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On December 28, 2021, an interview of actor Naseeruddin Shah by Karan Thapar was uploaded to The Wire’s YouTube channel. In the 35-minute chat, the actor spoke at length on what it means now to be a Muslim in a communally polarised country.
The discussion gives window to the hurt felt by India’s Muslims in an atmosphere where calls for their genocide ring out without consequences. The full text of the chat is produced below. It has been edited lightly for syntax in places.
Ten days ago, in Haridwar at a Dharma Sansad, bloodcurdling calls were made for the genocide of Muslims and ethnic cleansing. Hindus were told to do to Muslims what has happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Never in my life did I think Indian citizens would turn on fellow citizens in this way, yet that is precisely what has happened. So today I want to ask a simple and blunt question, “What does it feel like to be a Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India?”
My guest is one of India’s foremost actors. Right thought his life he has had only one identity, he’s been Indian. Religion has not mattered. However, today, many of his own countrymen are thrusting a religious identity upon him. Joining me now, is the well known and highly regarded actor, Naseeruddin Shah.
Naseeruddin Shah, at that Dharma Sansad, 10 days ago in Haridwar, bloodcurdling calls were made for a genocide of Muslims for ethnic cleansing and Hindus were told to do to Muslims what has been done to the Rohingya in Myanmar. What did it feel like to hear your own fellow countrymen, your fellow citizens, calling for a massacre of your community?
Well, the first reaction was anger. What is happening here is a concerted attempt to make Muslims feel insecure. Starting from the very top, where Aurangzeb and Mughal invaders are being invoked and separatism seems to have become a policy for the ruling party.
I was curious to see what would happen to these guys (right-wing activists) but the fact that nothing happened to them is not surprising, as nothing happened to the minister whose son trampled over farmers. He has not been sacked, he has not been chastised, he has not been taken to task and he has not been asked to leave the ministry. However, that is something which is sub judice, so I won’t go into too much detail. But there is definitely an attempt to make us (minorities) scared and that is something which I have always held as a placard; that we should not be scared.
Funnily, being scared is an accusation that is thrust upon me all the time. “You are scared of being in India”. Because I said something months and months ago about being concerned regarding the fate of my children. My life is over, and I have another ten years to go, so I won’t live to see it. But, what I am concerned about is what would become of my children. I had also stated that it is tragic that a ‘cow’s death’ should have more importance than the death of a police inspector.
These statements for some reason made me an object of ridicule, hate and a target of abusive threats all the time. Which completely baffled me because I don’t think I had said anything provocative of that kind. At the same time, a film of mine I had done 10 years ago called, A Wednesday was pulled out and another film I had done 25 years ago called, ‘Sarfarosh’ was pulled out.
In Sarfarosh, I play a Pakistani ghazal singer who turns out to be an intelligence agent. In A Wednesday, I play a lone wolf who decides to assassinate four terrorists who he fears would otherwise get away. These were shown side by side along with a video that was recorded of me when I visited Lahore and I was asked how I feel coming to Lahore and I said, “I feel completely at home.” This seemed to rile and rankle everybody, and they said, “If you are at home, go there.”
And I don’t understand why this should happen, because if you go to somebody’s house and if you are very comfortable and are treated well, wouldn’t you say, “This is just like home”. That contrasted with a speech I make in A Wednesday, when I talk of wiping the house clean of cockroaches and so on. And it was shown as, “What a traitor this guy is. On the one hand, his film image says this what he says in real life is this.”
What I said in real life was that I feel welcomed here, I feel very comfortable over here. But, at the same time, our Prime Minister and the Pakistani Prime Minister were holding hands like schoolgirls and walking down the causeway of the Lahore Airport.
Absolutely. I am now going to deliberately quote from two people at the Dharma Sansad, because the audience needs to realise just how shocking, just how bloodcurdling and just how horrifying some of the things spoken over there were.
Swami Prabhodananda stated, “Like in Myanmar, the police here, the politicians here, the Army and every Hindu must pick up arms and we will have to conduct this cleanliness drive. There is no solution apart from this.”
