11/04/2016 2:23 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

How Jammu & Kashmir's PDP-BJP Govt Turned Anupam Kher Into A Free Speech Martyr

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher gestures to the audience during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival at Jaipur, Rajasthan state, India, Monday, Jan.25, 2016. (AP Photo/ Deepak Sharma)

Who's afraid of Anupam Kher?

The PDP-BJP led government in Jammu and Kashmir it seems. The authorities in Srinagar turned Kher back from the airport and refused to allow him to visit the students at NIT.

“I will be back” tweeted Anupam Kher.

Kher can thank the Jammu and Kashmir government for taking a character actor in Hindi cinema and blowing him up into the Terminator himself. The Mehbooba Mufti government was trying to avoid more tension at the NIT campus in an uproar since the conflagration over the India-West Indies match. Instead it just gave Kher an ego boost by making him the story.

It would only have been a better story for Kher if it had been a National Conference-Congress coalition in power in Srinagar. Then Kher and his friends could have whipped themselves into a full-on lather of self-righteous deshbhakt rage. But in this case, the BJP is inconveniently a junior partner in the government in Kashmir and thus more vested in calming matters down than stirring up patriotic outrage. Instead of bloodshot ultimatums about patriotism, deputy CM Nirmal Singh tells the Indian Express both the clash and the lathicharge were “unfortunate” and there is no question of shifting the institute out of the Valley.

NIT Srinagar students argue with police.

Kher meanwhile is telling ANI, “We are at that time when some individuals are saying things like ‘desh ki barbaadi’ etc. So it is important to become voice of millions of Indians.”

That Kher thinks he is the voice of millions of Indians is itself revealing of the high regard in which he holds himself. It’s as if Anupam Kher’s Srinagar excursion has turned into a new Dandi March against injustice. The Kashmir government has just burnished his self-installed halo.

But he is absolutely right when he says, “As a citizen of this country I should be allowed to go anywhere.” Despite all his protestations, Kher was not coming to NIT on a peace mission to sow some aman ki asha between the Kashmiri students and the non-Kashmiri students. He was coming as an act of solidarity with one side. He was bringing a “special gift” – an Indian flag.

This could be construed as fishing in already troubled waters but it in no way takes away from Kher’s rights as a citizen of India, and Kashmiri to boot, to visit Srinagar, his ancestral home and the Kheer Bhawani temple. It does not matter if his espousal of Kashmiri issues is a new-found passion. When Shekhar Gupta tweets “So patriotic, @AnupamKher & others marching to #NITSrinagar Why not a padayatra with BKMJ in Bastar? More Indian soldiers being killed there” he too is indulging in whataboutery. Whether or not Kher goes to Bastar has no bearing on his right to go to Srinagar. To each his own.

Activists of Vishav Hindu Parishad burning tyres during a protest against ongoing unrest at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar, on April 6, 2016 in Jammu, India.

But in a way the PDP-BJP government did Anupam Kher a favour. If he had been allowed to go the campus, unfurl the flag, pose for a few selfies, make some Bharat Mata ki Jai statements, it would have been just another day in the life of yet another publicity heat-seeking missile. Now Kher can finally notch up one more achievement in his resume – a free speech victim.

Until this point, no one not even anti-national JNU was gagging the voluble Mr. Kher. He was a favourite talking head of the television talkshows, He was on every other literary festival debate on free speech. He was speaking on “In the opinion of the house, tolerance is the new intolerance” at the Telegraph National Debate 2016.

He has been booed. He has called his audience a “paid audience”. But he has not been gagged yet.

As @IndiaExplained tweets “Ironic that antinational JNU let Kher speak freely on campus, but BJP-PDP govt gagged him at Srinagar airport itself.”

Kashmir conferred on him that missing notch in his stellar resume.

At the debate in Kolkata, Kher had said, “Had any of you heard of the word ‘intolerance’ till seven or eight months ago? You hadn’t because this is a term that’s been marketed.” Now Kher can market himself as a bona fide victim of tolerance, the patriot not allowed to express his patriotism on Indian soil.

Anupam Kher leading the March of Unity in 2015.

The Anupam Kher side-show brilliantly fits into our ongoing national conversation about patriotism. Or rather our ongoing national drama about patriotism, which has been turned into a performance sport. In an incisive op-ed for Business Standard, Mitali Saran writes, “It used to be that patriotism was a silent non-issue, like citizenship by birth. You didn’t have to rip your chest open and display the Indian map tattooed on your beating heart to be accepted as a certified Indian. By getting all pop-eyed with outrage, the BJP has invented — out of thin air — the idea that if you do not adequately prove and demonstrate patriotism, you are a traitor, or at least very dodgy. It’s a wonderful way of cornering and alienating large sections of Indians. It depends not on legislation, but on social behaviour.”

Also Read: Chetan Bhagat Is Right To Call NIT Srinagar Students 'Heroes', Just As JNU, HCU Students Are

Kher has already shown himself to be an adept performer in this drama. Remember his March for India to Rashtrapati Bhavan to counter what he called the manufactured controversy about intolerance? He knows how to use “social behaviour” to “corner” those he disagrees with. When he went to JNU he adroitly turned the conversation away from who raised slogans for Afzal Guru to whether the students who did not raise slogans tore down posters about Guru instead. As Mukul Kesavan wrote at that time, what Kher, “the roving scourge of the politically correct” was really telling us was that “citizenship, in Kher’s view of the world, isn’t a birthright; it’s a kind of probation and you only truly belong when you learn to perform your patriotism.”

And the man, if nothing else, is a born performer. He is right when he says he will be back. Bigger, better and a victim at last. Or to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr, that other man who marched against injustice, “Free speech victim at last, free speech victim at last. Thank Bharat Mata (and Mehbooba Mufti) almighty, I am a free speech victim at last.”

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