Feminism, Politics

Planned parenthood shootings and the future of pro-Choice debate

Ever since reaching the age of conscience — that is becoming a twenty-somethings for me, I was always at the pro-choice side of the debate than pro-life. I still am, but perhaps the hard pro-choice stance, which could often be misconstrued as anti-life, had softened over the years, especially during and after the birth of our first child. As we went through various stages of my wife’s pregnancy, and looking at numerous books showing how the fœtus must be doing and looking like, it made me realise that taking a stance for or against abortion on an absolute basis is not as straightforward because of the multifaceted nature of the issue. The two opposing camps have always waged a battle against each other, trying to undermine the views of the other side, and an empathic reconciliation has never taken place. I must admit, taking the pro-choice side, I have always been cognisant and critical of the pro-life arguments, and therefore, rightly or wrongly, I thought that the pro-life argument has always been very loud and desperate to win over supports, compared to the pro-choice campaigns. Adding the religious dimension on pro-life, the arguments also appeared seemingly outdated. The recent Planned Parenthood shootings took the perennial debate to a new and dangerous level, where people would be ready to kill the dissidents. Planned Parenthood shootings demonstrated the root of this rift between the two warring camps transcends the bias or prejudice of the pro-life campaigners and it delves into their identity, religion, race and other dimensions.

Growing up in 80’s India in a middle class background, discussions around sex was limited to sex education classes in a handful of private schools. Beyond that, everything was discussed behind closed doors. Whilst women still had their mother or other motherly figures to turn to, men ended up in a much worse situation with no sexual education apart from turning to porn or that one famous friend who magically managed to have some sex. The concept of abortion was taboo, partly due to religious and societal paradigm and partly due to lack of knowledge and government help. The contraception had just started to dawn on people, as an alternative to accepting each pregnancy with joy or stress.

With such a background, my first encounter with abortion was through opening of a new Marie Stopes Clinic in Calcutta — in a lush green parkland I often visited. Before the privatisation and swank private hospitals, the edifice of Marie Stopes clinic was a shining beacon of private healthcare. On various advertisements and at the entrance of the building showed a sign ‘Infertility clinic’. Although I wasn’t very familiar with the term infertility, I guessed what it was after a few years, whilst reading John Grisham, Erich Segal and Sidney Sheldon, coming across the term “back alley butchers”. It was perhaps those late teen years when I first realised the trauma, social stigma and persecution surrounding the issue of abortion.

A banner from Marie Stopes clinic in India

A banner from Marie Stopes clinic in India
Source: Marie Stopes Clinic India website

During my first thirty years of life in India, the issue of abortion revolved around gender and religion, than personal choice in most of the time. India had had a long history, especially in the majority Hindu caste system, of a patriarchal society, and thereby treating women as burden to the parents and men as the bread winners as well as the superior genders. Birth of a girl child not only meant a lifelong debts for the family to afford the dowry to “marry off” the girl, but also and end to the family line, carrying the family surnames and the heritage forward into the next generation. For the age old despicable dowry system, birth of a girl child was unwelcome and often resulting the parents keeping on having children until they had a boy, or in worse case, female infanticide in rural areas. With the advent of modern medical science, detection of the gender if the foetus gave rise to another malicious practice — predetermination of the sex and termination of the foetus if it was a girl. It was only in the nineties that the government decided to act and banned the prenatal sex determination to abolish sex selective abortions. Before this rule was passed by the Supreme Court of India, millions of women have been subjected to inhuman treatments — from quacks prescribing unknown drugs and herbs to the back alley butchers — it was not just the foetus that was terminated, but the mothers ended up permanently unable to have children any more, leading to another societal stigma of being infertile, or worse, being killed in the termination process. Not to mention the social trauma of going through the experience without any support in order to avoid drawing neighbours’/extended families’ attention. The sex-selective abortion was not as dominant in the Muslim population, but apart from religion, the Muslim community was and still is primarily patriarchal like Hindus; thereby putting a preference on the male child. If the Muslim women were not protected by the Islamic rules, the gender superiority, often observed in a Muslim household, would have forced many more women into terminating the foetus due to the societal preference of gender. Marie Stopes and similar clinics provided a professional and compassionate alternative to women through the period prior to the actual procedure. However, in an urban setting, with possibly extortionate prices, this may have provided an alternative to only a handful of women from affluent background. The suffering for rest of the women still continued until the Prenatal gender detection was banned.

However, amongst the Gen Y population in the urban areas, with education and more liberal points of view compared to the previous parochial generations, the taboo of abortion was much less stigmatised than before. The conversation amongst men and women were more open, although the areas such as sex, abortion, pregnancy, period were still veiled under a secrecy – only being revealed to the close confidantes. In late ’90s and early 2000s, abortion in the urban setting was discussed more openly and people were aware of the modes of contraception, and the morning after pills in case of unprotected sex. The fact that the medical help is available to discuss termination of unwanted pregnancies itself lifted a weight off the women from the new generation. Nevertheless, the plight of rural women continued with illegal street-side health centres mushrooming in small towns ready to carry out gender test under the guise of checking the health of the foetus. These clinics also carried out abortions as an outcome of the gender determinations. In the urban areas, however, abortion started to become a choice finally, rather than an imposition from religious or social situations. The women did not shy away discussing the technical details with the doctors and get professional opinion on the methods of abortion based on the stages of pregnancy. It became a question of more women having specific plans for the future and a child did not fit in that plan, nor was there any impulsion to continue with a pregnancy by mistake for the rest of the live. Even though the question of abortion was becoming a question of choice, the secrecy and shame has not been lifted entirely, and it appeared that if the female fœticide factor is removed, the amount of Indian women choosing to have abort a fœtus was still a small number.