And then, Pooja Shakun Pandey said, “If a hundred of us are ready to kill two million of them, then we will win in making India a Hindu nation.” Did you ever in your life believe that Muslims would be spoken about in this way by their own Hindu brothers and sisters? These are fellow citizens turning on you.
It leaves you aghast when you hear things like this. And I wonder if these people know what they are even talking about. What they are calling for is a full-scale civil war…200 million of us are not going to get wiped out that easily, 200 million of us are going to fight back, 200 million of us claim this to be our motherland and 200 million of us belong here.
We were born here, generations of our families have lived and died here, and I am certain that if any such movement begins, it is going to be met with massive resistance and a massive amount of anger. And these people who make these statements, to whom nothing is done, whereas a poet, a comedian is arrested for a joke he was going to make. Whereas Yati Narsinghanand goes around saying things like…what this abominable Yati Narsinghanand chap goes around saying…are absolutely abominable are borderline ridiculous. They would be funny if they weren’t so ominous.
You said something very important, “These people don’t realise that they are creating the potential conditions for a civil war.” Two hundred million Muslims are not going to buckle down and die just because a Dharma Sansad is threatening to attack and kill them. They are threatening the very integrity of our country.
Yes, and as you said, they are threatening their fellow citizens who belong here as much as they do. And it’s amazing that the so-called ‘atrocities’ of the Mughals are being highlighted all the time. They forget that the Mughals were people who contributed to this country; Mughals are people who have left lasting monuments, history, culture, traditions of dance and music, painting, poetry and literature. No one talks about Taimur, Mahmud of Ghazni, or Nader Shah, because people are not conversing with that history. Those were the marauders, who came, looted and left. The Mughals came here to make this their homeland. You could call them refugees if you like, pretty well off refugees. But Mughals are being blamed unnecessarily and to hold every Muslim in India responsible for the so-called ‘atrocities’ is ridiculous.
You know, Naseeruddin Shah, it is not just what was said at the Dharam Sansad that sent shivers down people’s spines, it is also the response. Days went by without the police taking any action and even till today, there have been no arrests. When an FIR was finally filed, it was for the very minimal crime of “provoking religious enmity”.
The director general of police in Uttarakhand has confirmed to The Hindu, that the far more important Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has not been applied and it may not be applied. And yet, last year when the Tablighi Jamaat was accused of spreading COVID-19, some were charged with homicide. When Kashmiri students applauded the Pakistani cricket victory, they were charged with sedition. Do you, do Muslims believe that the police would be fair and objective? Do Muslims believe that the police will bring these dreadful culprits to justice?
It depends on who is giving the orders to the police, I think. This kind of discrimination of justice starts at the very top and I think that it percolates down all the way. The example is being set by those at the top. So, the police may act on orders, it’s a moot point as to whether the policemen themselves feel a sense of joy or something at beating up people. But obviously, they do from the footage we have seen from the lockdown. But, what is one to do if the representation of Muslims in police in any case is very small and even if it were a little larger and if there was a Muslim policeman who was ordered to charge with a lathi at a crowd, he would jolly well obey. I don’t think he has a choice in the matter.
You have said a very important thing. How the police behave and how they respond, whether they would be objective or fair and bring the culprits to justice depends upon the orders from the top. Let’s look at the political response. There hasn’t been a word of condemnation from the Uttarakhand government, the central government and the Prime Minister’s silence is deafening. It’s almost as if to suggest that nothing happened, or he doesn’t care what happened.
I think he doesn’t care. He genuinely does not care. At least you can’t accuse him of being a hypocrite in that sense, that he expresses remorse for something he doesn’t feel any remorse about. He has never said a word of apology for the Ahmedabad pogrom, he’s never said a word of apology for anything else. He did…half-heartedly apologise for the kisan thing, but it was an insincere apology. And not a word of chastisement to any of these people, in fact he follows these people on Twitter and obviously why he does that is known only to him, but he obviously derives some sort of pleasure out of that.
The silence from the Prime Minister is not just morally problematic because he is the leader of this country. But do you think it is clear sign to those who have been making calls for genocide, that they have his silent support? That he is in a way encouraging them, cause as you say he is not chastising them and he’s not condemning them. Does that worry you, that there is a silent support from the very top for these people who want to massacre your community?
