South Asia | India's religious intolerance flap: Aamir Khan’s comment is just the tip of the iceberg

India’s religious intolerance flap: Aamir Khan’s comment is just the tip of the iceberg

November 26, 2015 12:31 AM (UTC+8)

 

Editor’s note: Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan recently stirred a storm on Indian social media by publicly remarking that his wife, Kiran Rao (who is a Hindu by birth), had asked him whether they should move out of India due to rising religious intolerance. Aamir (a Muslim) drew the ire of right wing Hindu politicians with his words and a sedition case has been filed against the couple in a local court.

I was going through an article written by a news website where they had supported Aamir Khan’s statement:

Aamir Khan (r) and Kiran Rao
Aamir Khan (r) and Kiran Rao

“When I chat with Kiran at home, she says ‘Should we move out of India?’ That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day.

Go here for the entire interview.

The article had 1960 comments and the way the commentators fought and abused each other in a public space was just appalling.

A majority said Aamir, who’s a Muslim and one of the biggest movie stars in India, should be grateful to this country and a few said there is reason to be concerned only to be lambasted by the rest.

Why this polarization?

I would agree with Aamir Khan on one thing that in the last eight to 10 months religion has become all too important in India. From the plush drawing rooms to the shoddy roadside tea stalls, religion has found a smug space in conversations and debates – a space where generalizations are made, logic forsaken, venom spewed. It suddenly seems this is all that matters.

Religion in India has always been volatile and has been used as a weapon to shove the real issues under the carpet time and again.

An elderly uncle came home one day and made a sweeping statement, “these Muslims are all criminals.” I asked why he had made such a statement. He said, “Haven’t you seen that the criminals named in the newspapers for theft and robbery are all Muslims?” I retorted, “But have you seen all the recent rapes committed in West Bengal are by Hindus?” Then I asked him, “Have you ever had a Muslim friend?” The 78-year-old man answered in the negative. He quickly added, “I wouldn’t want to have one.”

This made me realise one thing. If a 78-year-old Hindu man doesn’t want to have a Muslim friend then the intolerance that we are talking about has always been there, only that the present environment has emboldened him to voice his opinions blatantly, something he probably wouldn’t have done a few years back.

Like the other day a cabbie vehemently opposed the idea of me buying balloons from child vendors as we were passing through a predominantly Muslim area. He said, “They will snatch your purse when you bring it out to pay. I just hate them. I don’t take Muslim passengers in my cab also.” When I asked him how he knew I was not a Muslim, he said with confidence, “I know you are not.” I never knew religious identities were written on people’s faces.

The other picture

Growing up in Kolkata I have always had Muslim friends, we have had the best New Year’s Eve parties in their homes and had a blast with them during Durga Puja, a predominantly Hindu festival, and devoured excellent homemade biriyani during Eid. Like I wouldn’t be able to recite the Gita, I have had friends who wouldn’t be able to recite the Koran but then we can all sing Bryan Adams’ songs together.

When I told by uncle that my tailor, my hair stylist, my newspaper man, my extremely helpful colleagues at work and one of the best editors I have worked under are all Muslims, he didn’t know how to take the debate forward but neither did he change his opinion.

Ustad Rashid Khan, one of the best known classical singers in India, in an interview to Times of India today, said, “I live in Bengal and I have never felt unsafe here. In fact, it is while travelling to the US and UK I feel intimidated. You never know how immigration officials will react when they see my Muslim surname,” he said.

The Internet isn’t helping

The Internet is a treasure trove of knowledge but the few seconds on the smartphone rarely allow one to delve into that knowledge. What’s happening is people are sifting through half-baked information and forming their opinion and reacting to it accordingly. If one puts Aamir Khan’s entire interview in perspective, as someone who has given us the longest list of socially relevant films and has done shows like Satyamev Jayate that has actually made governments sit up and take actions on female foeticide and child marriage, what he has said is not any adverse-reaction worthy.

More than Aamir’s remarks I find the reaction on the social media inexcusable. It reinforces the fact that India has become truly intolerant.

Why this intolerance?

Religion is the garb that hides the frustrations and struggles that Indians have to live with every day. For the people spewing venom on social media life is travelling long distances boxed inside crowded trains and buses, navigating through pot-holed, garbage strewn roads. It doesn’t matter what’s the size of their homes that they step out from, but they cannot escape the hours of traffic on the road, and then for whatever salary they are earning it’s important for them to stay for long hours at work because that’s the Indian system of time management where if you try to fit in a family and social life you are labeled an underperformer.

That’s when a remark like this comes from Aamir Khan who lives in a palatial bungalow, amasses crores a year and basks in stardom, angers India. What better way to vent one’s frustrations than do some star bashing who’s probably got the option to leave the country if he wants to, an option that most don’t have.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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