Central & South Asia

India’s Intolerance Debate is Exacerbated by a Bollywood Actor

Aamir Khan

© Shutterstock

December 03, 2015 16:14 EDT

A debate over intolerance has spread across India following murders earlier this year, while a leading Bollywood actor says the country is unsafe.

India is the only country where Jews have lived without persecution, where Parsis from Iran have found a home and where different religions have coexisted and thrived for centuries. It is known for its tolerance toward its diverse population.

Ironically, however, intolerance has been in the headlines of Indian media for the past two months, overshadowing the development agenda set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has the potential of causing a disturbance in the current parliamentary session, which is an important moment for passing crucial legislative bills.

A couple of recent incidents that have stirred the debate on intolerance include the Bisara lynching and the Kalburgi murder. On September 28 in Bisara, a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Mohammed Ikhlaq was killed by mostly Hindu villagers. Ikhlaq, an Indian Muslim, had allegedly eaten beef after killing a cow. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus and eating beef is prohibited for them. A month earlier on August 31, a socialist author by the name of M.M. Kalburgi was murdered in Karnataka; he had been campaigning against dogmas in all religions.

These incidents have triggered a series of reactions. Many opposition leaders across regional and national levels have jumped into the debate by condemning the murders. In addition, they have expressed concerns about the growing intolerance in India. Some well-known actors and authors have returned over 35 prestigious awards as part of a hashtag campaign dubbed #AwardWapasi (returning awards), blaming the Indian government for the growing intolerance.

India is Unsafe?

In an interview on November 23, Aamir Khan, a leading Bollywood actor, was asked his views on the intolerance debate. He mentioned that his wife had suggested that India was unsafe for them and that they should consider leaving. Considering his popularity and his religion, Islam, the comment hit the headlines across Indian media and is being discussed across the country.

For a nation with a population exceeding a billion people, heinous crimes are not unheard off. However, India is regarded as a safe and law abiding country, where the justice system—although slow—is well-respected and trusted.

But with a long history of Muslim rule in India, religious riots are not unusual. When we dive deeper into this intolerance debate and look at different facts and perspectives, we can notice a different conclusion emerging.

There is no doubt that religious intolerance must be condemned, but it is important that all intolerant actions are condemned. There should be no exceptions to the rule. It is interesting to note that Indian artists didn’t protest or return their awards when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in 1984 after the murder of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, or when thousands of Kashmiri Hindus had to flee from their home state and become refugees in their own country. And they didn’t return awards after the 2008 Mumbai attacks by terrorists from Pakistan.

It is important to note that law and order in India is generally handled by state governments, which in the previous cases would be by the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Indian National Congress in Karnataka. Both parties are political rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its National Democratic Alliance, which Prime Minister Modi is the leader of. Interestingly, however, the #AwardWapasi campaign has targeted the Modi government.

Another fact is that most of these artists like Arundhati Roy have consistently demonstrated a prejudice against Modi long before he was voted in as prime minister by a majority of the Indian electorate. Some of these intellectuals had signed petitions to the US government to ensure that Modi was denied an entry visa to America. In fact, the #AwardWapasi campaign peaked during the election in Bihar and abruptly finished with the end of the vote—as if the intolerance issue had been addressed with the state election. Clearly the motive was political rather than related to the issue of tolerance.

During an interview, Modi termed Ikhlaq’s death “really sad” and stated that he, his government and the BJP “never supports such incidents.”

Global Perspective

When it comes to Aamir Khan, he related the degree of intolerance from an experience of another popular Bollywood actor, Shahrukh Khan, who was interrogated twice at US airports due to his Islamic faith. In fact, Shahrukh Khan once said: “Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America.”

There have been no such incidents for any of the Khan actors in India. Instead, they enjoy VIP status due to their popularity anywhere they go in the country. Aamir Khan failed to elaborate on any specific incidents of intolerance toward him or his family. Instead, he used Shahrukh Khan’s example in the US by American customs officials to prove that India was intolerant. This is why we need to put religious intolerance into a global perspective and compare it with India.

In today’s world, intolerance manifests itself in different ways, whether it is terrorist attack in Paris or ethnic cleansing of Yazidis in Iraq. The US, even as the world leader, has not been free from intolerance against African Americans, which frequently presents itself in the form of police brutality. In September, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Sikh male, was assaulted in Chicago while the attacker shouted discriminatory slurs like, “Terrorist, go back to your country, Bin Laden!” But do these isolated incidents make America an intolerant country?

In contrast to Aamir Khan, a noted Muslim writer called Taslima Nasreen, who took refuge in India due to a threat in Bangladesh, said that India is the safest country for the Bollywood actor. In an article, Sofia Rangwala, who moved to India from Kuwait, said: “My husband and I are thriving Muslim professionals in India. We have only felt acceptance.” Similarly, on November 5, the #AwardWapasi campaign was opposed by 36 authors and actors who supported Modi’s efforts with a statement called, “Intolerance in Contemporary India.”

Like other artists who returned the awards, Aamir Khan has long demonstrated a political bias against Modi. In 2005, he conducted a campaign to deny Modi of a US visa when the Indian leader was the chief minister of Gujarat. So, did Khan’s statement over intolerance stem from past experiences or his political views?

A crimeless state is a utopian dream that hasn’t been achieved anywhere around the world. Without justifying any acts of the violence, it is important to keep this in mind before labeling an entire country or government as intolerant.

Condemning acts of violence and intolerance is commendable, but selective condemnation based on political considerations is inappropriate. A double-standard labeling of one’s derogatory comments as freedom of expression but other similar comments as intolerance is not the right way.

Modi is correct in focusing on development in India, but a political agenda from a nexus of opposition and leftist activists to polarize society on religious lines is not helpful for the overall progress of the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com

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