It’s not entirely surprising. It is worrisome, but then that is more or less what we expected. I did fear that it would come to this. Though, I must say that how things have turned out are worse than anyone’s worst expectations. It’s a problem. We have a leader who keeps silent in the face of such provocation, a person who claims to care for everybody, a person who claims to work for their development and a person who says he has no problems against any one religion. Yet, he will parade his own religious beliefs to the accompaniment of zillions of cameras, of course, and at the same time find the time to run down to issue a dog whistle about the Muslims. It’s certainly worrying, but I don’t what one can do about that.
The sad part is that what happened in Haridwar is only the latest outrage against Muslims. For the last seven years since 2014 when Narendra Modi first became Prime Minister, Muslims have been repeatedly accused of “love jihad”, they have been subjected to cow lynching, they have been attacked by vigilantes and mobs. Repeatedly and frequently senior BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath publicly taunt them. Have Muslims been reduced to second class citizens in their own country?
They are in the process of being reduced to second-class citizens and it’s happening in every field. It’s also true that…they said “films reflect society or society reflects films”, I don’t know but certainly, what’s happening in the film world is being reflected in the country.
This is an attempt to spread a phobia among the Muslims and the Muslims must not give in to it, that is something I have always maintained. We must not admit that this thing frightening us because if it comes to the crunch, we will fight back. That is a fact. When you have senior leaders openly saying, “Hindus and Muslims cannot live together”, “Unki do sanskritiya alag hain” (Their cultures are different from each other) is he not contradicting the constitution? Is he not going against the tenets of the constitution? And yet, he thinks nothing of it and goes on repeating the same thing, “Shmashaan (cremation ground) and kabristan (graveyard),” “mosque and mandir” – such differences are constantly being talked about. The BJP has hit upon the most effective way of dividing, ruling and retaining power by assembling the Hindu majority…what they feel is their core majority. And they don’t give a damn. The Muslims are being marginalised, they are being redundant and gradually the process is on to prove that they are redundant.
You said something very important, but you said it sotto voce and because you said it sotto voce it becomes more powerful. You said, “if it comes to the crunch we will fight back.” That’s the last resort he is leaving you, isn’t he? That you have to secretly fight back to defend yourself and to protect your status.
Yes, if it comes to that, we will. We are defending our homes, our homeland, our families, and our children. I am not talking of our beliefs; beliefs very easily get threatened. I mean every now and then I hear, “Islam khatre mein hain” (Islam is in danger). Of course, now one is hearing that Hinduism is under threat. I mean, how absurd can you be, to believe a thing like that. When you outnumber us 10:1 and (still propagate that) “Muslims will outnumber the Hindus someday.” At what rate do we have to procreate to outnumber the Hindus someday? Why should we want to? We are happy where we are, we’ve done our bit for the country, and we feel that we deserve to live in peace.
I want to go one step further…today mobs will not let Muslims pray in Gurgaon. Mobs will not let Muslims sell vegetables and bangles in the villages and small towns of Uttar Pradesh. Mobs will not let Muslims set up non vegetarian food stalls in the cities of Gujarat. In fact in Gujarat, the Disturbed Areas Act will not let Muslims buy property in areas that are deemed to be “Hindu”. Do you find that the country that you live in is becoming sharply polarised and the divide between Hindus and Muslims is growing, often virtually, everyday?
It is being encouraged to grow. It is being fed. If there is a natural hatred between two religions that preach different things, then shouldn’t there be much more hatred and animosity between Sikhs and Muslims? At the Partition, it was the Sikhs and Muslims who were at each others’ throats, who suffered at each other’s hands and who saw the bloodletting being done by either side. Yet today, it is the Sikhs who open their gurdwaras to a Muslim group who want to do their namaz, and a bunch of Hindu fundamentalists come and try to disrupt the namaz. I think it is only the Sikhs who are noble enough to perform a gesture like this. I do wonder if Muslims would reciprocate with this type of gesture.
I know you are not typical of Indian Muslims, but there is a question I want to put to you because I imagine it’s a question that has been playing in your mind for a couple of years now. What does it feel like to be a Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India?
