"Why would you walk, friend? Send your number."
In May while the migrant crisis was at its peak with thousands walking for hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach their home states amid a nation-wide lockdown, Bollywood actor Sonu Sood emerged as a saviour and messiah for many.
The actor took it upon himself to help migrant workers stranded in different states and borders and arranged not only for food, ration, and supplies for them but also for buses and transport to take them back home.
'Sood' samaritan"We started in March by distributing food, we started with 500 packets of cooked meals and groceries. Today we are distributing food and groceries every day to 45,000 people in slums, those stranded on the roads and those walking on the highways," Sood told the BBC in an interview, adding that images of migrant workers traveling long distances on foot with their families gave him sleepless nights.
Soon, Sood started a helpline number to allow stranded migrants to contact him in case they need emergency assistance. His social media profile was filled with messages from people both seeking help and later acknowledging that they had received help from the actor and his team of good samaritans.
On May 11, Sood sent the first batch of migrant workers home on a bus from Thane, Maharashtra to Gulbarga, Karnataka. Images of the actor waving to the migrants as he saw them off while wearing a mask instantly went viral, with many hailing him as a superhero.Sood soon turned the initiative into a campaign and by May 27, a report in The Hindu cited that Sood had sent 12,000 migrants home under the "Ghar Bhejo" campaign and made arrangements for 45,000 more.
By June, the actor had arranged for chartered flights to send 177 migrants home from Kerala to Odisha and 173 more from Mumbai to Dehradun. He also sent 167 migrants home on a flight from Kochu to Bhubaneshwar.
Sood's good deeds were not missed by citizens who continued to hail him with songs, social media trends, sand art sculptures and more. Many pointed out that Sood was perhaps doing even more than the government was when it came to assisting migrants.
The politics of help
It didn't take much longer for political leaders such as union minister Smriti Irani to come forward and thank the actor.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing you as a professional colleague for over 2 decades now @SonuSood & celebrated your rise as an actor ;but the kindness you have displayed in these challenging times makes me prouder still 🙏thank you for helping those in need🙏🙏 https://t.co/JcpoZRIr8M — Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) May 24, 2020
BJP MLA Rajendra Shukla even triggered a political storm with Congress after he requested Sood to send aid and rescue migrant workers stuck in Madhya Pradesh's Rewa-Satna district.
The Governor of Maharashtra called him personally to thank him for his services. Following the announcement, images of Sood's meeting with the Governor were widely shared on social media. While Sood already had the support of the masses on social media, his appearance with the Governor, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, also made him trend on right-wing Twitter.
Whispers soon began of Sood being a "BJP stooge".
Rumors came to a head on Sunday, June 7, when Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut sarcastically called Sood "Mahatma" and said that the actor was playing a political script directed by the ruling party. Writing in his column 'Rokhthok' in Sena's mouthpiece 'Saamana', Raut wondered if the BJP has propped Sood to help migrants, casting dispersions on Sood's otherwise commendable effort as a ploy to show the Sena government in Maharashtra in poor light.
Even as Raut's comments caused viral outrage, Shiv Sena did an apparent U-turn on Sood, who met CM Uddhav Thackeray on June 7. The actor cut a happy picture with Thackeray and his son and state minister Aaditya Thackeray. Incidentally, Sood also appeared in a video for Punjab CM and Congress leader Capt Amarinder Singh to promote the CM's "Mission Fateh" initiative and coronavirus awareness earlier.
Bad timing?Incidentally, Sunday was also when several netizens on Twitter noticed that many of the tweets seeking help from Sood or acknowledging having received help were curiously getting deleted. The trend was noted by many who took to social media to share the "curious case". "Hundreds of accounts that tweeted to Sonu Sood for help have disappeared from Twitter overnight. The strange part is that Sood personally responded to these tweets & with the accounts now deleted, what remains on Sood’s timeline are his replies without the original tweets. Some funny business, there? Who were these people asking Sood for help, where are they now and why have they collectively deleted their Twitter accounts at the same time? He should clarify," Instagram user "billikidharhai" posted on the photo-video sharing platform, attaching screenshots of several tweets seeking help that the actor had responded to but had since been deleted. Following the controversy, the actor spoke out on Twitter and clarified that the tweets had been fake in the first place. "Would request people to send requests only which are genuine. Have observed people tweet and later delete their requests which proves there are many fakes. This hampers our operation and will affect the real needy. So kindly think about the ones who need us," the actor tweeted, implying that the tweets that had been deleted were indeed fake. But the damage was already done. Hundreds of tweets and social media posts are now flooding the internet, accusing Sood's social-media assisted campaign as a ploy by BJP's "IT Cell", in part if not entirely. Did Sood actually send help to the persons posting the deleted tweets? Is this just a controversy to malign the actor? Or is Sood really working with politicians? The question that many asked on social media platforms was, "so what?" As long as the actor was helping those in need, did his political affiliations really matter? But while many such as filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and other politicians have spoken out in support of the actor, the seeds of suspicion seem to have been sowed. Whether Sood is headed for a political career in the BJP is for time to tell. For now, Sood's overnight messiah-dome and subsequent fall from grace is just another tell-tale sign of the Indian psyche grasping at straws in the absence of a systematic, government-aided coping mechanism when faced with a crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic.
I supported Sonu Sood till date. Now I am very suspicious of his real intent. The way those viral tweets vanished, I am more suspicious that it was the handiwork of BJP IT CELL. # All this drama and Fake love for Bihar migrants is for forming #BJP #Sarkar in next Elections pic.twitter.com/6PmWJBAnuB — Halkut Hateli💃 (@HalkutHateli) June 7, 2020