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Mumbai: Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan during his birthday celebrations at a hotel in Mumbai on Monday. PTI Photo by Mitesh Bhuvad (PTI11_2_2015_000206B)

Why Picking on Shah Rukh Khan Was Such a Dumb Idea

The actor is in a stratosphere all his own, way beyond issues of religious identity, and targeting him is politically counterproductive. But the sangh’s instinctive bigotry against less fortunate Muslims is likely to continue unchecked

Fans gather in large number to wish Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan on his 50th birthday outside his residence in Mumbai on Monday.Credit: PTI Photo by Mitesh Bhuvad

Why did BJP General Secretary Kailash Vijavargiya, who tweeted that Shah Rukh Khan’s “mann” (mind, or soul) was in Pakistan, later retract his tweet? He said his tweets had been “misconstrued”, which surely must count as one of the most inventive explanations ever, a digital version of  “I was misquoted” or “my words were taken out of context.” (Note: He did not apologise). But the question still remains – why did he take his words back and praise Shah Rukh Khan for being as popular as Amitabh Bachchan.

One can only conjecture, but it would be a safe guess to say that someone high up in his party told him that he had picked on the wrong target.

It is one thing to attack politicians or the media or even the much-reviled liberals, who are always fair game, but Shah Rukh Khan is quite another matter. Not only did the party’s erstwhile spokesperson Prakash Javdekar condemn the statement, but even BJP supporter Anupam Kher declared that “people should stop talking rubbish about Shah Rukh Khan.” The Shiv Sena, no slouch in the Muslim-bashing game, also said the actor should not be targeted.

Kher’s alacrity can be explained by the Khan’s pole position in the film industry – making an enemy out of Khan would be a bad move indeed. The Sena’s motivations are all its own; it breathes hot and cold as per the situation and at this moment it is baiting the BJP. But what explains Javdekar’s criticism?

There can only be one reason. While Javdekar – or anyone else in the party for that matter – has rarely found voice to criticise the continuous barrage of Muslim-baiting by the BJP and other sangh parivar outfits, Shah Rukh is in a different league altogether. Hitting out at Muslims, by word, deed or innuendo, works well with the loyalists who feel their favoured organization is sticking to its core values, but large numbers of them are also Khan fans. In their minds, there is simply no comparison between a Vijayvargia and a Shah Rukh Khan.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan during his birthday celebrations at a hotel in Mumbai on Monday. Credit: PTI Photo by Mitesh Bhuvad

Shah Rukh is in a stratosphere all his own, way beyond issues of religious identity. The film industry is a model of diversity and its output reflects that. This as much because of historical reasons as commercial necessity – a film has to play to different audiences, cutting across gender, age-groups, caste, class and religion.

Muslims have been an integral part of the film industry right from its early days, from the first heroine of a talkie – Zubeida – to its various directors (Mehboob Khan, K Asif), best actor (Dilip Kumar) and the large number of actresses of the 1940s and ‘50s. These actresses eventually faded away, but in the early 1990s, a new cohort of Muslim actors emerged – Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan – and have dominated the screen since. This is not due to any deep-rooted conspiracy (as some saffron fantasists suggest) but purely because they are good actors and have tremendous box office clout, which the film industry takes very seriously. Most important, they have vast fan followings, which does not for a moment care if their heartthrobs are Hindus, Muslims or anything else.

Vijayvargia must have thought he would get some media attention by bringing in Shah Rukh Khan whose greatest crime – in the BJP leader’s eyes – was that he spoke about intolerance. For Vijayvargia, as for many of his ilk, to mention intolerance is to directly criticise Narendra Modi and this they cannot tolerate. The BJP general secretary was quick off the mark and hit out at Khan in the only way he knew, that is by bringing in Pakistan. Several writers, poets and filmmakers had made more or less the same point as Khan, some in stronger language, but then Khan was a Muslim and in the Sanghi way of thinking, Muslim and Pakistan are virtually synonymous.

It is important to realise that they don’t deviously try and make that connect; it is part of their indoctrination, their training and their upbringing. Muslims, for the hardcore Sanghi, are by default either traitors or at best, second class citizens who must know their place; a Mahesh Sharma who praises APJ Abdul Kalam for being a nationalist “despite being a Muslim” or a Manohar Lal Khattar who says if Muslims want to live in India they will have to stop eating beef, is not, in his mind, picking on Muslims; for them, these ideas form an entire worldview, injected into their DNA from an early age. It’s just that earlier they could not say this openly and no one covered it; now, in positions of power, they see no reason to hold back. Nor are they embarrassed to say it in public. Vijayvargia thus instinctively said the first thing that came into his mind; if Shah Ruck Khan criticizes the atmosphere of intolerance in India, it follows that he is doing it because he is at heart a Pakistani, and thus inimical to India’s interests.

However, swiftly realizing that he had misfired, and that there was no support even from hardcore trolls, Vijavargiya quickly retracted, no doubt after a prod from the party bosses. Yogi Adityanath meanwhile compared Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Sayed and has not so far withdrawn his venomous remark. Neither has been punished by the party and chances are that he won’t be.

This episode is not going to shut up either Vijavargiya or any of the others who will keep invoking Pakistan every time they want to make a snide comment about an Indian Muslim. But while Shah Rukh Khan – with his popularity, his influence and his family’s impeccable involvement in nationalist causes – may be the wrong person to pick on, it is clear now that for Vijayvargiya and his tribe, whatever their credentials, every Muslim is fair game. The party may once in a while go through the motions of distancing itself from such hate mongers – more for reasons of expediency than conviction — but in the absence of real action against them, it is not going to stop such shoot and scoot tactics in the future.




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