Column

The tolerance test

Print edition : December 25, 2015

Aamir Khan. All sense of decorum and proportion was thrown to the winds in the controversy over his remarks on intolerance. Photo: AFP

THE obvious question is whether it is news in the first place. Do we need Aamir Khan to tell us that there is growing intolerance around us? Is it not pretty clear that there is? But then we are in a surreal situation where, like in the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, we are expected to pretend that what we see is not what we see. And if, like the child in the story, anyone speaks up and calls a spade a spade, there is consternation all round. The usual suspects, ready and raring to take offence in the name of their god and what they think is exclusively their country, rush in to avenge an imagined insult. A fresh round of reactive and intimidatory intolerance ensues. The individual concerned is harangued and harassed as if what was said was libellous and treasonable rather than the simple truth. If the observation happens to come from a Muslim, and a celebrity to boot, there is hell to pay. The avenger gang ratchets up alarm about the person’s ingratitude, questions his nationalism, casts a slur on his character, calls for his exile, threatens, and actually sets about, to obstruct or disrupt his line of work which brings him his fame and, in the process, shames and insults us all.

Sundry representatives of the political class of the saffron hue insidiously keep the issue on the boil by weighing in with these wild elements rather than condemning them. That is only to be expected. What is rather disconcerting is the equivocal manner in which the news media approach coverage of this whole business of intolerance. A part of the coverage seems to be settling down to an uncomfortable and predictable rigmarole where the one or the other news media make the news happen and the rest go to town “breaking” it. Particularly problematic is the way the I word is used as a bait to draw a Muslim public figure out on his or her stand on it. Do you find intolerance around you? The line of questioning continues until the respondent, the public icon, cannot hedge or dodge it anymore, is hooked and says yes. Because he or she has felt it or faced it. Or simply because she or he, like anyone who has eyes to see or ears to hear, cannot in all honesty say no. Then the rest of the media reel it in and the provocateurs pounce on it to savage it.

Often, it is not as if these celebs have suo motu raised the issue of intolerance in a public statement, signature campaign or press conference. The modus operandi of the journalism that ferrets out their view of intolerance is one of extracting a submission. A more genteel and polished version, if you like, of the police extracting a confession from a suspect. Of course, nothing like the third-degree methods of custodial interrogation may be employed here. Instead, you coax and badger the subject until he discloses the concern or grievance he may be harbouring within about what is happening around him. The journalistic interview or conversation as a benign inquisition that puts the Muslim public figure to the tolerance-intolerance test has become a tiresome routine. It probably has an exemplary angle to it because when we get to hear more and more such personalities say it out in the open, it may put pressure on the establishment to intervene on the side of secular reason (although there is no evidence yet that it does). But it also lends itself to the ludicrous misimpression—and those who want that effect will draw on it and propagate it—that it is the victim who is responsible for entertaining such negative ideas about his society and country. It falls into the stereotype of ghettoising Muslim opinion, as if it is this versus the rest, which, we know for a fact, is not the case.

Familiar routine

It was a milder version of this routine that was showcased live in the conversation with Aamir Khan at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function. The person conducting the conversation was fairly even-handed and circumspect in his approach and, in fact, seemed to hope to elicit a response contrary to what emerged from the star. When in response to the question about whether there was intolerance Aamir Khan replied that there was, the follow-up query was whether this was not as true of the time under the earlier political dispensation. Aamir Khan said he thought the situation had become worse over the last six or seven months. If it was left at that, the headlines, unhappily for many, would have been different. A veteran journalist helpfully pitched in and, teasingly reprimanding the interviewer for “softening the blow”, went on to (oh-so-predictably) conflate terrorism with Islam; she said something about the terrorists who struck in Paris bearing a Quran in one hand and a gun in the other. Aamir Khan was in no doubt that those who did that were not true Muslims, and he would not budge from that position.

All this was not getting anywhere. Luckily for the headline seekers, Aamir Khan, in the course of the conversation, spoke about how the possible seriousness of the situation was driven home to him when his wife, Kiran Rao, once wondered, much to his chagrin, whether the family should consider moving out of the country in the interests of the safety of their children. That was the breakthrough and clincher the media were looking for. They naturally went to town with it as further proof of the current illiberal climate. The saffron lumpens and spinmeisters then promptly dubbed Aamir Khan, like the others before him who had dared mention the I word, an anti-national ingrate. The context had flown out of the window and all sense of proportion and decorum was thrown to the winds. Even M.J. Akbar, once a reasonable journalist and now a Bharatiya Janata Party politician, got into the upping-the-ante act, charging Aamir Khan with committing “a moral offence” and deploring that “for the sake of his name, he is defaming the entire country”. Actually, it seemed more as if Akbar himself, maybe for the sake of his own name, was trying to ingratiate himself that much more with his party’s leadership by adding ballast to Aamir Khan’s woes.

Aamir Khan has, of course, made it categorically clear that he is not about to oblige his detractors and go anywhere, that he does not need a lecture on, or certificate of, patriotism from anyone. But, for the sake of argument, even if the family did discuss relocating abroad in passing, who can blame it, considering all that is happening here? And does it constitute such a grave crime to contemplate living abroad whatever the stated or unstated reasons? A former Premier of British Columbia and former Canadian Minister of Health, Ujjal Dosanjh, who left India in 1964 and took up foreign citizenship, puts the irony powerfully across when, in a blog provoked by the attack on Aamir Khan, he observes how the non-resident Indian community seems to enjoy a more privileged status than Indian citizens at home. He points out that “governments of all stripes have been lionising forever the NRIs”.

Official India, he observes: “[S]howers praise on us which I dare say we like. In fact in the year 2000 the people of India celebrated me as the first ‘son of the soil’ for achieving the high office of the Premier of the province of British Columbia—the first Indian to do so anywhere in the Western world. The [A.B.] Vajpayee government even bestowed upon me the inaugural Pravasi Bharatiya Award in 2003.”

“Aamir’s only offence,” Dosanjh evocatively concludes his post, “is one of being a true patriot. His critics are wrong in targeting him. I should be the one charged with treason for being a fugitive from the battles against fanaticism, caste, corruption and poverty. I say: hang Ujjal Dosanjh for treason before charging Aamir with sedition!” The irony is even greater given the grand overtures made by the current Prime Minister (who seems to think that foreign travel is foreign policy) to the Indian diaspora and the mammoth staged events celebrating the special bond between him and Indians abroad. Indians who have left India to settle elsewhere have done so for one or the other reason, among them better opportunities, a better life, greater dignity, less red tape and, why not, less intolerance.

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