As India’s intolerance debate grows bigger, did the actor play to a script or are his statements being blown out of proportion?
It was at an awards’ night function where Aamir Khan was engaged in an ‘In Conversation’ moderated by Anant Goenka, Wholetime Director and Head — New Media at The Indian Express Group.
“That these are challenging times for good journalism,” began the Bollywood actor, who has always shied away from attending any award ceremony. Of course, this one was different. The focus was not on him, or his films.
As the conversation naturally veered towards the issue of creative people returning their awards in protest against the “climate of intolerance” (more on this later) enveloping the country, Khan endorsed the protests saying, “Well, I think for creative people to voice what they feel is important and I think that a number of creative people like scientists, historians increasingly had a certain feeling in them which they felt the need to express. So, for creative people one of their ways of expressing their dissatisfaction and disappointment is to return awards. I think that is one way of getting your point across, certainly.”
He made clear his own ‘alarm’ at the “number of incidents” in the country.
“As an individual myself, as a part of the country, as a citizen, we read in newspapers what’s happening and certainly I have also been alarmed. I can’t deny that I am alarmed.. by a number of incidences. For any society it is very important to have a sense of security. I mean there will be acts of violence anywhere in world for different reasons. But for us as Indians, as a part of society to have a sense of security… two-three things are very important, I feel. One is sense of justice. If there is a wrong step that anyone takes, then a correct justice is given out for or against that person. That gives a sense of security to the common man…. When people take law in to their hands and when there is a sense of insecurity, we look upon these people (elected representatives) to take a strong stance, make strong statements and speed up the legal process to prosecute cases. When we see that happening there is a sense of security but when we don’t see that happening there is a sense of insecurity. So it does not matter who the ruling party is. It’s happened across ages.”
“More (insecurity and fear) than there was earlier?” Goenka asked taking the conversation to a deeper level.
“To complete my answer that there is a sense of fear more than there was earlier. I do feel there is a sense of insecurity. When I sit at home and talk to Kiran. (Wife) Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet… growing despondency… One part of it is alarm, the other part is you feel depressed, you feel low, you feel ‘why is this happening? This feeling exists in me too.”
In making public his private talk with his wife, Khan was communicating something heartening: that while being celebrities, they are not immune from the fears and insecurities of ordinary Indians. However, while telling us what his wife asked, about whether they should leave the country, he should perhaps have also told us what he said in reply. That was certainly a question begging to be asked of him, reported one section of the media.
Note Khan did not say he or his wife was leaving the country or the fact that they had any plans. As a Telegraph (India) journalist present at the event pointed out: “The actor was expressing an anguish that a child from any minority group in India today may never have the chance to grow up as a normal citizen, that he or she will always be on test, ‘tolerated’ by the great majority at best.”
But Khan’s comments sparked a fierce backlash even as many defended him. Protestors were out in full force calling him unpatriotic and a traitor, fans burnt his effigies and others went to the extreme of filing sedition charges against him. Social media was also awash with criticisms of the star.
Trying to put to rest the huge row over his comments, Khan on Nov 25 issued a statement saying while he stood by the interview, the avalanche of criticism directed at him and his wife Kiran Rao only proved what he had stated about the situation in the country.
“First, let me state categorically that neither I nor my wife Kiran have any intention of leaving the country. We never did, and nor would we like to in the future. Anyone implying the opposite has either not seen my interview or is deliberately trying to distort what I have said.
“India is my country, I love it, I feel fortunate for being born here, and this is where I am staying,” said the 50-year-old, one of the top earning stars of Hindi film industry.
“To all those people who are calling me anti-national, I would like to say that I am proud to be Indian, and I do not need anyone’s permission or endorsement for that.
“To all the people shouting obscenities at me for speaking my heart out, it saddens me to say you are only proving my point.
Khan’s clarification came on a day when the right-wing Shiv Sena made another attack on the actor, calling him a “self-appointed mullah” who “poked fun at Hindu religious sentiments through his blockbuster movie ‘PK’”.
It said after making lots of money in India, Khan “speaks nonsense in the name of freedom of speech… Actually such persons already enjoy too much freedom”.
But Khan isn’t the first of Bollywood actor to suggest that India is becoming increasingly intolerant. Earlier this month, Shah Rukh Khan was in the eye of a storm after he said there was “extreme intolerance” in the country. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists branded Shah Rukh a Pakistani agent.
“Aamir Khan is the most recent target of the Hindutva brigade,, When a person at Aamir Khan’s level of success can express feelings of concern, of apprehension, of fear for the future of his child, instead of taking it seriously, the government spokesmen call it “alarmist” and “ingratitude to fans”,” says Brinda Karat, eminent politician and a member of the CPM politburo.
When citizens express concerns about the environment of growing intolerance, it is not to criticize India, but to protect India from the forces who are straining every nerve to transform India into an intolerant authoritarian theocratic State, says Karat.
Many are of the opinion that Khan’s statement has been blown out of proportion and has been met with overreactions.
There are others also questioning if Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan are being targeted as celebrities or as Indian Muslims who just happen to be public figures? Eminent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai says, “You could argue that mega-stars need to be more careful while expressing their feelings instead of adding to the fear psychosis of the Indian Muslim. But you cannot deny that there is a Hindutva hothead brigade that is seeking any and every opportunity to demonise the ‘other’ as ‘untrustworthy’ because of their religion. There is a creeping ‘them’ versus ‘us’ polarisation which makes even popular icons vulnerable to the pressures of those who are looking for political mileage by taking on the Khans. It is this polarisation of public opinion, especially on a permanently outraged social media, which is at the core of the ‘intolerance’ debate, where any expression of a contrarian view is seen as potentially ‘anti-national’, where even food choices can determine one’s ‘nationalism’.”
But everyone has right to free expression. If Khan has rights to express his views so do his critics. But what is flawed here is that the actor’s critics are challenging his patriotism thus restricting a liberal conversation.
What is unfortunately and absolutely true is summed by scroll.in, that “It’s okay for the prime minister (Narendra Modi) to be celebrated by a stadium full of British citizens who believe India is too filthy and corrupt to live in. It isn’t okay for an Indian to say that his family feels vulnerable as a religious minority…. That it’s okay to want more money, or other forms of fulfilment with citizenship of another country, but it’s not okay for an Indian to wonder, in desperation, if he should leave because he wants a life for his child that’s free of fear and religious hate.”
Living in a political climate where you are targeted violently for having a different identity or an opinion distorts the whole idea of security.
The fact remains, Prime Minister Naredndra Modi’s government needs to protect people’s right to free speech and save them from being attacked for voicing their opinions, before India regresses on these issues.
(By TIW TEAM & Agencies)