Babble Without a Pause

November 27, 2015

Of Intolerant Views On Intolerance

FULL DISCLOSURE – I am not a fan of celebrity culture, but make an exception for this man. In my opinion, he is an actor who treads off-the-beaten-path. Like his film roles, he is an unconventional celebrity, and embodies for the most part, a forward thinking mindset, one that I find myself aligned with. There are exceptions, most recently when he criticized the comedians operating a satirical Youtube channel titled AIB for their vulgar language, despite having himself acted in a handful of roles that involved crude language. Sometime between 2 and 3 years ago, Mr. Khan was the face of Satyameva Jayate, a national show that broke from traditional Indian talk shows with its hard-hitting analysis of issues plaguing our country. The toast of the nation back then, everyone crowed about how he was a rare celebrity with a conscience, seeking to do public good, by bringing to light the many issues plaguing the country.

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intolerance
“FUCK Aamir Khan, man” I overhear this afternoon, as I sit down to lunch at a restaurant some 12,000 km from Delhi.

If you haven’t heard the name Aamir Khan in conversations over the past two days, I have one question for you. That rock you’ve been living under, is it sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic? On a more serious note, in case you aren’t aware, the name belongs to an Indian citizen and prominent actor vilified by countless twitterati, blogophiles, and social media enthusiasts over the past two days for comments he made in an interview. Lest I be accused of not quoting accurately or misrepresenting context, here is that question, and his answer:

Anant: Aamir, are you agreeing with the protest (award wapsi, or the recent trend of Indian authors, artists and prominent figures returning awards previously handed out by the Indian govt) or do you think it’s uncalled for… do you think it is premature?

Aamir: Well, I think, if I am not mistaken there are so many people in this room who are much more knowledgeable than me so I am feeling intimidated to speak in front of all of you. But my understanding is that a lot of people from the creative fraternity are protesting because of the growing discomfort they felt or the growing atmosphere of intolerance that they felt around them… growing sense of insecurity and disappointment with that, and as a result that was their way of showing that they are not happy with the situation.

As an individual myself, as a part of the country, as a citizen, we read in newspapers what’s happening and certainly I have also been alarmed. I can’t deny that I am alarmed.. by a number of incidences. For any society it is very important to have a sense of security. I mean there will be acts of violence in world for different reasons. But for us as Indians, as a part of society to have a sense of security… two-three things are very important, I feel. One is sense of justice. If there is a wrong step that anyone takes, then a correct justice is what is required. Common man should feel that justice will be done. That’s what gives a sense of security. The second and very important sense of security is the people who are our elected representatives – people who we select to look after us for five years if at state level or Centre. When people take law in to their hands and when there is a sense of insecurity, we look upon these people to take a strong stance, make strong statements and speed up the legal process to prosecute cases. When we see it happening there is a sense of security but when we don’t see that happening there is a sense of insecurity. So it does not matter who the ruling party is. It’s happened across ages. On television debates, we see where one political party, in this case, the BJP which is ruling right now, is accused of various things. They said, ‘But what happened in 1984?’. But that doesn’t make right what’s happening now. What happened in ‘84 was disastrous and horrendous. At other times also, through ages, whenever there is a violent act, when an innocent person is killed, be it one or a large number, that’s very unfortunate. And these unfortunate moments are the ones when we look towards our leaders to take a strong step. Make statements that are reassuring to the citizens.
[….]
To complete my answer that there is a sense of fear more than there was earlier. I do feel there is a sense of insecurity. When I sit at home and talk to Kiran. (Wife) Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers everyday. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet… growing sense of despondency. You feel depressed, you feel low.. why is it happening? This feeling exists in me too.”

