In 2000, after the movie Hey Ram was released, a rediff.com report read: ‘Incidents of violence, mostly by Congress workers (tearing posters of the film and damaging properties of cinemas screening the period drama) have been reported from cities like Calcutta, Varanasi, Nagpur, Indore, Bhopal, Jaipur etc.’ It was not just the Congress. The movie shows an ordinary man out to seek revenge for his wife’s murder during the Partition riots. He joins a radical Hindu group and plots to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. The BJP found it anti-Hindutva. The Muslims objected to it because they felt it showed them as responsible for the riots. Kamal Haasan, its director, had achieved the difficult task of offending everyone across the spectrum.
His co-star, in a special appearance, was Shah Rukh Khan. It is ironic that in just the past two weeks, both these men find themselves again facing what Haasan calls ‘cultural terrorism’. The release of his movie, Vishwaroopam, has been delayed because fringe Muslim groups felt it portrayed their community as terrorists. An article Shah Rukh wrote on his identity as a Khan is being deliberately misconstrued as anti-national. Rubbishing the inference that he finds himself unsafe in India, he said he was experiencing déjà vu. He was not talking of Hey Ram, but the time when the Shiv Sena used the presence of Pakistani players in the IPL to target him. They threatened to disrupt the screening of My Name is Khan.
Hey Ram had an intelligent premise: a man’s journey from absolute hate to redemption. Vishwaroopam promises to be brainless action fare if you go by its promos and other recent works of Haasan, like Dashavataram. It is not a movie that merits an agitation, if at all there is a measure for such things. But that is immaterial. If there is a rabid man with a little rabid crowd behind him, the system gangs up with him because what it is really afraid of is a disruption of order.
Cultural terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because someone says something is offensive, it becomes offensive. Millions of Muslims genuinely detest Salman Rushdie but about 0.1 per cent would have read The Satanic Verses. All it needed was for stray voices to say Vishwaroopam was offensive and it has become offensive without anyone seeing the movie. Once this has momentum, even moderates start speaking with qualifiers—‘I haven’t seen the movie, but if the censors have cleared it, it should not be banned.’ Judges give odd advice about arriving at an amicable solution. If that is the key to unlock every conflict, why have courts? Or why even have laws? It is the old Indian middle path at work—let’s just paper over this headache and move on with our lives.
That is never going to happen. There are hundreds of thousands of politicians and religious leaders in India. They are ambitious, and the pursuit of power is a career like anything else. They are constantly looking at breaking into public consciousness. Like investment bankers swinging a big deal after working on 20 possible mergers, the business of public outrage also depends on big hits.
A third instance of cultural terrorism was at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week when sociologist Ashis Nandy spoke about a majority of corruption now being a preserve of OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. To him, it was a good thing because in a convoluted egalitarian way it balanced out the spoils of the system. The seeping down of corruption indicated India’s development and social progress. Nandy’s point was also about upper castes getting sophisticated about corruption. His argument, though nuanced and a little clever by half, is not very difficult to understand. It is also not radical. If you take OBCs, SCs and STs together, they make up more than two-thirds of the population. Obviously, if the entire country is corrupt, they are going to be in a majority.
Ordinarily, a counter to an argument is an argument. Instead, Nandy now faces a police case after a politician decided that he will claim his two minutes of fame. You would think that a sociologist is too small a fry to become a target. And that is true. Last year, the Jaipur litfest had a more worthy target—Salman Rushdie, whose participation had to be cancelled following a sudden agitation by some local Muslim leaders. Since then, the litfest itself has become a means for easy publicity. Nandy is the corollary. A reminder that if you have the ability to pull a large audience, this is a country where you must tread on glass pieces before opening your mouth.