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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 9 New Delhi February 20, 2016

Lessons from the Aamir Episode

Monday 22 February 2016, by Kuldip Nayar

I am not a film buff. But I do watch movies by actors like Aamir Khan because he acts naturally. Such actors make me feel as if I am not seeing a film but reliving my life. I must admit that I did not like Aamir Khan’s remark at the Tarkunde Annual Lecture that his wife had asked him whether they should migrate to some other country. Subsequently, he apologised and closed an ugly controversy in the country.

But the Narendra Modi Government has once again revived the controversy by not reviewing his tenure as the brand ambassador for Incredible India to promote tourism. What message the BJP is sending is beyond my comprehension. However, it is clear that the ruling party was punishing him for having made the remark.

I was present at the function because I was conferred the lifetime achievement award at that time. Aamir Khan’s remarks looked odd but nothing offensive. His despondency that tolerance, of late, had been pushed into the background was in tune with what was happening in the country. But there was nothing which could hurt one’s sensibilities.

Apparently, the Modi Government did not forget and forgive his remarks and his tenure was not renewed. This did raise eyebrows and the liberals even questioned the government because they did not want to make it an issue. Yet there is no doubt that the Modi Government has punished him and never explained why the tenure, a routine matter, was not extended.

This does question the credentials of the Modi Government. It pacified the minorities by saying, sab ka saath, sab ka vikas, but apparently it is driven by the extremist RSS. Even Prasar Bharati, otherwise an autonomous body, had to allow RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to use its radio network to broadcast his points of view. This happened for the first time after independence.

The Modi Government does not realise that it is probably legally correct but morally wrong. The minorities, who already suspect the government for being pro-Hindutva, are terrified and feel that they are second-class citizens in a country where the Constitution guarantees equality before law.

The appointments which the BJP Government are making smack of parochialism. Students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, have been able to block some pro-RSS academics getting top positions. But otherwise, the message the Modi Government is sending across is that even academic institutions are no more auto-nomous but under the fate of the HRD Ministry.

The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune is not functioning for more than a year now because RSS pracharak Gajendra Chauhan was appointed as its Chairman. Chauhan, who is merely a serial actor, has been preferred over more eligible people. The Modi Government refuses to budge even after some leading cine stars have pointed out to the government that it was in the wrong.

Another glaring example was that of Pankaj Nihalani, who was appointed as the chief of the Censor Board. Nobody doubts his credentials as a good film-maker but, at the same time, no one can ignore his RSS connections. Ever since he became the Chairperson of the CBFC, there has been a lot of criticism of saffronisation. But, fortunately, the mounting pressure on the government has worked and Nihalani has been replaced by the impeccable Shyam Benegal. However, in the case of the Pune Film Institute, the government has not relented.

I concede that Aamir Khan should not have made the remark when he was still the brand ambassador for the government’s Incredible India campaign. He should have resigned before taking the stance. In fact, I was surprised when he accepted the position in the first instance. He knew what the Modi Government stood for and how the RSS has the run of the government.

But the most grievous cut is the acceptance of the position by Amitabh Bachchan. It is known that he tends to take a pro-establishment stance, whichever government is in power. He contested from the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat as a Congress candidate. Since then he has not taken any stand and gone along with any Prime Minister in power, whether from the Congress or the BJP. He only knows which side of the bread is buttered.

Incidentally, Bachchan was Gujarat’s brand ambassador when Modi was the Chief Minister. Had he refused the position because of Aamir Khan’s forced exit, Bachchan would have given the message that when it came to principles he would not compromise. But then what I am seeking in him is not there.

Take the case of his wife, Jaya Bachchan, who was nominated twice to the Rajya Sabha by the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh. In fact, the party wanted her to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but after her refusal to do so, Mulayam Singh still accommodated and nominated her as the Rajya Sabha member for a second term. All these point to the fact that Amitabh is clever enough to gain from the political situation. He did not mind how Aamir Khan was punished for his bold comment on the BJP’s parochialism and unceremoniously thrown out.

There is a lesson in it for the nation to learn. A secular, democratic country has to give space to everyone, including critics. Unlike Pakistan, which is an Islamic state, India is pluralistic where the freedom of expression is guaranteed and the minorities have every right to express themselves. It is a pity that people like Asadu-ddin Owaisi are misusing the rights of free speech to widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims.

The ball is in the BJP’s court. The party has to create a climate of tolerance. Even a person like me feels the nation is being Hinduised and taken away from the path of pluralism. This is not India’s ethos. Nor does the Constitution permit it. The struggle for independence was not only against the British but also against the communal division created during their 150-year rule. We have to develop an atmosphere where the Aamir Khans do not have to make remarks that show the pains of the minorities.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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