The tendency of people anywhere, to unite against outsiders, perceived or otherwise, is nothing uncommon. Its called xenophobia, and is as old as time. As recently as 2013, Aamir Khan was praised across large swathes of the Indian community, for lending his voice to a TV show that highlighted pressing social issues, in contrast with his peers who largely made commercial films that raked in crores of rupees, but stayed silent on most national issues of any significance. But all of those encomiums were heaped on the man and his body of work at a point in time, when India was under successive coalition governments. When he spoke out against issues the country faced, nobody so much as raised an objection to his comments, as they were perceived as being intended to improve our nation’s policies and practices to better the lives of its citizens. Medieval practices like female infanticide, or the caste system were considered fair game, and nobody batted an eyelid, everyone applauded along, and hit Like/Share/Comment. Now however, it’s a different story. Any time someone so much as mentions the government, or the prime minister in a negative light, you have these rabid fanboys (and girls) climbing over each other to heap scorn on you. Don’t believe me? Check out the comments board on any social media post criticizing the Modi/BJP government, and you will see what I mean. Aamir has learned that the hard way.

If Aamir Khan says he fears for his wife and son due to what he believes is rising intolerance in the country, pro-Hindu masses assume it MUST CERTAINLY be driven by anti-Hindu motives, because he’s Muslim. A friend said Aamir’s comments outraged him because (and I paraphrase) the common man would see/hear a big celebrity speak of growing intolerance which could stoke fears in the minority community, leading to communal violence. So the expectedly juvenile solution proposed by this fringe crowd borders on “this muslim guy doesn’t appreciate that we ‘tolerate’ him and his kind here. Maybe he thinks he will be better off in any one of ‘HIS’ countries, so let’s give him what he wants and send this S.O.B. across the border, to any of a dozen Islamic countries”. Or so goes the reasoning in BJP and vocally pro-Hindu segments, who have found popular mouthpieces lately in the forms of prominent figures like Subramanian Swamy, a member of the BJP. You see, unlike Aamir Khan, who voiced his opinion in response to a question asked in a public interview, instigators like Mr. Swamy stoke communal fears without even being asked. Ask yourself, of the two, whose words are more likely to fan flames of violence.

Yes, politicians pitting citizens against each other is a real thing. Has been, will be. The pattern certainly didn’t begin and end with the BJP coming to power. It is called vote bank politics in India, it’s called pandering in the US, and is known by various terms in various nations. The very notion of us-against-them is a time tested way to cut up a country into little parts, divide and conquer, until it is neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, friend against friend. I say this to clarify this is NOT a new phenomenon under the BJP, but has existed in previous Indian governments as well. Having said that, the sheer volume in such incendiary comments and commentary has ratcheted up, with the tacit approval of this government. And it hasn’t happened silently, secretly, or under the table, but fairly brazenly, by leaning on the RSS and other communal-based organizations for inputs on governance. Sample this: a year into its rule, the BJP government held behind-closed-doors meetings with its parent organization, the RSS. The official tagline for this 3-day meet was an ‘exchange of notes’. The prime minister himself attended and spoke at the event. How is any member of the religious majority, or anyone from the minority for that case, supposed to expect any measure of objectivity and even-handedness from a government that rather openly associates itself with a hardline right-wing group committed to an openly communal ideology. Why then is a citizen not entitled to a viewpoint that says that intolerance is on the rise. You see, communal incidents aren’t just restricted to a number, a statistic that goes up or down with each successive government. The same statistic that says communal incidents aren’t on the rise, could say the opposite a few months before. A government leaning on its parent organization for inputs on governance and policy, is no longer the government of all, but government of a few, as reflected in cabinet appointments of trusted RSS sevaks to key positions in education and other ministries.

But we are tolerant, you say. We are, yes, compared to several other countries out there, most of them theocracies who outlaw other faiths. But that is the DIFFERENCE. India is not a theocracy, has never been one, and hopefully never will be. So we can and should do better than those other nations. Abhorrence for the Congress model of pandering to minorities should not be used as a pretext to indulge in outrage against any vocal member of the minority demographic that the Congress sought to appease. Look at the comments board on almost any online media site, and you will see large portions of the majority Hindu population across the country expressing sentiments akin to saying out loud that their time has now come, and that it is time to set right the skewed prioritization of minorities which happened under the Congress watch while overlooking the majority . I’m certainly not talking hatred of non-Hindu populations bordering on violent intent, but more of a smug one-upsmanship level of glee that the government in power represents Hindu interests, and not “sickular” interests, a supposedly derogatory term for fake secularism as practiced by the previous ruling party at the center.

