Aamir Khan clearly played to a script, and it does not do him credit

The storm over actor Aamir Khan's statement on 'rising intolerance' on Monday needs to be understood against the backdrop of the recent political temperature raised over the issue. Given the nature of minority politics in India, where such issues are drummed up by "secular" parties to ensure that the minorities continue to vote on the basis of fear rather than pursuing their real economic and political interests, it would have been a surprise if Khan had said anything else.

What Khan's statement reveals is his decision to fall in line with the dominant narrative being tom-tommed by the mainstream English media that has been left out in the cold by Narendra Modi. Incidentally, an interesting aspect of the rising English media chorus of "growing intolerance" is that it is not supported by any kind of data or a benchmark from which this "rise" can be calculated. Barring a cacophony of statements by Sanghis, there is no evidence whatsoever that there is any actual rise in intolerance.

Aamir's calculated statement can at best be put down as another voice added to this self-indulgent and self-righteous echo chamber in the English language media.

He has not thought through what he really meant when he said that there was an increased sense of despondency over the last six to eight months, and that he was alarmed by it. For effect, he added that his wife Kiran Rao had asked if they should move out of the country, as she feared for the safety of their child.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with what Aamir said, or what his wife may have asked him, though it is far from clear whether Aamir was firing his shots from his wife’s shoulder, or whether she genuinely meant what she said.

However, we should still check Aamir’s calculated statement in the light of three realities:

File image of Aamir Khan. AFP

File image of Aamir Khan. AFP

First, I doubt if anybody in India thinks we have nothing to fear, given the state of our policing, our weak legal systems, and the space we have given to criminals and vested interests in cities and villages. I too would fear for the safety of my daughters in India, especially given the patriarchal nature of our society and its inability to bring up its sons to respect women. We have strong laws and a weak state, making it near impossible to assume that we will be protected from rabid elements.

The problem though is this: Did this state of affairs emerge over the last six to eight months, as Aamir is believed to have said, or has this been the case all along? Did Nirbhaya happen after Modi was elected? Did the Assam communal riots — and the mass exodus of the northeastern people from Bangalore — happen due to the Modi administration’s lack of statement-making on this issue? Did the attack by a mob in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in 2012 (the attacked included policewomen) happen during Modi’s watch? Did attacks on Dalits not happen before 26 May, 2014?

For an intelligent man, Aamir Khan clearly played to a script, and it does not do him credit.

Second, let’s come to his claim that his wife wondered whether they should move abroad? Now, this too is not an uncommon feeling among Indians. Many Indians have left Indian shores for better prospects, and it is this diaspora that believes in Modi and his idea of India by and large. From businessmen to ordinary students to techies, Indians have always sought to improve their material condition by taking advantage of merit-based systems in the West. The poor, on the other hand, went to West Asia to earn more while living like second-class citizens, whether in Saudi Arabia or even parts of the UAE. After decades, they are still not given citizenship.

Aamir’s insinuation is egregiously wrong: Indians leave India largely for economic reasons; almost none have left for the kind of reasons Kiran Rao is said to have suggested. In fact, Indians and others have come back to India because this is the only place that will give them a measure of citizenship, despite the handicap of a weak state.

In the sub-continent, Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and now even Pakistan have, legally or illegally, moved into India as economic or political refugees. The Nepalese have been welcomed like they were our own citizens, and despite some hesitation to accept Muslim economic refugees from Bangladesh, they are here and voting their own leaders in Assam, West Bengal and Bihar.

If there is a beacon of tolerance in the sub-continent, it is India. The only areas of long-term intolerance (as opposed to short-term intolerance caused by riots) are in Kashmir, where an entire generation of Pandits has been driven out in the worst act of ethnic cleansing ever practised after 1947.

Third, let’s assume Aamir’s statement has entirely to do with the hate lines of some Sangh parivaar and BJP members like Sakshi Maharaj, Yogi Adityanath and culture minister Mahesh Sharma.

There is little doubt that these loud-mouths have helped derail the Modi agenda of inclusiveness, and if there is any despondency, it is because the Opposition has latched on to these to block the government’s programme of reforms. So, if anyone at all should be feeling despondent, it should be the Modi government and its well-wishers.

But the fact is these Sanghi elements were always saying the same things, and similar things are being said by communal elements in the Opposition as well. Remember the statements of Akbaruddin Owaisi, or Imran Khan, the Congress nominee from Saharanpur in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with whom Rahul Gandhi was seen last week? Or those of a Samajwadi member who wanted to pay crores for those willing to murder the Danish cartoonists?

The fringe will be the fringe, and there is no point assuming that in a country of 125 crore, no one will ever make politically-incorrect statements.

Aamir also needs to ask himself a more basic question: Where in the world does he think tolerance is 'growing' in these times, when the angst of economic slowdown is being exacerbated by rising anger over Islamic fascism, especially with the emergence of the murderous Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq?

Two years ago, a white supremacist shot people in a gurdwara in Wisconsin. Over the last two years, we have seen race riots after the shooting of African-Americans in Ferguson and Baltimore by trigger-happy cops. When his name is Khan, can Aamir really expect to be treated as an equal in America?

In France and Belgium, we are seeing regular police action against Islamists in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. The far right is rising under Marine Le Pen. The face veil is banned in France, not in India.

In Norway, Anders Breivik went on a shooting spree in 2011 to fight Islamism.

In the United Kingdom, despite serious efforts at multi-culturalism and political correctness, the media reported a child abuse scandal run substantially by Muslim gangs. Intolerance is rising as political correctness is seen as the reason why this happened.

As for any of the countries in West Asia or our neighbourhood, surely Aamir can’t claim these are better places to bring up his children in.

The real problem with Aamir’s statement is that it is factually correct when seen non-contextually. But once you look around you and see where the world is heading – towards intolerance – India is actually far from the precipice. This is because our Indic nature, despite occasional lapses into intolerant words and violence, asserts itself.

For a country with 125 crore people and all their multiple diversities, insecurities and concerns involving caste, religion, and ethnicity, we are a mighty tolerant lot.

This does not mean we should bask in what we have achieved, but it does mean that we have a lot to be thankful for too.

This does not also mean that the Sangh hotheads should continue to vitiate the atmosphere. Modi would do well to put a tape across their mouths or even chuck them out of his ministry. But that still will be no guarantee that someone will not make an intolerant statement somewhere.

Surely, Aamir Khan does not want a state where everyone is gagged. That would be even more intolerant than the intolerance he would like to complain about.

Updated Date: Nov 26, 2015 13:37 PM

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