When I emigrated to Western Europe, I expected the amount of pro-choice people would increase significantly. On the contrary, what I found from the media, is that the society is more pro-life orientated. In fact a report showed that Western Europe has the lowest abortion rates in the world at 12 per 1000, whilst Eastern Europe top the list with approx 43, and the rest of the world is scattered somewhere in between. My initial ideas of more liberal places to have more liberal views on burning issues like abortion were shattered. It was expected that the percentage of the population pro-choice in the USA would be relatively low due to large conservative republican belts, but finding the rates for Western European was entirely perplexing. However, the more I acclimatised with the Western European society, the reasons became clearer for the low rates.

First, the entire Western Europe has a phenomenal welfare system in place, including healthcare and its access to the majority of the population. Apart from religious grounds and misogyny, perhaps the biggest factor for women deciding on abortion is their financial situation, the affordability of providing for another life. The welfare system ensures that that worry is taken away, and the parents/ mothers get state allowances for each child to cater for their needs. The healthcare and education is free as well for children and this may have swayed the women to carry on with the pregnancy. Second, the quality and value of life is seen at a different perspective in Western Europe compared to many places in the world. That the fœtus is still a living organism with possible feelings and sensations make people less willing to carry on with the termination. The education and behavioural aspect of treating living beings with compassion perhaps deters many of the expectant mothers terminate the fœtus. Third, and this perhaps applies to numerous women in developing countries where premarital pregnancy is still a social stigma that resulted in abortion. In Western Europe, the social stigma around children outside wedlock or single parenthood is nearly abolished other than pockets of orthodox conservative regions/communities. Also, the religious bias and the doctrines from Christian and Muslim — the two biggest communities excluding atheists, are against abortion; hence, regardless of the strong affiliation to a religion, people generally tend to live by the religious values and thereby deciding against their choice to abort the fœtus.

The previous few sections described how the observations regarding abortion spanned a large number of wider aspects such as religion, economic situation, values, lifestyles etc. However, that only represents some possible reasons why abortion rates vary across regions and the factors influencing that difference. The main debate of this article between pro-life and pro-choice camps. So, what can be observed from the pro-life and pro-choice campaigns across the countries and various places?

One fact is very clear that neither of the sides are very accommodating to the views of the other nor are willing to lose any ground. The pro-choice campaign obviously gathered momentum with more number of women becoming independent in the patriarchal society and growing number of liberal voices in favour of leaving the decision to the woman, who is actually going to carry the child. The pro-choice supporters however, at times, go beyond their primary objective of letting the mother choose whether to keep the baby, and meddle with branding the pro-life activists as primitive, oppressive and authoritative. With such adversity and acrimony, the purpose of the pro-choice movement is often lost. Often the pro-choice movement appears as a reactionary pressure group against the provocative pro-life campaign. On the other hand, the pro-life campaign has held the moral high ground since the religious texts existed. The life was treated as a gift of almighty God that humankind cannot refuse. Certain texts define the time when the fœtus transforms to life and be considered as containing a soul, thereby prohibiting it to be terminated. Since then, the rhetoric has kept being evolved and the tactics adopted by the pro-life campaigns on present day still are passively coercive, and abominable. Apart from making the women feel continuously guilty by reiterating the “life” and “feeling” of the fœtus in various contexts — be it the pædiatrician telling what the baby can and can’t feel at different stages, or the numerous pregnancy books charting the fœtus’ progress from first week, or the sensationalist media heralding every celebrity childbirth as cover story. The inherent message is quite succinctly delivered as though motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman’s identity. Apart from such implicit anti-choice messages, there are direct actions to discourage abortions, such as legislations for doctors to make women listen to the fœtus’ heartbeat before termination, banning entities supporting abortions from public schools, or in case of recent Planned Parenthood clinic, a reduction in state funding. Whilst writing this article, I came across an article how thousands of women travel from Ireland to England to have abortions, as abortion is illegal in the republic and punishable offence in the Northern Ireland. The political bias is in most cases conservative — irrespective of the parties implementing the policies, to avoid losing public support as the majority in Western Europe are still pro-life. The pro-life campaign had successfully stigmatised the abortion through such connotative and explicit actions. And since this process has been going on across generations, children grow up accepting that is the only version truth, not following the norm is tantamount seceding being a model person.

