A wave of intolerance and “cultural terrorism” seems to have swept India, the world’s largest democracy that is often touted as a model of pluralism and secularism.
It is Tamil megastar Kamal Haasan this time. And the other day, it was Shah Rukh Khan. Two of India’s most loved film icons were forced to go public to painstakingly reassert their secular identity.
The cultural space, too, is witnessing its share of escalating intolerance on a range of issues. The blazing row triggered by Ashis Nandy’s remarks on corruption and keeping Salman Rushdie out of Asia’s largest book fair in Kolkata underline the dangers of bigotry going berserk and faint regard for intellectual freedom that should be sacred to a liberal democracy.
Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan are not just talented actor-producers who have left an indelible mark on the south Indian cinema and Bollywood, but the enemies of freedom care little for creativity and freedom of expression. Shah Rukh found himself in an unwarranted situation for his views in an article on what it is to be a Muslim in India and Kamal Haasan for making a film that allegedly has scenes that some Muslim groups find objectionable and that the Tamil Nadu government seeks to ban.
Kamal Haasan has agreed to take the cuts to make his film “Vishwaroopam” and Shah Rukh – whose article prompted Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik to say that the Indian government should give him security – said the “unwarranted twist” was “nonsense”.
King Khan’s piece, a first-person account for Outlook Turning Points magazine, does not state or imply directly or indirectly that he feels unsafe, troubled or disturbed in India, the star said, reading out from a statement. “It does not even vaguely say that I am ungrateful for the love that I have received in a career spanning 20 years. On the contrary the article only says that in spite of bigoted thoughts of some of the people that surround us, I am untouched by scepticism because of the love I have received by my countrymen and women,” said the actor, who has been in the eye of so many storms.
Frustrated over the Tamil Nadu government’s ban on his film, Kamal Haasan even threatened that he would have to consider moving overseas to a “secular state abroad”. “M.F. Husain had to do it, now Haasan will do it,” said the angry filmmaker, saying that he lost all his property, even his house, due to the heavy investment that he has made in the Rs.95 crore film that could suffer heavy losses due to this manufactured controversy. He was alluding to the iconic artist, who died in exile in London in 2011 after he was literally chased away from his homeland by Hindu zealots who took umbrage at his paintings on Hindu goddesses and his depiction of Bharat ‘mata.’
Mercifully, the creative fraternity has rallied around Kamal Haasan. Says poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar: “Don’t listen to the words, listen to the sentiments.” Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh are, however, not the only ones to be persecuted by the self-proclaimed culture police. Nandy was questioned by the police in Jaipur for his comments during the Jaipur Literature Festival on corruption and caste. And Rushdie was in the country too, promoting “Midnight’s Children” but was kept safely away from the Kolkata literary fest. This self-righteous bullying and cheap tactics to stifle freedom of expression consort ill with a country that is aiming for a seat on the global high table. India must be rescued from this kind of misguided cultural vigilantism.
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