The intolerance being felt in the country is a serious threat to the idea of India. So is Prime Minister Modi’s silence or near silence about it. Recently my mind focussed on what it meant to be Indian – above and beyond the intolerance debate – when in answering a question from columnist Tavleen Singh, Aamir Khan criticised the extremists of all varieties including ISIS asserting he didn’t consider ISIS to be Muslims even if they held the koran in one hand butchering people with the other. Not satisfied with the answer, Singh went on to excoriate him in her column “Intolerance of the real kind” as a “Muslim leader” for not leading other Muslims in denouncing ISIS to the exclusion of all other extremists. I found it perplexing.
I have always thought an Indian is an Indian is an Indian – no less than any other Indian. Aamir Khan is an Indian who happens to be an actor and a Muslim just as Tavleen Singh is an Indian who happens to be a columnist and hails from a Sikh family. None of that should matter and isn’t worth wasting even a smidgen of ink over. But it made me wonder whether any journalists had made an issue of any non Muslim Bollywood stars’ pronouncements or of whether they had ‘adequately condemned’ their coreligionists’ condemnable misdeeds. Recently, PTI reported Amitabh Bachan… on ‘growing intolerance’ as saying “Indian films taught… to banish communal prejudices”. He emphasised India’s social unity… at a time when “cultures are being questioned and prejudices against the communities are dividing the world.”
Nandita Das declared “I don’t think freedom of expression has ever been so threatened.” Ranbir Kapoor said as much in describing his father Rishi’s battles with the Twitterati: “Unfortunately in this country you can’t really speak your mind”…without being misconstrued. No one has questioned Amitabh’s, Nandita’s or Ranbir’s patriotism; no one has called them “Hindu leaders”. That is as it should be in a democracy.
While citizens’ outspokenness makes for a better society, in a democracy they are nonetheless free to be silent and no one should be shamed or forced into speaking up on any issue including for or against his/her coreligionists no matter how wonderful or vile the latter may be. No matter how disagreeable or cowardly the silence of citizens may be, they only have a moral obligation to speak up.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister has both a moral and a legal obligation to lead on these issues. Over and above working for India’s economic progress, maintaining its territorial integrity and defending its borders, the Prime Minister of India is the legal guardian of the peace, order and good government in the country. Just as he can’t ignore a foreign military attack on India he doesn’t have the option of turning a blind eye or of remaining silent in the face of intolerance, communal strife and religious violence within the country.
Peace and harmony within India goes to the core of who we are as Indians; I say we because what happens in India has an impact on others’ perception of us even in the diaspora. Even if the level of intolerance in India is the same as it was before or more it must be fought. The stifling of free expression must be challenged. The communal and religious tensions must be defeated whether they are as bad as before or worse. No matter when it all began, who started it, who further fuelled it or whether it also happened under the previous regime, unfreedom, intimidation, violence or disharmony in the nation mustn’t be greeted by silence and can’t be vanquished by Prime Ministerial silence.
The Prime Minister is the ultimate official, legal and moral trustee of India’s heritage, its inherent diversity and social solidarity. His continuing silence on these fundamental matters is a serious threat to the survival of the idea of India – of multitudes of different ethnic, faith, cultural and linguistic groups.
Instead of haranguing Aamir Khan who professes to be nothing more than an Indian and an actor – the last I checked he hadn’t contested elections to even be a dog catcher for Mumbai let alone the PM of India – we should be urging the otherwise prolific speech maker PM Modi and politicians of all stripes to more vigorously speak up and stand up for Indian diversity, equality and freedom of expression; and to strike a strong and lasting blow against the forces of hate, division, fear and denigration of minorities. Uttering mealy-mouthed pronouncements on diversity and pluralism will not strengthen the idea of India for all Indians one whit. Modi must invoke the ancient Indian ethos of peaceful coexistence to robustly and loudly urge upon all Indians a compassionate, just, inclusive, strong and peaceful India. Silence – even near silence – isn’t an option.