This piece first appeared in Pragati magazine.
Shah Rukh Khan is first and foremost an entertainer. Even when he is pushed into uncomfortable situations, his first instinct is to showboat and display his characteristic brash nonchalance. So it was a pleasant surprise to read his piece in Outlook magazine that addressed questions around his religious identity and what it meant to be a Khan – not the powerful name associated with the hit-makers of Indian cinema, but the religious connotations of being a Khan. He is proud of his Islamic heritage. He explains how his father instilled in him the core tenets of his religion – “respect women and children and to uphold the dignity of every human being.” He also noted how he’s an easy target for politicians who use him as a symbol of everything that’s purportedly wrong with India’s Muslims. The backlash to the article was notable in its speed and ridiculousness. In a breathless, myopic article, Venky Vembu excoriated SRK and questioned his motives. If one looks beyond the alleged publicity Shah Rukh’s piece sought, there’s a deeper issue he’s dealing with; that of defining national identity through religion. What’s sad about the Shah Rukh affair is that he even felt the need to defend himself.
To paraphrase Mr Vembu’s misdirected critique, why would a superstar who has cultivated the adulation of a vast swathe of India cutting across caste and religion then jeopardise that relationship by implying victimisation as the member of a minority?
I live in the United States and often get asked how Indians deal with their cultural and religious diversity. These days, I’m not sure how to answer that question. A quick glance at the news indicates a plethora of outrage because of troublemakers claiming to represent the best interests of their ‘communities’, that almost always happen to be defined along religious, regional or ethnic lines.
Consider for example, the recent controversy surrounding Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam. A ridiculous chain of events led to a delay in its release in Tamil Nadu. First, the Hindu Makkal Katchi demanded the title be changed from Sanskrit to Tamil, and then a Muslim group demanded a ban on the movie claiming its depiction of Muslims ‘will’ hurt their sentiments — without seeing the movie, they merely speculated, based on its plot. After the government halted its release, Haasan eventually agreed to make cuts to the movie and even moved the Madras High Court, which has finally authorised its release. Although the core issue in this case was the suppression of Kamal’s right of expression, it was also disturbing how effectively he could be muzzled by attaching the issue to the sensibilities of a religion or community. Similarly, Mani Ratnam’s Kadal has run into trouble with Christian groups claiming the content of the movie is anti-Christian.
A marketer’s task is to divide people along socio-economic and cultural lines, target the most lucrative segment, bombard it consistently with symbols representing the product, make it relevant to their interests and win them over. This is exactly what ‘leaders’ like Raj Thackeray do. His harangue against “North Indians” and ‘Biharis’ serves to reinforce the misconception that the indigenous Maharashtrian’s identity and livelihood are at risk. This message is reinforced with bombastic imagery conjuring up the past glory of Maratha rulers. The Shiv Sena and its breakaway factions have been utilising this regionalism plank for over a decade, but thankfully in the last twenty years have come to power only once in Maharashtra.
The last time we allowed our insecurities about identity to get the better of us, the British landed a parting shot with the insidious two-nation theory. Their reinforcement of communal stereotypes resulted in the bloody consequences of the Partition and the creation of Pakistan. Despite the constant endeavor of its most sensible citizens to strive for true democracy and equality, today Pakistan reels under the influence of fundamentalist elements. It’s a society torn between citizens aspiring to a life of peace and opportunity, and a fundamentalist-military complex intent on establishing the most rigid tenets of Islam. Minorities are victimised with charges of blasphemy; free speech is suppressed so that the fundamentalist narrative isn’t disturbed.
There are lessons to learn from Pakistan. When Indian authorities pander to the whims of regions and religions, they render grave disservice to India’s identity. We are a nation that boasts of an active and aware civil society, increasing urbanisation, vibrant businesses and greater economic opportunity. This is despite the fact that we are projected to remain a country with low mobility, driven by rigid rural divisions along caste, and poor infrastructure development. In addition, we are battling ingrained misogyny, sexism, skewed gender ratios, corruption, nepotism and sexual violence against women. Do we really need to trivialise this struggle by providing primacy to the feelings and sentiments of a twisted few intent on exploiting the situation for personal gain?
Our nation’s symbols serve to remind us of our shared heritage. Shared — not individually partitioned and rabidly defended heritage. We derive our identity from this pride in our diversity. Let us not throw away this advantage by validating the crazed rants of the lunatic fringe.