To say, as BJP stalwarts have done, that Aamir Khan’s stardom is evidence of the country’s ‘tolerance’ is to merely prove that a climate of nasty majoritarianism is in the air: “Look, despite India being a Hindu nation we still allow Muslims to rise to the top.”
Even by the bogus standards of what makes for a “controversy” in these days of hyper-media, the noise around Aamir Khan’s statement is quite phony. It birthed countless hysterical panel discussions and hashtags and allowed the vast barmy army of trolls to come out and attack the actor. Much of the criticism was ad hominem – Aamir Khan (and his wife) were on trial, not the issue he raised. With the Bharatiya Janata Party neatly subverting his comments and calling it “an attack on India”, the vicious online critics trotted out that old chestnut – “Go to Pakistan”, thereby proving his very point about rising intolerance.
Moving away from Khan for a moment, let us ask: has he said anything new? An increase in intolerance has been discussed for a while now, with many of Khan’s film industry colleagues too mentioning it. But it is his revelation that his wife raised the question of leaving India for the sake of their child that brings out into the open the conversations taking place in the privacy of thousands of homes across the country.
For decades, the millions of diaspora Indians all around the world – yes, the same folks who throng the stadia whenever Narendra Modi visits their city – voted with their feet and left the country because they did not see a future here. Socialist India was not the place they saw much hope in.
Ironically, after India liberalised, those numbers have only grown. Any western embassy in Delhi will confirm that they receive immigration applications by the tens of thousands each year. These are not from the indigent or the desperate, but middle-class folks with good qualifications and jobs. Ask any of these hopefuls and the answer will be the same – we are doing it for the sake of our children.
Migration out of India – legal and illegal – has been going on for years. People migrate for better opportunities but also to escape local conditions. The salaried middle-classes believe that their children won’t get into the best educational institutions (either because of reservation or stiff competition), will have to cope with poor infrastructure and will find it difficult to live a simple, honest and law-abiding life. Migrating, for them, is not about patriotism – it is about self-preservation. If anything, their patriotism gets heightened when they move abroad. To these concerns, add one more – the burgeoning climate of irrationality all around us. ‘Intolerance’ is the word being used to describe things but it is a wrong word, a red herring. What we are seeing is not intolerance – it is bigotry at its most virulent and violent, where the price of standing up to speak is vilification, abuse, and, in extreme cases, even death. To say, as BJP stalwarts have done, that Aamir Khan’s stardom is evidence of the country’s ‘tolerance’ is to merely prove that a climate of nasty majoritarianism is in the air: “Look, despite India being a Hindu nation we still allow Muslims to rise to the top.”
In one stroke, with all his talent and commitment to social causes, the superstar has been reduced to just another Muslim who is being “tolerated” in Hindu India. By framing it as an “Aamir Khan” issue, it allows the Hindutva brigade to neatly side-step any responsibility to address this problem.
What the BJP and its vast army of supporters are not ready to admit is that increasingly, the persons resorting to invective and violence against others for their views, or even for what they eat, are from one political persuasion. Worse, it is the party’s – and the government’s – mealy-mouthed reactions to such incidents that scare the common citizen. However secure someone may be in his or her well-paying job and in their well-appointed homes, what is to say a mob won’t barge in and beat you up because they suspect you are a beef eater? Or a rationalist? Or, heavens forbid, an atheist, a drinker or a homosexual? And if this were to happen, how will the state react? The police may well arrest you, beat you up and the local MP may issue a statement condemning you for hurting some tradition or the other.
Nor is this rising tide of hate limited to freelance “fringe” groups; when the governor of a state talks about why Muslims are free to go to Pakistan or a chief minister says Muslims are free to remain Muslims but should quit eating beef if they want to live in India, it shows how pervasive and mainstream this kind of thinking is in the upper echelons of the Sangh parivar.
Aamir Khan’s “crime” seems to be that he has given voice to what many have been quietly talking about. As a celebrity, that too from the world of glamour, he is expected to keep quiet and speak in platitudes about bland issues. That is what the film industry has done over the years. Barring one or two honourable exceptions, no high profile actor engages with subjects deemed to be controversial. Shah Rukh Khan gently brought up the subject some time ago, but he escaped the avalanche of right wing trolling that Aamir Khan was subjected to (Anupam Kher, the stalwart defender of this government, has supported the former, criticised the latter.)
Aamir Khan went a step or two further and brought a well hidden conversation front and centre — that people are worried enough to think about leaving this country. Their concerns may be misplaced, their worries exaggerated and one might well ask why a rich and privileged person like Aamir would think on those lines, but there it is. (One might add here that in the past, others, such as Kamal Haasan and U R Ananthamurthy, for different reasons, said much the same thing.) True to form however, in this perpetual silly season we seem to be passing through, there have been protests against the actor and someone has also filed a case of sedition against Aamir Khan and it has been accepted in court. How soon before someone suggests all his awards be taken away from him for speaking his mind?
The irony may escape his critics, but they have just proved the point about intolerance that he – and many others – have been making.