For most Indians, a life trajectory taking them from a Mysore village to Yale and eventual US citizenship would constitute the very definition of success.
But Chetan Kumar Ahimsa’s life took a somewhat opposite path. Born and brought up in the US as an American citizen, he graduated from Yale to become a village schoolteacher in Mysore. He then rose to stardom in the Kannada film industry only to risk losing it all by challenging the powerful on behalf of the oppressed and the minority.
This week, that trajectory led the 40-year-old to jail custody — for the second time in just over a year.
Yet, few would deny that Chetan’s life, too, has been one of success and profound accomplishment.
Muralidhar Khajane, an eminent Kannada film critic and author, describes Chetan — arrested on Monday over a tweet that said Hindutva was built on lies and freed on bail on Thursday — as “one of a kind”.
“No one else from the Kannada film industry has taken up social issues like he has. While others are usually reticent for the fear of damaging their career, he has continued to battle for causes he believes in,” Khajane told The Telegraph.
“It’s very rare for an actor to take on powerful forces that can start a witch-hunt and end his film career.”
Chetan, an Ambedkarite who has campaigned against tribal displacement and Hindi imposition and espoused an independent status for the Lingayat religion, is “one of a kind” in many ways.
In a country where actors flaunt their success and court publicity with extravagant weddings, Chetan and his long-time partner Megha, a social worker herself, opted for a low-key, non-religious ceremony in February 2020. The wedding was conducted in the presence of underprivileged children, senior citizens and a few friends from filmdom.
The following day, the couple held a reception at the Vinobha Bhave Ashrama in Bangalore with each guest given a copy of the Constitution as a gift, after being treated to Sufi and tribal music apart from a simple dinner.
“The most laudable facet of his life is that he has walked his talk and lived by the values he so cherishes,” Dalit activist and a former professor with the University of Mysore, Mahesh Chandra Guru, told this newspaper on Thursday.
Before his arrest on Monday, Chetan had been arrested in February last year after he reposted an old tweet by a Karnataka High Court judge who was hearing a batch of petitions on a classroom ban on the hijab. The tweet recalled comments by the judge in an old rape case that the actor had found “disturbing”.
Chetan was booked on charges of promoting enmity between classes and of intentional insult.
On Monday, he had tweeted: “Hindutva is built on LIES.
“Savarkar: Indian ‘nation’ began when Rama defeated Ravana & returned to Ayodhya —> a lie
“1992: Babri Masjid is ‘birthplace of Rama’ —> a lie
“2023: Urigowda-Nanjegowda are ‘killers’ of Tipu—> a lie
“Hindutva can be defeated by TRUTH—> truth is EQUALITY”
Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda are fictional Vokkaliga chieftains projected by the BJP as the “real killers” of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Mysore ruler who historians say died fighting the British.
Following a complaint from a Bajrang Dal activist, Chetan was booked on the charges of outraging religious feelings and of incitement, punishable by up to three years in jail.
“Chetan is a radical thinker who has always upheld the values he stands for. We need many more like him,” Guru, the retired professor, said.
“He is an Ambedkarite, and an ardent follower of the teachings of Buddha and Basavanna (12th-century reformer-saint who founded the Lingayat dharma),” he added.
“He is a champion of public interest, and especially of the welfare of the oppressed classes. Here is a young man born and educated in the US but coming to India to work for the downtrodden and underprivileged.”
After arriving in India in 2006 on a Fulbright Scholarship, Chetan had taken up a job as a teacher at a rural school near Mysore. He dabbled in Kannada theatre for a while before making his film debut with Aa Dinagalu (Those Days), a biopic of underworld don Agni Sridhar. His good looks and six-pack abs made him an instant hit.
He acted in eight more films, and affixed “Ahimsa” to his name.
Khajane, the film critic, said Chetan had “studied our Constitution and history in depth”.
“He understands the social dynamics of our society, especially in Karnataka, very well. He has participated in various movements including the Dhidalli tribal rehabilitation, something few actors would dare to,” Khajane said.
Chetan had led a campaign to rehabilitate hundreds of tribal people whom the state government had evicted from the Devamachchi Reserve Forest in Dhidalli, Kodagu district, in 2017.
He was closely associated with freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy, who too was involved in the Dhidalli agitation, before he passed away at the age of 103 in May 2021.
Chetan worked with other activists to campaign for a ban on the Ajjalu Padhathi — a tradition that required tribal women to eat the hair and nails of pregnant upper caste women.
The state eventually banned the practice by bringing it under the ambit of the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act 2017, which came into force in 2020.
Chetan has also played a key role in a movement that seeks the recognition of the Lingayat dharma as an independent religion, distinct from a caste-ridden Hinduism.