November 17, 2015 By Ali Ahsan

Intolerance and Cultural Dissenters

Recently, a spate of artists, writers, filmmakers and scientists from different backgrounds came out and talked about rising intolerance in India. The Dadri incident where Muhammad Akhlaq was lynched after ‘rumours’ of him having stored beef in his refrigerator, the burning of Dalit children by upper caste men in Faridabad and the various sending offs from members of the ruling party asking them to leave to Pakistan, terming anyone who questions the present government as anti national has put the people of the country including the media in a frenzy. Many of them have started to become vocal about their opinions.

The first writer to return the Sahitya Akademi award was Hindi writer Uday Prakash, protesting against the murder of scholar and rationalist, MM Kalburgi. It resulted in a flurry of awards being returned in a symbolic protest. Many of the artists, most of them writers and some poets, journalists, playwrights, scholars, historians and scientists have joined the protest by returning their respective awards. Arundhati Roy describes the movement as unprecedented, it being a unique and one of a kind protest.

The students movement at #FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) protesting the appointment of its Chairman and other appointments in the executive board solely on the basis of their political leanings and the #OccupyUGC protest against the removal of Non NET scholarships shows the growing level of disharmony among Indians over various issues. It also keeps the voices of dissent at a consistently high level, in the last 2-3 months. The most urgent of all the issues at hand is the growing intolerance and communal tactics being deployed by the current ruling party at the centre and its various fringe groups in different parts of the country.

We shall, in this article, take into consideration some of the different views expressed by actors ranging from Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher and Shah Rukh Khan. The perspective developed from their viewpoints are looked in to with the severe verbal attacks of Arun Shourie, a journalist, author and former minister during the previous reign of BJP.

There needs no introduction to SRK, widely considered to be the most popular Bollywood actor around. His views on the matter brought a lot of public scrutiny. His interview with eminent news presenter Barkha Dutt was circumspect and the opinions are carefully laid out. The interview gives serious issues of the time the attention it deserves. Shah Rukh answers questions about a range of topics like family and children, personal life, cinema among others. One of the points that stood out in the interview was that of the space for debate in a country like India vis a vis the US or some of the countries in Europe. One may notice that actors and eminent personalities take a more nuanced stand on political issues in the West while in India, any comment or opinion is jumped upon and dissected before anybody has taken a breather. A fiery backlash tends to makes life difficult and Shah Rukh Khan says as a professional artist, it is a nuisance to deal with. It results in lot of media attention, films not being released in certain locations and the actor being in turn answerable to money invested on a work by the producers. Shah Rukh went on to critique a spate of incidents and the alarming trend of intolerance in the country. He also expressed his support for the FTII students’ movement expressing hope with the future film makers of the country.

SRK, during one of his interactions with NDTV.

SRK, during one of his interactions with NDTV.

In the first of two interviews in India Today a familiar face on TV news channels these days is on air, Anupam Kher. Kher organized a rally of film and literature personalities against what he termed the award wapsi (return) movement.   Kher accuses the media of ‘selective outrage’. When questioned on what prompted him to come up with such a statement, Kher goes on the offensive and says it is unfortunate that the media is biased against the ruling party and Mr Modi. A vocal supporter of BJP, he says the host (Rajdeep Sardesai)  himself does not take up relevant issues and focuses only on the current government’s failures. He accuses Sardesai of treating the present government unfairly as compared to previous governments. Anupam Kher then tries to change plates by questioning whether the interviewee likes the Prime Minister or not. In reply, Rajdeep goes on to say he respects the government chosen by the people but that does not mean one cannot question them.

Narendra Modi (left) and Anupam Kher (right).

Narendra Modi (left) and Anupam Kher (right).

Anupam Kher, a Kashmiri migrant, has always been the celebrity torch bearer for the rights of the community. The tragedy that he and his people faced does not mean the Muslims in Kashmir did not face any harm, quipped Rajdeep. It resulted in an ensuing twitter battle between the two exchanging public statements. The question that put Kher in a tangle was that of him not coming out and condemning the act of the Shiv Sena, where Sudheendra Kulkarni was smeared with ink just because he hosted a Pakistani author. Sardesai questions Kher on why one has to take it out on people who have nothing to do with terror. The reasoning of Mr Kher leaves a lot to be desired. He is defending a government that sees no harm in their communal methods and divisive policy making.  One of the final questions was whether, if he got a chance, he would join forces with a Pakistani artist in the future. What will be Kher’s reaction if he is then attacked by the Shiv Sena? Kher answered that he will take them on when the situation demands and that he is at the same time sure that the right wing paramilitary force will not stop him from doing it.