As the voices against such organised brainwashing became louder, the pro-life line of attack changed its subtlety and started direct threats to the activists supporting for pro-choice or the clinics carrying out abortions. There has been incidents of violence against pro-choice such as mob raids, arson and bombing at abortion centres in the past with the authority turning a blind eye on the perpetrators. On 27th November, a man entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and opened fire killing three people and injuring many more. After a long stand-off with the police, a certain Robert Dear was arrested, yet he is only referred as a suspect. Where police shoots innocents in other parts of the USA on the basis of their colour or ethnicity, it was surprising how Dear was arrested without any injury despite the gravity of the attack, and the police is still very silent about convicting him. During his interview, it was rumoured that he mentioned “no more baby parts”, exactly the same words shown in the media coverage on a series of sting operations at Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs centre, allegedly giving body parts to the research laboratories after the abortion. Although Planned Parenthood categorically denied the claims, the link between these sensationalist media coverages and the shootings cannot be denied. The aftermath of the shooting was even more shocking and only proves what significance do women’s rights hold in the USA. Rather than passing stricter gun control laws or providing extra security for other clinics, the state authorities defunding for the Planned Parenthood clinic, citing a legislation that abortion is not family planning! Each year governments pass numerous legislations, debated by male dominant parliaments and committees, and the majority of such legislations are anti-choice, taking funding away from clinics, discussing parenting and prenatal developments to women undergoing elective abortions, and many other small measures that are seemingly insignificant but collectively undermine the pro-choice rights and options.

I have mentioned at the beginning that going through my wife’s pregnancy for our first child was an amazing experience and it moderated my views on abortion from hard pro-choice to pro-choice with some appreciation for the fœtus that develops at a phenomenal rate. Whilst sex-selective abortions should be banned as legislated in India, taking a point from the pro-life campaign, never mind the soul, but the fœtus should only be terminated up to a period when it does not experience pain. On the other hand, is there any medical research that can unequivocally say when it starts having feelings? Aren’t most of the existing literature regarding childbirth focus on how wonderful the phenomenon of birth is? Don’t they almost emotionally blackmail a pregnant woman about choosing to continue with the childbirth? The answers aren’t probably straightforward, and in the end, abortion could be a stressful procedure, both mentally and physically. How I interpret it is, that the pro-choice argument, contrary to how it is portrayed as anti-life campaign, is not about preaching the killing of fœtus at all, but merely presenting a choice to women whether they would want to continue with their pregnancy. It’s all about removing the social stigma of abortion and as a result passively force women to continue with the pregnancy. Pro-choice is about the way of life, where one always has the two options unanimously and chooses to take the path as desired by their plans for the future. Abortion should be a natural questions and scenario to be discussed with the paediatrician where they could ask the woman if she wants to keep the child, as well as the women should expect the question and not be offended by the suggestion of termination being an option for the pregnancy.

Pro-choice is still an utopia in this present world. Whilst pro-life campaigners turning more violent with time, and the governments bringing more legislations that are anti-choice, the pro-choice movement does not have the momentum to effect the change in public psychology nor the legal side of the matter. It will need more campaigns, more people speaking out about abortion rather than treating it shameful and taboo. People like Jex Blackmore, who, through her Unmother diaries, shared experiences undergoing an abortion and the stereotyping she experienced. The campaign needs to be loud enough to be heard beyond the closed doors of the parliaments, so one must be vociferous about their support to the pro-choice campaign, but at the same time, hostilities towards pro-lifers would not help achieve the objective. However, I hope that with time and more liberalisation of the society, a pro-choice society will not be a far-fetched dream but a reality of tomorrow, despite the trials and tribulations and demonisations of today…

PS: I believe abortion and pro-choice campaign is a feminist agenda at present, rather than humanist, and I am unsure how and where a man like me, with their own prejudices, should stand. Reading from various contemporary newspaper articles and blogs, it appears that one arm of feminism is completely anarchic – it treats even men supporting feminism to be patronising, and thus consciously or unconsciously emboldening their patriarchal nature. I cannot argue against that school of thought, as not being sure what a man’s position should be on issues such as this. The other line of thought is more classical feminism, where women fight for equality and earn it rather than the male-dominant society divesting the powers to women as they pleased. With that line of though, I could identify myself as a feminist or a humanist supporting equality on all fronts. From that aspect, I would treat this as a feminist blog, but if this does appear patronising, I apologise in advance for my ignorance.
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Education, India, Politics

The Guardian article on Vyapam scam in India: A tale of greed, corruption and lies

Last night I had a dream. It was about an unknown suburbia in India, with its crowded and bustling roads full of old buses, vans and rickshaws. I was with one of my colleagues but had no idea what we were doing there, and we were lost, away from the city we were meant to be. The incessant din, multicoloured two storey houses, political graffiti on the walls and the web of power, telephone and cable TV lines above our heads were reminiscent of an India that was evolving in the new millennium, yet far away from the shiny edifices of Gurgaon and Bangalore, or the super fast highways in Bombay. We ended up in a train station, but the name of the station was nowhere to be seen. A train trundled in to the station, and we boarded the train without knowing where it’s heading to. We were meant to be looking for the first or second class cabins, but just rushed into the general class. Inside the compartment was dark, despite a bright day outside, and it was crowded like any other passenger train in India. I was desperate to find out where we were, to know which way to go. In the vapid heat inside the train, people giving us a little more room seeing my colleague struggle in the crowd, I made a last ditch attempt to read the station name – leaning over the barred windows, as the train started to speed up, leaving the platform. The first time I read a name, it did not make any sense, and even in my dream it felt absurd. I looked again, and it read like “Coal Nagar”. I know this does not exist, but in my dream, that name brought back all the information we needed. Coal Nagar was a suburb of a big city called “Anjar”, another imaginary place, but situated in Madhya Pradesh, and the city map flashed in my mind. As the train lazily chugged along the busy suburban landscape of houses, bazaars and scooters, we knew that Anjar is only a few miles away, and we will soon be in Anjar, then find a mode to get to Delhi and then back to UK. The sepia themed dream ended there, as we headed off towards Anjar leaving the unknown flurry of vibrant imageries, rapidly transforming in front of the barred windows, yet leaving an indelible stamp in my heart of an India I had never experienced.

