentence.
This is troubling. The first instance of mob lynching in recent memory, which grabbed the nation’s attention, was the killing of elderly Akhlaq by his own fellow villagers on the trumped up charges of slaughtering a calf. The killings and beatings of Muslims, but also others, in , the victims of which usually are Pasmanda Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and other working class individuals, have continued unabated since . As recent as last month, by cow vigilantes in Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni district.
Indian courts reserve capital punishment for the rarest of the rare crimes. An accused is considered innocent until proven guilty. Besides the fact that no one should face punishment for their food choices, a set of legal procedures are to be followed before a person can be deemed guilty of a crime. Therefore, one needs to worry when people start normalising mob justice and vigilantism, the victims of which are usually those from the vulnerable sections of society.
Who Controls the Narrative of Victimhood?
The controversy around Pallavi’s remarks also points towards the shrinking of space for saying things that are even cursorily critical of the Hindutva nationalist agenda.
The Hindutva nationalists didn’t laud Pallavi for calling the killings of Kashmiri Pandits wrong, instead they got angry that she spoke about persecution of Muslims in the same breath. Why? Does it mean that the Hindutva nationalists want total control on the narrative of victimhood and the freedom to inflict violence on Muslims?
What makes a particular death more deserving of mourning compared to another? Is it the person’s religion? Caste? Class? Is it the total number of deaths of a particular community? Right to life is inviolable, and no life is more valuable than another. Can one really take objection when Pallavi says the following in that same answer – “What I believe is if you are stronger than me, and you are oppressing me, then you are in the wrong”?
Pushed to Silence?
Pallavi has taken progressive stances in the past as well. In 2019, she had a fairness cream ad.
She had then said, “What will I do with the money I get from such an ad? I’ll go home and eat three chapatis or rice, go around in my car. I don’t have other big needs. I see if I can contribute to the happiness of people around me or if I can say that these standards we see are wrong. This is Indian colour. We can’t go to foreigners and ask them why they’re white. We can’t look at them and think we want that. That’s their skin colour and this is ours.”
Of course no one expected her to land in controversy because of her remarks about fairness creams. Even though colourism is all pervasive in Indian society, criticising it thankfully doesn’t attract adversarial, sexist, and misogynist comments.
But then, also, why should one face backlash for speaking about the persecution of Muslims? When Kashmir is seeing a of civilians and the violence against Muslims in mainland India continues to take lives, the suppression of reasoned voices reduces the space to demand justice. The backlash that Pallavi faced for comments that were far from radical may make her more cautious in the future.
I am no authority on her heart but, for example, I do not imagine Pallavi speaking about the State excesses in Kashmir anytime soon even if she had the desire to.