“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 the 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 the 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 many 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 several times, Aamir refrained from attending as he had no faith in the 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 Facebook was found flooded with condemnation and criticism, mostly personal attacks on his ethnicity and religion. Aamir instantly became the target of a 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.
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 the 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.
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 the 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 the ’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 a 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 to protect free speech always affected Indian societies. In recent past, the right-wing factions began to promote a Hindu lead actor in Bollywood such as Hrithik Roshan, 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 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 the 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 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 the Indian market opened to the world in the 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 an 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 the 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 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 Bharat Mata. 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 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 the 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 is, maybe a lot worse, but that is an absolute ludicrous way of dealing with 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 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 are still the biggest festivals of the season. Considering the vast majority of the confirmed Christian individuals are not churchgoers 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, the 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 unacceptable — it hasn’t permeated through the minds of the people crying wolf. To them, this is a sacrilege that the country isn’t Christian 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 are 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 deed 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 to distrust 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 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 because they repeatedly broadcasted only two minutes of an interview that lasted half an hour, where many other social issues were discussed. Just in the same way BBC and ITV telecasted repeatedly the same news of CoE ad ban for the next few days. Especially for India, with a 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 as 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 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 were 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 northeast. 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.
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 the 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 a 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 the 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 the 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.