Aamir Khan, who is a descendant of the great secular Indian nationalist leader Maulana Azad, did not organize a press conference declaring the Indian nation or its Hindu majority in general to be intolerant (he, in fact, had criticized Mani Ratnam for showcasing in the movie, Bombay, ordinary Hindus as having participated in the Mumbai riots of 1993, though according to Khan, in actuality, only Shiv Sainiks were involved). When asked whether he felt there has recently been a climate of intolerance, he said he did, and he explicitly said that his wife and he felt so for according to them, the government wasn’t doing enough to check the intolerance, spontaneously adding in the flow of the conversation that his wife had even thought of leaving India, fearing for her child’s safety, a statement which had shocked him. He is perfectly entitled to feel what he does and express what he feels, even if many may disagree. Moreover, what he said was not ill-founded, objectively speaking. A climate of religious intolerance cannot be gauged only by the number of people killed in violent hate crimes (which, I agree, do take place globally), but about whether the government has done enough to assuage the fears of the religious minorities. When multiple local BJP politicians in UP condoned the Dadri murder (Rajiv Gandhi did pass one irresponsible public statement in the wake of the horrendous anti-Sikh riots in 1984, which must be condemned in the strongest terms, but multiple people from his party did not justify the riots, nor did the party sustain politics based on antipathy to Sikhs), followed by cabinet ministers like Mahesh Sharma calling it an accident and Rajnath Singh just calling it unfortunate (and saying that it wasn’t a communal incident), which is all the prime minister also said specifically with reference to the murder (and this was after the riots in Sahranpur and the forced displacement of the Muslims of the village of Atali in Haryana for wanting to build a mosque on land judicially upheld to be theirs!), following which the prime minister, while campaigning in Bihar, ridiculed the Muslim amulet taweez (something he would never do for rudraksh) and talked of Muslims stealing quotas from Dalits, it is only natural that Muslim citizens would feel insecure, for they expect the central government to protect them if the state government fails. In other words, the outrage against intolerance was not only because one man was mercilessly killed over an unjustifiable reason to kill, that too supposedly on suspicion, but because of the chain of remarks justifying or condoning that hate crime, not only from “fringe elements” but with ministers like Mahesh Sharma calling it an accident and Rajnath Singh denying the communal nature of the hate crime.
Also, since Aamir backed the writers, scientists and others returning awards, it is worth mentioning that those returning the awards protesting against the climate of religious intolerance included Salman Rushdie, who is not in the least a Muslim extremist, and by the way, he is someone with great regard for ancient Indian heritage, especially the Natya Shastra; Arundhati Roy (whom I otherwise despise, but that’s another story), who had returned an award during the Congress regime too, and Ajay Raina, a Kashmiri Hindu who has made documentaries on the suffering his community underwent on being displaced from their homeland and on the problems faced by Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. Those supporting the return of awards and agreeing that there was indeed a climate of intolerance included business personalities who had earlier supported Modi like Narayan Murthy and Kiran Mazumdar. Many of those returning their awards, like Nayantara Sehgal, had openly condemned the carnage in 1984 and the emergency. That it did not occur to anyone to protest against the riots in 1984 by returning awards doesn’t make returning awards any less of a valid form of protest today.
Further, let’s confront the ad hominem allegations levelled against Aamir Khan and the whataboutism peddled. One is Aamir Khan acting in pk. He did not produce, script or direct the film, he acted in a film critical of organized religion as such and godmen of all faiths in general and not Hinduism or only Hindu godmen in particular. It showed how Muslims tried to attack the alien when he tried to enter a mosque with wine bottles, it showed a terrorist attack justified by terrorists in the name of Islam, it showed Christian missionaries calling Christianity the only way to heaven as a “wrong number”. It is ridiculous to hold actors responsible for screenplays, even if you have a huge problem with the screenplay. Besides, movies like Oh My God and Dharmasankat lampooned Hindu godmen much more than pk, but is that fine just because Paresh Rawal is a Hindu? Such hypocrisy! Further, it is bizarre to compare Aamir’s wife feeling insecure about her child and considering leaving the country to the wife of a defence veteran wanting to have her children enrolled in the defence forces. While we all salute the security personnel for their sacrifices for the nation, everyone can’t be expected to join the defence forces (which also have their tales of corruption and other wrongdoings, by the way), and most people making this comparison are not army men themselves, and are most likely to consider going wherever possible if they feel unsafe. Besides, defence veterans like Admiral Ramdas have also expressed concerns about religious intolerance, and that he was in the AAP doesn’t take away from his having served the nation in the defence forces, and by the way, he had left the AAP when he wrote his letter of protest against religious intolerance to the prime minister. Besides, if we are to give so much premium to statements, back in 2003, Aamir went to meet jawans in harsh terrain and inhospitable climate, and declared that he would be the first to give his name if the army needs civilian recruits. He supported the agitation led by Anna Hazare against the corruption of the Congress, too. In fact, despite BJP workers in Gujarat under Modi’s CMship tearing up posters of a film that he had not even produced (Fanaa) just because he had, like many other Indians, expressed his solidarity with tribals being displaced from the Narmada valley without being properly compensated, Aamir met Modi after the latter became prime minister and gave incisive public policy suggestions to deal with issues that matter to the nation.