I have not been to many places in Madhya Pradesh, yet that dream immediately connected the imageries to the central Indian state. The images in the sepia background instantly reminded of the film “Manorama six feet under”, both telling the tales of a forlorn India — far away from the new open market era image projected to the world, but still the epicentre of the present identity of India. A busy town, with strong connection to the rural surrounds, yet brimming with dreams and aspirations to escape the confines of the place to move forward to the bigger cities, inviting them with all their allures of 2BHK apartments and urban myths transgressed through hearsay of the people, who made it to the big cities.

It was an interesting coincidence, when I came across this article shared in The Guardian this morning. As I started reading the article, wonderfully narrated in a crime thriller pace of storytelling, the same images, still vivid from my last night’s dream, immediately struck my mind. It was a déjà vu of the “Manorama…”, a web of crime unfurling in a sedate township and the sandy sepia coloured background. Anjar in my dream is not Indore, but there is no reason why it can’t be. Yet, in the dream, whilst there was a life awaiting me outside the small township, this article instead divulge a sordid story of power, greed, corruption and shallow political exploitation of the Indian rural and suburban youth aspiring to break free the shackles of caste, class, religion and life long struggle. A vortex that consumed the futures of hundreds and thousands of youth coming from rural background.

Vyapam scam unfolded in the summer of 2015, when I was barely coping with tremendous pressure at work, and hence, most of the developments around the investigation past me by. This report may appear a bit long, but the narrative keeps the reader interested throughout and tries to analyse the findings from a number of different perspectives. Although the memories, left in the sepia tinted past, would evoke a sense of nostalgia, as the story unfurled, it divulged the primitive tooth and claw sides of the Indian politics and the web of corruption spanning not just a vast state but the entire central India.

I believe in the boundless possibilities and talent in India, and want to see the potentials fully utilised to thrive, not just as a country, but benefit the entire world. Yet, I wonder when that day would come, when scams such as this will be buried as the skeletons of past in that new shining India…

A sculpted pencil by the Russian miniature artist Salavat Fidai. Photograph: WENN Source: The Guardian

A sculpted pencil by the Russian miniature artist Salavat Fidai. Photograph: WENN
Source: The Guardian

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Intolerance in society, Politics, religion

Aamir Khan controversy – growing intolerance in society through the mirror of Lord’s Prayer ban

“Yes, I am a traitor, if you are a patriot, if you are a defender of our homeland, I am a traitor to my homeland; I am a traitor to my country… if patriotism is the claws of your village lords, … if patriotism is the police club, if your allocations and your salaries are patriotism,… if patriotism is not escaping from our stinking black-minded ignorance, then I am a traitor” – Nazim Hikmet

There are two pieces of news circulated in the media, at two different corners of the world, last week. In India, the famous actor, producer and director Aamir Khan stated in an interview that his wife Kiran was scared of the future of their children due to growing intolerance in the country. On the other corner of the world, cinemas in the UK refused to broadcast Lord’s Prayer before the films, for the period building up to Christmas festivities. Both these news caused uproar and debates in social spheres and the media flared the gravity of the incidents beyond proportion, creating national headlines. Although the two pieces of stories are seemingly unrelated, they are intertwined by the concept of intolerance, and social vigilantism. This is an attempt to analyse first incident using the latter to demonstrate that intolerance is not only limited to the confines of a region, religion or country. 

Aamir Khan is one of the most gifted mainstream actors of Indian film industry. After featuring in films with resounding success, Aamir moved into directing his own films and made films on contemporary issues in the Indian society. One of his recent films, PK, based in the religious vaingloriousness of the humans, became a big hit in India, despite the ultra right-wing Hindu groups threatened closure of the film and vandalised the cinemas in a number of cities. With a huge fan base, gained since his first film around 1989, Aamir is also one of the most successful Bollywood actors. Despite being nominated for the national awards a number of times, Aamir refrained from attending as he had no faith in selection procedure for the awards. In a recent interview, he admitted that despite living all is life in India, it’s the first time he is concerned about the future of his children as there appears to be a growing unrest and intolerance in the country. I only came across the news the next morning by the tempest in the teacup, as the Facebook was found flooded with condemnation and criticism, mostly personal attacks on his ethnicity and religion. Aamir instantly became the target of social media witch hunt, a traitor and a Muslim sympathiser of terrorism. It wasn’t only limited to the overzealous public venting off their feelings, but other celebrities weighed in as well. This affair culminated in Aamir releasing a public statement. The statement was more of a clarification of his interview rather than a reconciliation to the growing media pressure, expecting a public apology. The nation is still enraged, and the abuses are continued as observed in social media. 