I feel very angry and resentful. And I feel pity for those who worship our beloved leader without question and would not tolerate a joke about him. I do not feel insecure because I know this is my home and nobody can drag me from it. I have done my work to deserve my place. But, what makes me angry is the undisguised visceral hatred that seems to rule most members of the ruling party. It’s what bothers me, and I know it will be harmful for them in the future.
Let me put it like this: you were born in Barabanki, educated in Ajmer and Nainital. You are one of India’s most highly regarded actor. Your brother rose to be the deputy chief of the army. How do the two of you feel when you are repeatedly told, “Go to Pakistan”?
We laugh it off. I tell those who tell me to “go to Pakistan” to “go to Kailasa”. It’s absurd…“Urdu is Pakistani language” or the word…what is that word in the Diwali ad…”riwaz”…”roshni ka riwaz” or something…How absurd can you get? How many words of Farsi are there in the Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Gujarati languages? How many words of Arabic are there…Urdu is mistakenly considered to be the language of the Muslims. As Javed Akhtar has repeatedly said it is not a language of the Muslims. It is the language of Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Unfortunately, Pakistan claimed it as theirs which branded it as a Muslim language.
The main thing is, as a Muslim living in Narendra Modi’s India, you feel “angry” and “resentful”?
That is not a happy way for anyone to feel.
No, it’s not. When I see our prime minister making ludicrous scientific statements. When I see him covering up the truth a lot of the time. When I see him dissembling facts. When I see him blaming what he is doing on his opponents and the coarse language that is used, it’s as if the political discourse has never been so low in my living memory.
Let’s at this point broaden our discussion, because it is not just about what is happening to Muslims that I want to talk to you. I also want to talk to you about what is happening India as a whole. Your wife is Hindu, your children were brought up with a modern, secular and forward-looking outlook. How do you view the sort of country India has become?
It’s hard to say. It will be interesting to watch but I know for sure that it is important that we do not parade our religious identities. I hope for the day when religion will cease to matter but of course, that is a utopian wish. When we were to get married, we consulted an elder in the family who said, “I don’t think there will be any political problem but there will be social problems. Whether the house will have a Hindu ethos or a Muslim ethos, whether alcohol will be permitted and whether meat will be eaten, etc etc etc. Whether Holi will be celebrated…”
But he said there will be no “political problem”, but he was dead wrong. We have had absolutely no social problem. We have several friends who have an inter-religious marriage. In fact, my children were surprised the first time they met a couple who were of the same religion. So many of our friends are Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Christian or Hindu-Christian or Jew-Sikh or something like that. So that was the kind of country one hoped to bring them up them in. That was the kind of country we told them it was. This was the kind of country I was told it was.
When my father refused to go away to Pakistan; his brothers, my mother’s brothers and several members of my family left but my father refused to go. He felt we have as much of a future here as we would have had it over there. Had I been a child in today’s India; I would not know what type of future would await me.
Today’s India might have pushed you out. In fact, it might have made you want to leave.
It might well have done that but that is something I am determined not to do. “Run and hide” is not my way and I am not going to do that. I don’t care how many threats come my way. I don’t care how much menace there is in the air. I will stick around and weather it and I will teach my children to do the same.
You know Naseer, you and I grew up in the 60s and 70s, at a time when everyone got together to celebrate Eid and Christmas. Three days ago, the world celebrated Christmas but in Assam the Bajarang Dal protested violently because the Hindus were participating in a Christian celebration. In Gurgaon and Pataudi, school pantomimes were disrupted because the gate crashers, there is no other word I can think for them, didn’t like it. Churches were vandalised in Ambala and celebrations were stopped in Karnataka. Are Hindus becoming intolerant and if the answer is “no” then where does this intolerance come from?
As I said it is an absolutely engineered hatred. The intolerance for each other’s faiths. Faith is such a dangerous thing that it can drive you to extremes of violence. The churches and mosques being vandalised. You can just imagine what would happen if someone had attempted to do a similar thing to a temple. I don’t think justice would delay in dealing with such a person. But nothing happens to these people who vandalise other places of worship. It’s ridiculous, “My god is bigger than your god” kind of thing and “you have no right to worship what you believe in.” It’s reaching the point of absurd.