Rather than bash Aamir Khan, we ought to ponder over what he said and work towards eradicating intolerance, irrespective of the religious banner it is under (no, I’m not one of those with a soft corner for extremism under a Muslim banner as compared to other banners, and I have written articles criticizing those who are). I do understand that many Hindus are feeling insecure in the wake of the ISIS attacks in Paris, them not being the first such terrorist attacks in the name of Islam, which have occurred in India as well [and in that connection, I would request the readers to peruse (not skim through and judge based on preconceived notions) this article and this one], but they can take a cue from exactly that insecurity to think of how Muslims must feel in the light of violent hate crimes by Hindu rightists, which are further occasionally justified by elected representatives (not to say that there aren’t also Muslim politicians like Azam Khan playing the communal card)!
Equally, however, I would point out that while I do certainly believe that Hindus in India must care about the genuine concerns of the Muslim and Christian minorities [I would appeal to anyone resentful of Muslims as such to peruse with an open mind (not skim through and judge based on preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download], the same holds true vice versa too, and the religious minorities must not also exaggerate their victimhood as if to suggest that they are perennially oppressed (this is not with reference to what Aamir said, but some Muslims and Christians making bizarre comparisons with the former second-class citizenship of blacks in South Africa and the United States). I must say to those particular Indian Muslims and Christians who complain of generalised victimhood of any kind (I am certainly not talking about all Indian Muslims or all Indian Christians) that they instead ought to speak up more openly against their own politicians like the Owaisi brothers and Azam Khan (who hasn’t even been charge-sheeted for his alleged role in the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Sahranpur, unlike Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi in connection with the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, or Manoj Pradhan and Ashok Sahu in connection with the anti-Christian riots in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008, who were duly convicted, and my point is not with respect to how much evidence is available in which case for what sentence, but whether the narrative of “Hindu riot-instigating politicians always go scot-free and Muslims are only victims, not perpetrators of riots” is true, and I believe that the issue should be ‘powerful vs. non-powerful’, ‘vote-bank politics vs. the spirit of democracy’ and so so, rather than ‘Hindu oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed’, which would actually be half-true or even false in many contexts), the forced displacement of the Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Kashmiri Pandits (as for rebutting the conspiracy theories and rationalizations offered about the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland, have a look at this piece) and even Reang Hindus from Mizoram by some Mizo Christians, Christian extremist militants who have imposed restrictions on Hindus’ religious freedom in pockets of Tripura, the terrorism unleashed against innocent rail passengers in the name of Christianity by some terrorists in Nagaland, other instances of violence against innocent Hindus (take, for instance, the recent news of a Hindu boy in Bihar being murdered by Muslim extremists for marrying a Muslim girl, or the killings of innocent Hindus in a communal riot in Rampur over a petty issue of some Hindu farmers’ cattle having strayed into Muslim peasants’ farms or how before the Dadri incident, an innocent constable in Maharashtra was killed as a retaliation against the beef ban in that state, or how very many innocent Hindus were killed by Muslim rioters in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and Gujarat in 2002 and not only the reverse), the open religious propaganda of some Christian politicians and bureaucrats who have otherwise declared that they would operate as per the Indian constitution and so on. However, that the wrongdoings of some Muslims and Christians are relatively overlooked by sections of our civil society, in no way, validates the wrongs of the Hindu extremists, as if a more highlighted wrongdoing is any less of a wrongdoing.
Over the decades, we have lost many lives of innocent people, cutting across religious lines, in senseless communal violence, but it is thanks to our secular constitutional ethos (which we must retain and defend) that doesn’t define Indian-ness in narrow terms that we have not become another Pakistan with the TTP, Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army, Talibanized Afghanistan or Nazi Germany, for autocratic exclusionary ideologies often end up in fascism that also takes away the civil liberties of the majority community (as the Sanatan Sanstha seems to desire). The electoral verdicts in Delhi and Bihar indicate Indians’ aversion to fascism, and Modi’s electoral victory in 2014 was also, in part, owing to his demonstrating a commitment to religious pluralism, as I have discussed here. However, now in power, the Modi sarkar has much to be criticized over even on issues that don’t specifically concern our Muslim and Christian countrymen.
(Article updated on 16th December 2015.)