Speaking in Singapore on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra said: “India undergoing economic and social transformation on a scale and speed unmatched in history.”
Strangely enough it was the same day, that one of the most prominent stars of India’s biggest cultural export, the Hindi film industry, was making headlines for his worry about the rising intolerance in the country over the last six to eight months.
“Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers everyday. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet,” Aamir Khan said .
Unlike Shah Rukh Khan who was more vague while talking about extreme intolerance, Aamir’s comments were clearly directed at the current government. But he also pointed to a larger malaise of our political system. He pointed to every past instance of innocent lives being lost, like in the 1984 riots, was just as traumatic as recent cases that have been reported.
But the response to Aamir’s comments were in keeping with a now standardised template on how to react to such accusations. Anupam Kher attacked him on Twitter, Minister Kiren Rijiju said the statement unnecessarily tarnished the image of the nation and a BJP spokesperson alluded to it being Congress-backed. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi used the opportunity to continue reiterating his claims of a government that was unwilling to engage with its critics. And yet others targeted Snapdeal for having hired Aamir as its brand ambassador.
The BJP’s eternally caustic Yogi Adityanath said he should leave the country, the Hindu Sena protested outside his house and the actor’s being addressed open letters, one of which suggested he could move to Saudi Arabia (finally something other than Pakistan).
The problem with all of this? You’re not exactly wearing your credentials of tolerance on your sleeve.
This template of criticism has worked well for the supporters of the government in the past. It is an efficient way of keeping the flock together, nipping at any criticism in the hope that it will deter others from doing the same. So protests by writers were dismissed as politically motivated, and film directors, writers and scientists returning their awards was dismissed as perfectly timed for the Bihar polls.
Unfortunately Aamir’s criticism comes with no obvious link to anything in the present or near future. His next film is about a month away so it’s a tenuous link to point to. But then as the actor pointed out, this isn’t just a problem with the BJP, it’s one that every government in power has wrestled with.
The problem with the template employed by the present government’s supporters is also that it has a sell-by date. It can’t be used to take on every criticism eternally. You can’t deem every critic an anti-national and expect it to stick. You can’t advise everyone to shift countries and expect it to seem sensible.
Aamir, like many critics before him, is pointing out the problem that this government faces. It’s one even the government’s voice, Arun Jaitley, has acknowledged . That the fringe right-wing groups and a culture of intimidation does not make anyone feel comfortable. The investments aren’t stopping and India will still progress. Yes, there is no widespread violence, but a climate of unease isn’t exactly conducive to growth either.
All that Aamir and other critics are asking for is acknowledgement of their worry and the assurance that it will be dealt with impartially. Aamir, thanks to having Finance Minister in the audience, has already had a hearing. But what this government’s supporters need to realise is that the best way for the government to deal with such criticism is to acknowledge and tackle it. Not by brushing it away, not through intimidation. As Aamir himself said it needs to be done just with “strong statements”.