Activist Ash Sarkar on life as a viral sensation
She first grabbed headlines when she spoke truth to power, on national TV in the UK
BY Nishat Fatima | February 12th, 2019
In July 2018, 26-year-old Ash Sarkar, a senior editor at left-wing independent media organisation Novara Media, went on the show Good Morning Britain to talk about the anti-Trump protests on the occasion of his visit to the UK that month. In a debate that would have been right at home on Indian TV, the host Piers Morgan, an infamous rabble-rouser, repeatedly baited Sarkar, interrupting her, talking over her and falsely labelling her an Obama supporter. When he wouldn’t stop, she finally burst out, “He’s not my hero. I’m a Communist, you idiot!”
She went further, calling out Morgan on his incompetence as a journalist for not holding Trump adequately to account when he interviewed him. And when Morgan once again tried to call her pro-Obama, Sarkar said, “I’m not pro-Obama. I’ve been a critic of Obama. I’m a critic of the Democratic Party because I’m literally a Communist.”
It’s been six months since that comment went viral, since Novara Media began selling T-shirts with “I’m literally a communist” on them and people started to recognise Sarkar in “bizarre” places.
I meet the second-generation Brit, who has family in India and Bangladesh, on a cold morning in London. This is her last stop before she leaves for a week-long holiday in Morocco where she will find herself recognised from ‘that’ Good Morning Britain. “I didn’t walk into that [show] having this idea that it was going to go viral or be a big deal, I just went in thinking I was going to go talk about stuff. Then, it all went a bit whacky,” she says.
Despite what her famous outburst might suggest, Sarkar—who moonlights as a freelance journalist, a lecturer at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam (she teaches an experimental master’s programme called Film, Graphic Design and Propaganda), and a ghost writer of rappers’ autobiographies—is not new to TV. She had already been on Good Morning Britain with Morgan a year before that, as well as on BBC Newsnight and Question Time, the country’s flagship political show.
Does that seem like a lot for someone so young? Rewind further: Sarkar was part of the anti-Iraq war movement at 11, taking part in Palestinian solidarity demonstrations from 16-17, and along with thousands, had occupied university in her first year of college, when tuition fees were tripled. “We were charged by police on horseback. There were arrests. A good friend of ours was hit on the head with a baton and nearly died. It felt like this was the first fightback against austerity. And we lost. But those friendships, those social networks endured, and that’s how I met James Butler and Aaron Bastani, who eventually co-founded Novara Media.”
Sarkar’s activism is almost hereditary. Her great-great-aunt Pritilata Waddedar fought the British in 1930s Bengal and died at 21 by ingesting poison when she was captured after participating in a raid in Chittagong. Her mother, a social worker, was part of the anti-racist protests in the 1970s. “I think that [Pritilata] was certainly an influence in how much my grandmother, my mother and my aunt would just sit around talking about politics and what was going on. It felt very natural and very organic.”
You might start to consign Sarkar to the deathly-serious activist box, but her Twitter bio includes the descriptions: “Literature bore. Anarcho-fabulous. Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Explain? I ask.
“My first love is literature, poetry, film. I could gnaw your ear off for hours.” “Anarcho-fabulous” she explains as, “I have an anarchist critique of the State. Anarchists haven’t done anything that’s effective since 2011-2012.” Alright, but what on earth is luxury communism? “Luxury communism is a nod to my belief that abundance should be for everyone, and that everyone can lead comfortable, happy, fulfilled lives. The problem is the distribution of abundance and how we generate it.” She’s clumsy, she says, and “walks like a supermodel” is poking fun at herself. And as for “fucks like a champion”, “Me and my friends, we would all talk the big talk about our prowess. But actually, we’re all just sitting around and watching reruns of Buffy The Vampire Slayer… I have this bio from before I had a public profile and I just thought well, there’s no point in trying to look respectable now.”
Our conversation moves to India—she’s visited once and wants to come back— and the #MeToo movement. “The thing with India’s #MeToo movement is that it’s very effectively taken on men who’ve got a great deal of political and cultural power,” she says. “But it won’t be enough to produce change at a national level unless things that affect us socially, like #MeToo, also impact us economically. Activists are doing phenomenal work on sexual violence in India. I’m reading about it from all the way over here— that’s how big it is—but it’s time to start running for politics.”