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What the death of a Bollywood star says about life in Modi's India

New forms of dissent are emerging to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party

| India
Demonstrators hold placards during a protest demanding jobs on the occasion of Modi's 70th birth anniversary in New Delhi on Sep. 17: young people are finally speaking up.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian freelance journalist, currently living in Kuala Lumpur.

India crossed another grim milestone last Wednesday, surpassing five million total COVID-19 cases, less than two weeks after exceeding the four million-mark. On the same day, the death toll reached 82,066 with 1,290 new fatalities, the biggest single-day spike.

Mounting aggression on the country's border, rising farmer suicides, record unemployment, and a collapsing economy only added to the sense of despair.

But instead of focusing their attention on such of issues of great consequence, India's media continued its crazed infatuation with the death by suicide of Bollywood movie star Sushant Singh Rajput.

Twisted into a truthless saga of murder and manipulation at the hands of his girlfriend, 28-year-old actress Rhea Chakraborty, India's most prominent television news anchors have declared Singh's death "the biggest story of our times."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, chose the moment that India climbed into the number two spot in worldwide COVID-19 cases to release a video of himself feeding his pet peacock. It brought to mind the legend of the Roman Emperor Nero fiddling while his city burned to the ground.

Modi feeds his peacock at his residence in New Delhi on Aug. 23. (Screen grab from Narendra Modi's Youtube channel)

Modi has a history of hiding behind titillating but irrelevant news that often keeps his supporters occupied by fanning the flames of communal hatred, from the alleged involvement of Bollywood celebrities in the drug mafia, to base rumors about Muslims killing holy cows for beef.

When a planned pogrom in February saw more than 40 Muslims butchered to death in Delhi, Modi's army of online trolls, paid by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, spun the incident as a clash between two equally matched religious communities. Influential television journalists helped to blur the truth and maintain this strategy of distraction, all the while promoting the BJP's extreme Hindu agenda.

Given the steady stream of mismanaged policy decisions, from the ill-fated 2016 demonetization fiasco, to the contentious National Register of Citizens that deemed minorities as "illegal immigrants," Modi has sorely needed such misdirection. Perhaps Modi's biggest success has been his ability to get away with so much. Official press conferences are nonexistent. Critical questions posed on social media, or from opposition politicians and journalists, are completely ignored.

Then there is the severe crackdown on dissenting voices. It's not just the vile abuse on social media coming from the professional trolls. India's police and the judiciary have also kowtowed to the government, invoking dated sedition laws and making random arrests to silence opponents, while granting immunity to those involved in communal violence.

It has been heartening then to see how a group of young artists are giving shape to new kinds of protest. Indians do not have a particularly stellar record of open dissent. A candlelight vigil here, or a sparsely-attended march there. Now, spurred by the tightening grip of saffronist politics, young people are finally speaking up.

Prominent among this new wave of dissent is the Walk of Shame. Created by the Mumbai street artist known as Tyler, it is an expression of disgust at India's "most shameless figures" who have reached a new low in spouting right-wing propaganda. After asking his social media followers to name the worst offenders, Tyler painted a row of circles on a street in Mumbai, each enclosing the name of a reviled public figure, and then dolloped a steaming pile of poop inside each.

So far, news media superstars including Arnab Goswami, Amish Devgan and Sudhir Chaudhary, BJP National Spokesman Sambit Patra, and Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut have found a place in this unique installation. And while the artworks were quickly painted over, no amount of effort can erase the images from social media.

Another recent example of dissent was when several thousand netizens pressed dislike in the comments section of Modi's Mann Ki Baat "speech from the heart" as it was broadcast online. After Modi ignored the growing numbers of students taking their own lives because they are unable to cope with the pressure of competitive exams, and instead rattled on about Indian dog breeds and the domestic toy industry, the Prime Minister's Office was forced to disable the comments section on the video.

Stand-up comics and amateur cartoonists are increasingly using humor and satire to lampoon the government. From the frenzied religious drama being played out at Ayodhya -- where Hindus want to build a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque -- to the aforementioned circus surrounding Modi's pet peacock, India's funnymen and women are doing what the national media have proved so inept at: holding the government to account.

And then, of course, there were the mass, sustained protests at the beginning of this year over the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens which were intended as a way to further segregate India's Muslim minority. If student protesters have been targeted by angry squads of police, then comedians and artists alike have been victimized online. Many have received death threats for their apparently subversive actions.

What has been most impressive is the way young Indians have carried on with their protests even while being threatened by the might of the new Hindu establishment. That culminated last Thursday with the naming of a "national unemployment day" to coincide with Modi's birthday. These voices of dissent are India's best hope for the future.

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