Naseeruddin Shah.

The second interview in the same series on rising intolerance in India has Naseeruddin Shah as a speaker, one of the most experienced actors around. He is one of the few actors to have as much an audience across the border in Pakistan as in India. In his interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, he is visibly irked by all the publicity. Mr Shah was the subject of much ire on social media after he was part of a function organized on the occasion of the book release of Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan . Team Ink of Shiv Sena was in turn proud of the fact that they had not thrown stones but only ink on Sudheendra Kulkarni, the other Indian present at the venue. The Shiv Sena is trying hard to regain its share of some media space, from its elder political cousin BJP, as they stated they were being non violent in their method of protest.

Naseeruddin Shah later commented on this episode where he said he was never meted out such treatment while he was in Pakistan and to the contrary, was always welcomed with love and regard. This comment was then jumped upon by the ‘ultra nationalists’ bandwagon of India. He was then questioned of his commitment to India. Naseeruddin claims he was pained at being asked to prove his ‘Indianness’. He wonders why anything said as a compliment to Pakistan is then construed as anti-Indian and anti-national.

Karan Thapar’s interview with Arun Shourie reveals a lot about the current government at the helm. Mr Shourie, a former BJP minister (1998-2003) gives an insiders account of the functioning of the party in power. He agrees that there is a connection between the many incidents that occurred one after the other and the people in power. Referring to the banning of beef, he says the PM himself has to be careful with the way he speaks during election campaigns and the kind of people he surrounds himself with. Do note that the interview was shot after the humiliating loss BJP experienced in Bihar where PM Modi himself conducted nearly 40 speeches and rallies. He is of the view that the PM and his actions have in a way led to all this ‘beef business’ and the crimes related to it.

Arun Shourie.

Arun Shourie.

Shourie makes it clear that he is not comparing the PM to former fascist leader Mussolini but at the same time feels the actions of the government leave a lot to be desired. He feels many of the BJP leaders blame the scientists and artists because they are unable to take on them. The ministers would not ‘have read a book in twenty years’, he opines and one cannot expect anything better from them. He further adds, ‘The writers and artists are the essence of the nation, they are the ones who see what others do not see.’

On whether there is any bias against the BJP as compared to the previous governments, he says political discourse cannot stoop to such levels. The Central government cannot put the blame on the state government or try and deflect what is in actuality their responsibility. He stands absolutely convinced that the Prime Minister cannot talk about just anything in the World. He requests us to follow some of the PM’s tweets congratulating people on their special days while innumerable citizens of the country are losing their lives. After the Dadri incident, how can a Prime Minister of the country the immediate next day congratulate Mahesh Sharma on his birthday? The Nagaland incident, the killing of Dalit children and the killing of a Kashmiri truck driver, all of them resulted in a long silence from the Prime Minister, refusing to even acknowledge it. Each of these actions speak of the politics of the Prime Minister and the way he conducts himself. Shourie feels the Prime Minister is the only man responsible for setting the ‘moral standards’ of the nation and currently it is not of good taste.

Arun Shourie says the current trend is not good for the PM’s reputation or more alarmingly for the nation itself. He puts the trio of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley as the three men running the BJP and therefore the country. He further went on to label the running of the tax administration of the country as lunatic and the land acquisition act as a blunder. It is a matter of great concern that the promise of development is only a matter of large projects and a mask over welcoming more and more foreign investments. He also lambasted Amit Shah for making shallow comments such as Pakistani’s bursting crackers over BJP’s loss.

As per the tradition, Arun Shourie was requested for a couplet to end the interview and he did not disappoint. Quoting Ghalib in Urdu and translating it to English for the viewers, ‘He who adorned the throne before you. He was also as convinced as you are that he is the eternal God. Look at where he is now.’



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