Poster for the film PK, which became the biggest grossing film in India

Poster for the film PK, which became the biggest grossing film in India
Source: UTV

I may have heard the Lord’s Prayer before, but wouldn’t recognise it. Some of the words are like this-“…Give us this day our daily bread,and forgive us our debts,as we also have forgiven our debtors.And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from evil…”Church of England made an ad on Lord’s Prayer and wanted to broadcast it in cinemas before the films started. Majority of the cinemas including Odeon, Cineworld, Showcase have refused to play the short film due to their policy. A public uproar ensued in the island nation, with a dismayed portrait of Archbishop of Canterbury featuring front pages of nations newspapers, BBC tirelessly garbling out angry reaction from public to celebrities. A public petition started on the official parliament website to overthrow the decision by the cinemas, whilst the conservative media and politicians launched a scathing attack on the cinemas management policy. The petition gathered momentum throughout the weekend and by Monday it received enough signature to be debated in the parliament. Three days later, as I’m writing this, the petition has been officially rejected citing that forcing the cinemas to play the ad does not come in the jurisdiction of the parliament, it falls under the Digital Cinema Media, so all disgruntled Christians should write to the DCM, if they wanted the decision overturned.

Church of England Lord's Prayer and #JustPray Ad (Source: YouTube)

Two separate incidents, two geographically contrasted locations, yet one inference could be drawn from both is the growing social vigilantism and the intolerance of the public. Starting with Aamir’s interview, it lasted about half an hour, where many constructive points were discussed regarding Indian society and its progress, and after he mentioned about the heightened intolerance in India, the journalists asked him a number of questions regarding his views on double standards of politicians as well as his views of terrorism incited by Islam. Aamir aptly clarified that he criticised the extremist mentality that is in the rise, regardless of the community, and the terrorists carrying Quran, did not legitimise their Muslim belief. However, the sensationalist Indian media only scooped the section that would produce the most uproar, and they succeeded brilliantly. Overnight Aamir became victim to a nationwide hate campaign, with the most lenient ones blaming him of heresy and betraying the country he built his career on, whilst the more vociferous ones went way further, from proposing to throw him out of the country to declaring 100,000 Rupees for someone to slap him in public. Even after Aamir released his statement people are maintaining their stance that he did an about turn facing such a strong public reaction and he insulted the country and de facto, its 1.25 billion people. The debates continued, and people promptly responded to the call for unsubscribing the android app Snapdeal, which Aamir is a brand ambassador of. However, this is neither the beginning, not the end of the debate around growing intolerance in Indian society. 

The right-wing parties such as the present ruling party BJP and its ultra right sections such as Shiv Sena, Visva Hindu parishad, Bajrang Dal as well as BJP’s youth corps Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha or RSS, took over the role of protectors of the interests, culture and heritage of India’s Hindu population, and any attempt to criticise, satirise, question any of the centuries old practices and custom was met with severe and at times violent reactions. Apart from being the self proclaimed harbingers of Hindu identity, their stance was severely anti-Muslim, the second largest ethnic group in India. Not much later than the Rushdie affair involving Satanic Verses, the renowned Indian painter Maqbool Fida Hussain was criticised for his depiction of Hindu deities in nude, especially his painting of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, similar as Minerva of Athena in Roman and Greek mythology. The death threats, court petitions for defamation, ransacking his art exhibitions hounded Hussain until his death, and after, although the paintings were done in ’70s. The fact that Hussain was a Muslim helped the right wing hooligans in their anti-Muslim agenda provoking racial hatred in the spheres of art and creativity. The next incident, where the Hindu fundamentalists felt their feet trampled, was not so straightforward when it came to apportioning the blame. In 1996 a film was released by Deepa Mehta, “Fire” that portrayed a married woman’s lesbian extramarital relationship. Adultery and homosexuality, both were deemed damaging to the fabric of Hindu ideology and was vehemently criticised by the BJP and its extremist factions, calling for public apology from the director and instant ban on the film. The next film on the sequel, “Earth” in the partition of India and the ensuing communal violence also attracted cries for shutting down the film. The third film, “Water” featuring an affair of a widowed Hindu woman in the holy city of Benares, was met with vehement opposition from the right wing Hindu nationalists citing defamation of the sacred city as well as tainting the characters of widows, who, regardless of their age, are expected to lead life if a recluse. The production of the film was halted several times, as the mob attacked the film sets. The release was much delayed than the planned release around 2000-01. The then cultural minister of West Bengal offered Deepa to have the film shot in Bengal. However, the double standards of the communist government came to light as they offered Deepa Mehta to shoot Water in Bengal to snub right wing parties, trying to prove that the left is progressive, but in case of Taslima Nasreen, the exiled author from Bangladesh. Despite providing asylum to her in Calcutta, the government stance soon did an about turn, in face of growing protests from the Muslim communities in Bengal, harbouring the blasphemous author. The hypocrisy of various governments’ at various times in order to protect the free speech always affected the Indian societies. In recent past, the right wing factions began to promote a Hindu lead actor in Bollywood such as Hrithik Roshan, in order to diminish most of the public support divided amongst the three Khans, Aamir, Shahrukh and Salman. Incidentally, all three of them being Muslim, caused ire of the right wing Hindu supremacists.