Rabindranath Tagore is the author of one of my favorite poems, “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo” (loosely translated as ‘Where the mind is without fear’), a call to action in pre-independence India, that sounds like it was born from desperation. Had Tagore written this poem today, it is safe to say he would’ve been harassed on social media, his fans would have lined up outside his home to shout slogans about him being a “sickular” celebrity bent on weakening the multi-cultural fabric of the country. Except, there would have been no chants for him to be deported to the nearest Islamic nation. Consider the number of artists, meritorious citizens, scientists and others who chose to return awards and honors previously bestowed on them as a symbolic gesture (titled in the media as ‘Award wapsi‘) protesting growing intolerance and government silence in these cases. There were certainly Hindus in this group of silent activists. Yet, besides the expected disappointment expressed by some diehard fans of this government, there were certainly no ethnic slurs, abuses, or faux threats in their direction. Certainly, none of the Hindu participants were harassed to leave the country. If they were, I certainly didn’t hear it. Why is it then that Aamir is told to be grateful for the tolerance this country has shown him, and to be respectful for what “the country has made him”. Would such expectations be leveled against an Anupam Kher or any one of the multiple national award winners who returned awards bestowed on them by the government, who also happen to be Hindu, had they echoed similar sentiments under a Congress-led regime? What makes a Muslim any less of a citizen, or supposedly less entitled to an opinion than a Hindu citizen. There lies your answer.

humanity
You see, Khan being Muslim, or Kher being Hindu, is merely incidental to the fears and emotions they express. As a country, it is our duty to ensure that no citizen feels that way. It’s a lofty ideal, and one that we won’t ever solve in the near or even distant future. No country or civilization has, and we certainly aren’t going to be among the first. But it is an ideal that we must at least aspire to. Yet, because he belongs to a national minority, our basest instincts make his ethnicity the easiest to target, with comments such as these that have been doing the rounds on social media everywhere:

“My country is tolerant. Let’s see you find this level of tolerance anywhere in a theocracy like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia”.
“My country is tolerant, how dare you say it isn’t. Get on a train and get out, go back to Pakistan”.
“My country is tolerant, so what if ONE stray citizen was lynched a month ago for the contents of his plate”.
“My country is tolerant, so what if it really isn’t, the previous government was no better”.

In response to Aamir’s comments, taken out of context of course, have been two prominent viral posts doing the rounds. One is by a Sikh gentleman who speaks at length about how tolerant all of India has been to watch his movies, even the ones portraying Hindu gods in a negative light, and how if he had experienced intolerance all these years, even back in 1984, he never spoke up about it. The other, by a Muslim lady from Bangalore, a doctor who claims to never have faced discrimination or intolerance for as long as she can remember. To both these fine folks, I say I’m glad to hear that. But for every one citizen who hasn’t had to face intolerance, there are many more who have. So if expressing concern over the intolerance in the country is too sweeping a generalization to pardon, then so should attempts to brush every single instance of actual intolerance under the carpet by citing one person’s individual experiences.

Incidentally, today is the 26th of November 2015. On this night, 7 years ago, terrorists launched what was the largest coordinated attacks on Indian soil in a long while. In times of war as on that night, we band together, united under the flag of country. In times of peace, almost counter-intuitively, we challenge each other’s pride in country, patriotism, or religion. It’s almost like when there is no war, we seek out and set up reasons to wage ideological wars. Where terrorism is involved, it is clear that these incidents have nothing to do with religion. If they were, then terrorists would handpick and save their own, and kill only others. No, that isn’t the case. Muslims also died in the Mumbai terror attacks of  2008, because “religious” terror really has no religion. Communal violence and unrest, on the other hand, are instigated and perpetrated, strictly in the name of religion, or ethnic identity. And it is these communal incitement that needs to be carefully monitored, because as long as politicians are allowed to bait citizens, whether in India or elsewhere across the world, a nation’s people will fight outsiders in times of war, and fight each other in times of peace.

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