I am not a film buff. But I do watch movies by actors like Aamir Khan because he appears to be a natural actor. Such actors make me feel as if I am not seeing a film but reliving my life. I must admit that I did not like Aamir Khan's remark at the Tarkunde annual lecture about his wife often asking him whether they should migrate to some other country. Subsequently, he apologised and closed an ugly controversy.
But the Narendra Modi government has once again revived the controversy by not reviewing his tenure as the brand ambassador for Incredible India to promote tourism. What message the BJP is sending is beyond my comprehension. But it is clear that the ruling party was punishing him for having made the remark.
I was present at the function because I was conferred a lifetime achievement award there. Aamir Khan's remarks looked odd but were not offensive. His despondency that tolerance, of late, had been pushed into the background was in tune with what was happening in the country. But there was nothing which would hurt one's sensibilities.
Apparently, the Modi government did not forget and forgive his remarks and his tenure was not renewed. This did raise eyebrows and the liberals even questioned the government because they did not want to make it an issue. Yet, there is no doubt that the Modi government has punished him, as they never explained why the tenure, a routine matter, was not extended.
This does raise question about the credentials of the Modi government. It pacified the minorities by saying, "Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas," but apparently it is driven by the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Even Prashar Bharti, otherwise an autonomous body, had to allow RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat the use of its radio network to broadcast his points of view. This happened for the first time after independence.
The Modi government does not realise that it is probably legally correct but morally wrong. The minorities which already suspect the government for being pro-Hindutva are terrified and feel that they are treated as second-class citizens in a country where the Constitution guarantees equality before law.
The appointments which the BJP government are making smack of parochialism. Students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, have been able to block some pro-RSS academics getting top positions there. But otherwise, the message the Modi government seems to be sending across is that even academic institutions are no longer autonomous but are under the clutches of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD).
The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune has not been functioning for over a year now because RSS pracharak Gajendra Chauhan was appointed its chairman. Chauhan, who is a TV actor, was preferred over more eligible people. The Modi government refuses to budge, even after some leading cine stars pointed out to them that they were in the wrong.
Another glaring example was that of Pankaj Nihalani, who was appointed the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Nobody doubts his credentials as a good filmmaker but, at the same time, no one can ignore his RSS connections. Ever since he became the chairperson of CBFC, there has been a lot of criticism of saffronisation of the institution. But fortunately, the mounting pressure on the government has worked, and Nihalani has been replaced by the impeccable Shyam Benegal. However, the government has not yet relented in the case of the Pune film institute.
I concede that Aamir Khan should not have made the remark when he was still the brand ambassador for the government's Incredible India campaign. He should have resigned before taking the stance. In fact, I was surprised when he accepted the position in the first place. He knew what the Modi government stood for and how the RSS has the run of the government.
But the most grievous cut is the acceptance of the position by Amitabh Bachchan. It is known that he tends to take a pro-establishment stance, whichever government is in power. He contested from the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat as a Congress candidate. Since then, he has not taken any stand and gone along with any Prime Minister in power, whether from the Congress or the BJP. He only knows which side of the bread is buttered.
Incidentally, Bachchan was Gujarat's brand ambassador when Modi was the chief minister. Had he refused the position because of Aamir Khan's forced exit, Bachchan would have given the message that when it came to principles, he would not compromise. But then what I am seeking in him is actually not there.
Take the case of his wife, Jaya Bachchan who was nominated twice to the Rajya Sabha by the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh. In fact, the party wanted her to contest the Lok Sabha 2014 seat, but after her refusal to do so, Mulayam Singh still accommodated and nominated her as the Rajya Sabha member for a second term. All these point to the fact that Amitabh is clever enough to gain from the political situation. He does seem to be bothered about how Aamir Khan was unceremoniously ousted of the campaign for his bold comments on BJP's parochialism.
There is a lesson in it for the nation to learn. A secular, democratic country has to give space to everyone, including critics. Unlike Pakistan, which is an Islamic state, India is pluralistic where freedom of expression is guaranteed and minorities have every right to express themselves. It is a pity that people like Asaduddin OwaIsi are misusing the rights of free speech to widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims.
The ball is in BJP's court. The party has to create a climate of tolerance. Even a person like me feels that the nation is being “Hinduised” and taken away from the path of pluralism. This is not India's ethos nor does our Constitution permit it. The struggle for independence was not only against the British but also against the communal division created during their 150-year rule. We have to create an atmosphere where Aamir Khans are not forced to make remarks that reflect the pains of the minority communities of the country.
The writer is an eminent columnist.