Apart from the creative media, the propensity to disfigure the truth has never been so blatant than what was used by the BJP and the other right wing Hindu factions. The 1992 Babri masjid demolition was a first demonstration of the blind malicious side of the right wing nationalist parties to a republic. They also tried to stop celebrations of the Valentine’s Day as the true celebration of love was expected to be the birthday of Shri Krishna, a Hindu god with 16000 wives. BJP and their crony bunch of intelligentsia have been and still is instrumental in claiming the invention of numerous modern day best practices in medicine, science, astronomy, politics to be rooted in ancient Indian civilisation, which they proclaimed to be world’s oldest at 5500 BC, contrary to the archaeological findings and most factual historical findings of around 2000 BC. The latest addition to the hilarious claims was made in 2014, when the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the full head transplant was invented in ancient India deriving from tales in ancient Indian mythologies. BJP also tried to manipulate the educational system and the history by portraying Shivaji as a national hero because of his Hindu origin, and also introducing Saraswati Vandana, a prayer dedicated to Hindu goddess of wisdom Saraswati, to be recited in every school, rather than the national anthem. In 2007, a major sea canal project between India and Sri Lanka was permanently stopped, due to relentless disruptions by the right wing Hindu activists claiming the sand shoal in the shallow waters spreading between the two countries was in fact made by Lord Rama, another mythical character, purported to be a true person. The assassination of the renowned Karnatik author and free-thinker M.M Kalburgi in recent times, only proved the fact that the BJP and its other right-wing Hindu extremist factions would go to any length to promote their version of Indian history and culture and pulverise, not by logic and information, but by brutality, any voice of reason contradicting them.

As I said before, Aamir’s case did not start with his interview last week, but is rooted far deeper. Whilst Indian market opened to the world in late nineties, bringing the much needed deregulation, it was at that time, when the Hindu radicalism was on the rise. As exemplified above, along with state sponsored violence observed in riots in ’92, Gujarat riots on ’02 and many other individual attacks spreading communal violence, BJP and its cronies used their propaganda to promote Hindu nationalism, and any view that questions their superiority would be criticised and castigated. Their agenda also included the idea of Hindu supremacy, and hence by side-lining the Muslim population, apart from the one trump card they used to gain Muslim votes, by supporting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam for the role of the president. With the rise of social media, apart from the right wing mouthpieces like newspaper, party pogroms etc, BJP also had another platform to permeate its agenda of nationalism. It was evident from the election campaign in 2014, which shared numerous photoshopped images of PM candidate Narendra Modi, as well as denigrating the free thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore. With such a background, it was expected that the general public would refuse to bring a tyrant like Modi, who has blood on his hands, to power. Yet, no other opponent proved to be strong enough to stop the NaMo juggernaut, as public voted by the glamorous election campaign, and exasperated by the fading Congress’ nepotism, corruption and sycophancy to the old Nehru empire. After BJP was elected with absolute majority, it was clear that the  propaganda machinery will be in full motion, promoting Hindu supremacy from day one. Aamir’s statement about growing intolerance in last 6 months, therefore, riled the BJP, and the media reported the case to the Indian population portraying Aamir as a heinous character, that he is ungrateful that all his films are made in India. Aamir was an easy target, his surname is Khan, and his fear of the growing intolerance in his surroundings is something that could be presented in a manner making him an unpatriotic person.

Having lived by first 30 years of my life in India, the only way I could summarise it is chaos. Chaos – not in a negative way, but the country is in a state of chaotic equilibrium. Nothing is perfect, yet everything works. Trains run late, yet the Indian Railways, world’s second largest public office, runs like a clockwork to make the unimaginably complicated system work. The dabbawalas in Mumbai deliver packed lunches to millions of people without a complicated IT system, and so does the dhobiwalas cleaning the laundries for millions of people, yet achieve a remarkably high accuracy. India is a curious place, a conundrum for the outsiders, a quest to the ones who know the country, how are we so different, yet there is a common emergence of a unique national character? This is why I revered India, but never fell into the glorious trap of patriotism. India was, and still is, my country, but never my mother, the bharatmata. India is also a land of contrasts — not just two, but many different contrasts at various degrees intermingle at every instant, and hence, stereotyping India is a difficult task. Indians are driven by boundless aspirations, trying to keep abreast to the tides of change modern time is bringing, yet in adherence to the archaic custom and cultures which has no place for coexistence. It’s not a dilemma between old and new, but instead of progress against regress.

This conflict between the two has always existed and still does, and it shapes our thought process and logic. When we speak about unity in diversity, that diversity mainly focusses upon the regional, cultural, linguistic diversity; although the religious orientation of all such diverse constituents is still Hindu. Despite a large number of non-Hindu communities residing in India, Hindus still make nearly 80% of the population, and therefore, any image projected of India largely constitutes portraits of a country for the Hindus, and as the second largest minority, Muslims. Other minorities, although they are part of an incredible India, their stories often go unheard. The Muslim fishermen on Kerala, or the Chinese shoemakers in Calcutta, or the Jewish and Parsi communities in Bombay, or a Gurkha tea plantation worker in Darjeeling – they remain away from the limelight of the Incredible India vision. As do the multitude of tribes spread all across India – from the central plateaux to the North-Eastern provinces to the Andaman & Nicobar islands. A majority Hindu population creates in public mind vision of a state with Hinduism at the centre of its raison d’etre.  Impaired with this vision, anything that contradicts the key dogma of Hindu faith, the disagreement is often seen as the blasphemy, and denouncing the Hindu identity is tantamount denouncing India. Majority of the Indian population are reactionary, and therefore, easily manipulated. The right wing parties, irrespective of Hindu or Muslim, capitalise on this mob tendencies, along with a lack of clear thinking and decision making abilities. The lack of analytical thinking causes the mind to be easily led, to believe anything they read or listen or see, and whether that image fits to the preconceived notion of a Hindu India. With such warped concepts, a Hindu is also seen as an Indian, whereas a Muslim Indian is still a Muslim, a Hindu Bengali is a Bengali, but a Muslim Bengali is just a Muslim. The borderlines between nationality, regional identity and religion are blurred and intersect with each other – making a complex maze of identities. This fuzzy identity lies at the centre of the Aamir Khan scandal, which was started as a question on growing societal intolerance in India, but flared up as saying India is not tolerant, and that statement coming from a Muslim actor, his Indian identity is promptly ignored, and the debate is portrayed as a muslim insulting India.