Yesterday we discovered that Mother Teresa’s Missionary of Charity are not permitted to receive funds from abroad. It transpires that this was announced on Christmas day. Do you think that was just coincidental or do you think the date and the timing is deliberate and cunning. Another way of sending a crude message across to Christians.
Its certainly deliberate. It cannot not be deliberate. Greenpeace and Amnesty India’s funding has been stopped. So many others working for the benefit of society are being obstructed in every way. I simply fail to understand why. Everything that seems to be progressive seems to be anti-government. The fact that a peaceful church service can be disrupted by violent mobs who sit down and start singing bhajans. It’s quite unthinkable, this kind of thing never happened before, and it obviously has its approval from the top.
Or it would be stopped or condemned. They would be punished. None of that is happening.
None of that is happening and none of it is likely to happen. It is likely to get worse.
It is not just in terms of religion that our country is changing into something one could never have imagined it to become. Just look at what happens to critics and dissent, they are charged with sedition. Look at the parliament, it is not just non-functional, it has become irrelevant. Look at the media, large sections preferred to be lap dogs rather than growl and be guard dogs. Even the judiciary deliberately and consciously postpones cases that they know could embarrass the government. Is India’s commitment to democracy; the one thing that made us so proud when we were young, our commitment to the constitutional values that we gave ourselves. Is all of that floundering?
In some sections, it definitely is. It will be hasty to judge the judiciary because I suppose they work under tremendous pressures, but the Supreme Court has been asserting itself of late, so that’s a very hopeful sign.
Despite the doom and gloom, I would say there are hopeful signs, and it would be premature to say we are drifting away from democracy. Though at times, it does seem like we are living in George Orwell’s 1984. Where you open the newspaper and you’re greeted by the mirthless grin of “Big Brother”, where “two minutes of hate” is celebrated everyday which is what is happening on Facebook and all these social media things. It’s not “two minutes of hate” it’s “24 hours of hate” where “I love Big Brother” is the anthem and every citizen is compelled to say, “I love Big Brother.” It at times does feel like that, though it is too premature to tell. I believe democracy is a recent phenomenon in India. Before 70 years ago, India was a dominion before that it was a bunch of royal maharajas who kept fighting with each other, after the Mughal period. I think democracy is finding its feet in this country and this is perhaps one of the missteps that any person who walks will take.
Absolutely. In his constitutional speech near the constituent assembly, Dr B.R. Ambedkar called democracy a “topsoil” on a very different surface. But before I end, you mentioned “Big Brother”, let me talk about that for a moment. There is an aura in a cult of personality that is emerging. His own party is terrified of the prime minster, an army of trolls descend on you if you criticise him and I noticed that he only refers to himself in the third person.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. To have such a giant assessment of your own words, to be so susceptible to flattery, to be so ill-informed on many things, to at one stage openly boast that he has had no education; he did this before he became Prime Minister. It’s there on video. “Maine koi padhai nahi ki” (I have not done any studies), says he, which at the time was considered to be a charming admission but it acquires ominous reverberations now in light of the things he has said and done. His desire to be centre stage everywhere, it’s very close to another word I can think of beginning with ‘M’, which I won’t say but he is being elevated to a kingly- but to a god-like status and that cannot be a good thing for any of us.
Coming to the end of this interview let me end with just one question: as you reflect on the sort of country India is becoming, how would you describe your feelings? Are you saddened? Are you disillusioned and disheartened, or do you go further to feel a sense of despair?
I have to dismiss the sense of despair because that leads to nothing. I am saddened and am angered; I am not so much of an optimist as to believe that things will set themselves right, but I am what they call an “Agatheist”, that things are not okay but will finally set themselves right because time moves in circles. No despot has lost it forever and they have all come to grief. Sooner or later that cycle will come full circle in India as well. I may not be around to see it and we may have to go through living with leaders who believe in superstitions like banging thalis and all that sort of thing for another few years, but I am certain that the reel will come full circle.
That is perhaps consolation. As they say colloquially, “This too will pass”. The only problem is we don’t know when and we don’t know for how long it will last. Naseeruddin Shah, thank you very much for this interview. Take care. Stay safe and a Happy New Year.
Happy New Year, Karan. All the best.
Watch the full interview here.