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Aamir Khan And The Fiction Of Intolerance: Some Inconvenient Facts

07/12/2015 9:02 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Bollywood actor Aamir Khan speaks during a press conference to promote his new film "Talaash," or 'Search', at his residence in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

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Protest is the sine qua non of freedom and a defining trait of a vibrant democracy. And, yes everyone has the right to protest. But protest in itself does not sanctify an issue or confer validity to a stance. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. For dissent to be legitimate, it needs to be grounded in facts, pass the test of rationality and above all express a sense of sincerity. By these standards Aamir Khan's statement on intolerance fails to make the cut, coming across as an attention-seeking parroting of a defunct cliché, and a self-serving attempt to belatedly jump on to a spurious and stuttering bandwagon of dubious obfuscation.

Celebrities like Aamir Khan, captains of society and individuals in authority, exert a disproportionately high influence on society by dint of their fame and power. Therefore, it is imperative that these worthies exhibit both a degree of caution and responsibility when wading into controversies. Flippant remarks should be avoided.

"[The] fact that he can openly voice such an outlandish claim in the presence of a senior BJP leader puts paid to the notion that free speech is in jeopardy..."

Speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards in Mumbai recently, in the presence of Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley, Aamir Khan claimed (see the transcript here): "As an individual, as part of this country as a citizen, we read in the papers what is happening, we see it on the news and certainly, I have been alarmed. I can't deny. I have been alarmed by a number of incidents..."

Aamir Khan no doubt is a versatile actor with a humongous fan following and an impressive list of national accolades. But that does not axiomatically put the stamp of impeccable veracity on his pontifications. India is not becoming a seething cauldron of hate just because Aamir Khan says so. For a statement to be credible, factual corroboration or at least a plausible personal experience is essential. Aamir Khan provides neither, making it extremely difficult to take his words at face value. In fact, the runaway success of his own film PK, a movie highly critical of Hinduism which garnered crores of rupees at the box-office with minimal protest makes a statement to the contrary.

First, the very fact that he can openly voice such an outlandish claim in the presence of a senior BJP leader puts paid to the notion that free speech is in jeopardy under the BJP regime -- a ridiculous and motivated charge being bandied around by our so-called intelligentsia.

Second let me counter Aamir Khan's presumptuous comments with robust statistics. The number of deaths (number of incidents) related to communal violence for the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (up to October) according to the Home Ministry, and as reported by The Times of India were 116 (701 incidents), 91 (580), 94 (668), 133 (823), 95 (644), 86 (630) respectively.

A review of these figures indicates that there has been a decline and not an increase in communal violence-related deaths since the NDA came to power in 2014. And in fact the highest recorded annual mortality from communal violence in the last five years -- 133 (2013) and 116 (2010) -- occurred during the tenure of the UPA government.

Even the number of communal incidents registered -- 644 (2014) and 630 (2015) -- under the NDA government is significantly less than the 833 incidents recorded in 2013.

In addition, there has been only one major communal incident (a "major" communal incident is one that results in either more than five deaths or leaves over 10 persons injured according to the Home Ministry definition) in 2014 and none in 2015.

While these figures may be open to small variations in interpretation, one thing is crystal clear and indisputable: there is no dramatic increase in the incidents of communal violence to justify the hue and cry being raised by so-called intellectuals.

In the face of these irrefutable figures, some supporters of Aamir Khan, which surprisingly include the normally balanced Pratap Bhanu Mehta have resorted to strange and rationally untenable responses. Unable to dispute the figures, Mehta in his Indian Express article "Why every patriot should be ashamed, and yes, worried", dubs the recourse to statistics as "false scienticism" and proceeds to propound a bizarre theory suggesting that the concerns voiced by "artistes" are a premonition of future doom: "But the charge of exaggerated description fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the artiste's speech act. When an artist intervenes, she is not only providing a description. She is articulating a warning about the future."

"Can a nation respond to the nebulous hallucinations of a select few even if they happen to be the elite of the country? The answer is no."

My retort to this premise: Can a nation respond to the nebulous hallucinations of a select few even if they happen to be the elite of the country? The answer is no. Warnings and fears have a place in dialogue but only to a certain extent and need to be tempered by ground reality -- that is the biggest drawback of the present campaign. Fears and concerns devoid of facts and logic are called bigotry. To respond to each and every fear and concern without tangible evidence is a recipe for national disaster and chaos. That will not do.

What is heart-warming about this Amir Khan hoopla is for the first time we saw confident and spirited ripostes by a host of other film-world stars like Raveena Tandon, Paresh Rawal, Ram Gopal Varma and Anupam Kher indicating that the era of unchallenged poppycock these prima donnas were used to is over. More importantly the general public is seeing through this charade as indicated by an online poll conducted by TOI which polled a whopping 85% in favour of the BJP over Aamir Khan.

Aamir Khan's response in Outlook to the backlash that he encountered suffers from the same deficiency as his initial comment: facts are desiderata and logic plays truant. Making it worse is a churlish, smart aleck comeback directed at his detractors: "To all the people shouting obscenities at me for speaking my heart out, it saddens me to say you are only proving my point."

Attempting to take the high road he ends by invoking Rabindranath Tagore's famous prayer, "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,/Where knowledge is free,/Where the world has not been broken up into fragments,/by narrow domestic walls,/Where words come out from the depth of truth,/ Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,/ Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,/ Where the mind is led forward by thee,/ Into ever-widening thought and action,/ Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake."

Perhaps he does not realise that the content of this prayer is more relevant to his own narrative, especially the phrases Where words come out from the depth of truth and Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way...

For the sake of the nation I hope all those drumming up this non-issue heed the counsel of the Poet Laureate.

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