The biggest pride I have in India is that since early days of independence, it is a republic and remained a republic state. A republic gives every citizen to express his/her opinion without fear, hesitation and discrimination. In Tagore’s words, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free/ Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls”—the vision of India portrayed in his poem is far from the reality as observed in the twenty-first century India. What Aamir alluded to in his interview, about growing intolerance in the society, was only a fear, for the lives of his children.  Yet, the following few days, and the mob witch hunt that was witnessed since then, only strengthens the truth in Aamir’s statement. The public reaction claiming Aamir’s statement as an act of insult to the country, heresy and treason, is no different than Saudi states — the intolerance of free speech is still the same. The concept of constructive criticism is of course non-existent in the sub-continent, where parliament session means the ruling parties and opposition shouting at each other, throwing abuses, often breaking into fights, and the smaller insignificant parties walking out. Many circulations and re-posts are going around in social media since Aamir’s statement, yet I have not seen a single person come up with simple logical facts to refute his claims. The biggest criticism was, what if Aamir said something about Islam? If India was intolerant, can he think what would have happened to him if he was in Saudi Arabia? The answer to these questions are, may be a lot worse, but that is an absolute ludicrous way of dealing with a criticism. It’s as silly as explaining why you failed a test to your parents saying ten other students failed as well. We call India a democracy, we say it’s a diverse country, but of course it’s easy to state that being the majority, of course Hindus can claim to the world that they live in harmony with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, but can those minorities say the same with equal ease? Can they say that they enjoy equal opportunities and are not marginalised? Can they boast of the unity in diversity? They can’t, because the moment they do, they will be branded unpatriotic, be subjected to the harassment Aamir has been through in last one week. As a republic, we have a lot to learn, a long way to go before we can truly boast of our diversity which does not depend on numbers but everyone believes in it.

This brings the discussion back to the Lord’s Prayer debate. Like India. Britain is a democracy, and it is a country with majority white Christian population, although, unlike India, a large number of Christian born population do not identify with Christianity any more, they are confirmed atheists. Christianity has been and is part of the main fabric of the country; although Britain can boast of a widely diverse demography in present days, Christianity is an undeniable part in forming the popular custom, language and festivities. Christianity shaped the UK in its present form as we know it. So the public may celebrate Yom Kippur or Chinese New Year with equal excitement, Christmas and Easter is still the biggest festivals of the season. Considering the vast majority of the confirmed Christian individuals are not church goers, and don’t live their lives by the Ten Commandments, it is surprising how a refusal to pray Lord’s Prayer before the cinema made it to the national news! The numerous public figures blaming the decision to be shambolic, right wing parties licking their lips finding a topic to win supports on their white supremacy agenda, the petition seeing an avalanche of supports to overturn the decision — what we saw is a reactive intolerance, from a large number of the public in one of the epitomes of democracy and multiculturalism. The British public, who cried out loud “bring our country back”, never cared what Church of England was doing, but with that refusal, they are all united in protest again, against policymakers implementing  multiculturalism, against a harmonious society. Whilst in India, general public is too blasé about the feelings of the other minorities, in Britain, the general public is, although more liberal, too uncomfortable to be seen of having any prejudices. However, instances like this present a rare glimpse of the undercurrent of the prejudices that run deep in people’s psyche, and the outcome is not the finest example of tolerance. That Britain is a democracy and irrespective of the background, the common sense that playing Lord’s Prayer in the cinema is plainly unacceptable — it hasn’t permeated through the minds of the people crying wolf. To them, this is a sacrilege that the country isn’t a Christian country any more, the country is being taken over by the immigrants, who dictate how the country should be run. Britain has never been a Christian country, when it became a democracy and brought in the immigrants to run the country better. But of course only a logical mind would think this. For the rest, if you are not born British and Christian, you are expected to show allegiance to the country in every step — revere the Royal family, celebrate Christmas, wear the poppy. The allegiance to the gimmicks became synonymous to adherence to the values.

As I started this discussion to analyse the incident of Aamir khan’s statement about intolerance and the reaction of the Indian population in light of the Lord’s Prayer ban in cinemas in the UK — both these incidents show us an undercurrent of intolerance, of different degree and manifestation, but identical in its concept. The boundaries between religion, ethnicity, language and nationality is blurred and all is brought under the same canopy of patriotism, the almighty word that tells you if you love your country. You must be a patriot, support your country in every deeds to make your existence in this universe meaningful! What’s the life worth it doesn’t want to sacrifice itself for the country? The tales of heroes and martyrs emerge, tales of great heritage, but wasn’t it how a Mein Kampf was born?! The intolerance that exists in the society is omnipresent, as does the tolerance. One cannot exist without the other, otherwise “to err is human” would have no relevance in our lives. Intolerance is not limited to the boundaries of a country, or religion, or ethnicity. It is our inherent fear and tendency of distrust the others. Being intolerant does not mean that people are not tolerant at all, it only alludes to the fact that they are not 100% tolerant. What needs to happen is acceptance of the intolerance and to address the issues constructively, not by declaring sums to slap a person who raised some concerns, nor by saying the country is taken over by immigrants.

This brings to two other factors that are vitally important for the discourse related to intolerance in the society. First, the role of the media. In these two incidents, apart from people’s shortsightedness about tolerance and its meaning, media is the next biggest culpable factor. In their rat race to increase ratings, media twist the facts in such a manner that it creates a headline, unconcerned of whether the facts are true, semi-true or blatant lies. The hype Aamir’s story received is completely due to the fact that they repeatedly broadcasted only two minutes of an interview that lasted half an hour, where a number of other social issues were discussed. Just in the same way BBC and ITV telecasted repeatedly the same news of CoE ad ban for next few days. Especially for India, with lower literacy rate that hinders the analytical reasoning, media needs to play a more responsible role than fuelling mass hysteria. The majority of Indian and british working class and uneducated sections don’t have the time nor luxury to delve into arguments and counter arguments, and perhaps draw an informed conclusion analysing all the facts. They probably take every news on its face value as seen of heard in the media. The flippancy of media observed in both these cases only made a much detrimental effect in maintaining a diverse society. The other factor is of course the role of the minorities in eradicating the intolerance from the society. Just by saying that the ethnic majority is intolerant, it doesn’t mask the fact that it runs in the minorities as well — illustrated by a gathering of thousands of radical Muslims in protest when a captured terrorist in India was hanged or people seen celebrating Paris attacks. Like BJP and its Hindu supremacist cronies, undeniably there are radical Islamist groups in India as well, as does separatist mujahideen outfits fighting for independent Kashmir, or militants in the north east. By being a free thinker, a voice of reason, one doesn’t have to stand up for minorities in every occasion, right or wrong. The question of right and wrong, good or evil eluded us since the early days of civilisations. We still form our opinions based on our understanding of the social filaments, our views towards life. It is a continuous struggle against ourself as well, where we need to break the stereotypes and paradigms layered over the years. If the reaction to Aamir khan’s statement was termed intolerant, my analysis is intolerant as well, as it represents intolerance of such intolerances.

A photo shared on Facebook on everyone becoming moral guardians of the society

A photo shared on Facebook about increasing vigilantism in social spheres
Source: 9GAG.com

So, what does the balance sheet look like, of the Aamir Khan controversy last week? Media gained, of course, with their heightened TRP and circulation of extra newspapers. Aamir lost a few dedicated fans and may not have his Snapdeal contract renewed. But he also won, although a handful, of admirers for speaking out the truth while the others shied away. Aamir’s wife Kiran has suffered the full brunt of public wrath, for having no opportunity to defend herself as Aamir did. Snapdeal, the company Aamir was brand ambassador for, despite losing nearly 100,000 memberships, gained in rating due to increased interest on their website for the controversy. But the biggest winner, from this debate is BJP and the PM Modi, as no official reprimand was issued through government of India. This is a surreptitious way BJP let its far right factions do the dirty work for them, such as maligning Aamir, his achievements and personal life; yet officially kept a safe distance from them to project an image of neutrality. Of all the involved sides, Modi’s image emerged as a leader who is calm and stoic, unperturbed by the scandal, his incredible India and swachh Bharat remained untarnished — much to the dismay and disconcert of any liberal person, as sycophantic praises poured in all over the media and Internet. In few weeks all will be forgotten, but this controversy will hush all the voices willing to ask questions, or point fingers at the government. The returning of national awards by scholars has already been much politically polarised, and their protests were degraded by the predatory right wing activists and Modi sympathisers. With Aamir added to this list of quarantined personalities, this paves the path for an unrivalled Hindu indoctrination of the country. The brooms of swachh Bharat movement will swiftly brush away the voices of criticism. India will be promoted as a country for its space programme, IT and manufacturing prowess, but the dark sides of caste system and discriminations, sectarian violence and intolerance, honour killings and female foeticides will be neatly tucked away. One may even ask at this juncture that if an actor is worth three billion rupees, is there really a concern for his children regarding social intolerance? If he is rich enough to possibly buy an entire security company, was there any ulterior motive? Will Modi go to the media with grand gestures of pardoning Aamir as part of Indian tradition and other similar nonsense, boosting his image up as the results don’t show the achchhe din or the good days he promised is imminent? We’ll never know this…

It’s been over a week now, since both these scandals broke out. People have now gone back to their daily humdrum life away from the uproar. Perhaps the nerves are still a bit raw in India, as the Aamir story still dominates internet and social media. In Britain people have forgotten about Lord’s Prayer already and engrossed in Christmas shopping spree. The guise is back, in both worlds, until the time something else flares up, when the fangs and talons will lash out again, baring our primitive instincts. Until then, we are all back to our pretentious social harmony, back in our sheep’s skin. 

Full interview of AAmir Khan at RNG Excellence Award
(Source: YouTube/Indian Express Online)

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