There is an online trend amongst Indians who want to boycott Aamir Khan’s upcoming movie, where he plays the role of a Sikh man, Lal Singh Chaddha. Apparently, it’s a remake of Tom Hanks’ classic movie Forrest Gump. The issue is not that of stereotyping a Sikh man as a simpleton. The comments show that a sizeable proportion of educated middle class Indians believe that Aamir Khan is a “jihadi,” that he hurt Hindu sensibilities by his movie PK where he made fun of Hindu gods, and that he is “anti-national” because he expressed that he felt unsafe in India a few years ago.
Khan and the other Muslim actors in Bollywood, who are multi-millionaires, can easily migrate to any Western country or the Middle East, should the situation become life threatening in India. They have earned enough wealth that their upcoming generations can comfortably live off it without having to put in a day’s work. As such, they do not need any defense to add more millions to their already inflated wealth portfolios. Were they to migrate to Pakistan, they could breathe life into the Lahore film industry through their resources and fame. The country going through a severe balance of payments crisis would welcome their humanitarian work and succour with the export of better-quality films.
The real issues are of the backward Muslim classes who face the brunt of rising Hindu chauvinism that caricatures all Muslims as “jihadis” and “madrassachaps,” subjects them to social boycotts in residential communities, and subjects them to tests of patriotism. No wonder, overseas Pakistanis have found that Indian Muslims seem to project exaggerated anti-Pakistan sentiments compared to their Hindu counterparts. This of course is in stark contrast to Jinnah, who assured that:
“We do not prescribe any schoolboy tests for their loyalty. We shall not say to any Hindu citizen of Pakistan, ‘If there was war would you shoot a Hindu?’”
(Jinnah: Myth and Reality by Yasser Latif Hamdani)
Khan belongs to the most secular class of Muslims that has Hindu and Sikh spouses, and which is comfortable raising children in a multi-religious household. This is significant, as conservative Muslims don’t usually marry outside their faith save Jews and Christians. Many do not even marry outside their own specific denomination. Additionally, the class that Khan belongs to easily traverses Muslim strictures on the consumption of wine and Muslim ethics on sexual conduct. This is why it is surprising to note that such actors are being labelled as “jihadis.” This is nothing but a contemptuous racist trope and it should be called out as such. The intolerance in Pakistan against minorities is already unconscionable, but the Indians take it to another level, as it emerges from the educated middle class with economic security in an India that is already a regional superpower and is fast emerging as an economic giant that rivals the great nations of the world.
All of this makes one wonder about the generation of Muslim elders that pushed for separate electorates, then a federation and greater representation in the Indian parliament, failing which they were left with no choice but to secede from the Indian union. Indeed, Jinnah was far removed from the conservative Muslim classes, upheld Western liberal ideas, and married outside the faith to a Zoroastrian woman. Similarly, members of the Muslim League included the then Aga Khan who represented the Ismailis, the most educated and liberal class of Muslims across all denominations in Islam. Likewise, the Ahmadis put up a brave resistance against the Arya Samaj in Punjab, who would be the progenitors of the current Hindu chauvinists that seek to bring Muslims into the folds of Hinduism through “ghar waapsi” (return home) schemes. Despite the differences of mainstream Sunni Muslims and subsequent persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, there is no denying that past Muslims hailed Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as of the greatest scholars of his times, who pushed back at Christian and Hindu missionaries as they tried to poach the backward Muslim masses. In essence, the campaign against Khan by Hindu chauvinists is not new, as past Muslims experienced the same.
It is a hallmark of Hindu fascists that they stoke Hindu communalism but then judge Khan for feeling unsafe in India. If multi-millionaires like him cannot speak, then what is to be surmised of the common Indian Muslim? There is nothing unpatriotic about expressing that one feels unsafe in one’s country. It is time that rabid hyper-nationalism should be called out and curbed. In contrast to India, where any critique of the state leads to rabid charges of being “anti-national,” Pakistan has a strong culture of questioning the state and its founder. Across the Pakistani spectrum, citizens question what Jinnah really wanted and subject the state institutions to scathing criticisms. Though, of course, religion is to Pakistan what nationalism is to India. Indeed, blind obsession with land is a slippery slope to fascism, just as blindly following religion is a slippery slope towards extremism.
The freedom to express is one of the strengths of Hinduism. It is a faith in which devotees are not blind followers of a deity but they can question, contest and wrestle with their deities. The closest analogue from the Abrahamic faiths would be that of Jacob wrestling with G_d in Judaism or the shepherd questioning Moses in Rumi’s poem. Indeed, Shashi Tharoor states in his book, Why I am a Hindu that “Hinduism does not seek to proselytise” and that “unlike the Abrahamic faiths it manifests no desire to universalise itself”. He adds that there are “no binding requirements to being a Hindu,” that the “wisdom of the ages cannot be confined to a single sacred book,” that one is free to reject “rituals and customs,” that “there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy” and that “there can be no Hindu Inquisition.” He proudly states that “Hinduism is almost the ideal faith for the twenty-first century” and “the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion” which culminates through the phrase “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the whole world is one family).
This is why the charges of hurting religious sensibilities against Khan make no sense. It is as if Hindu chauvinists want to behave like hardline Muslim clerics and conduct themselves in the mould of the Abrahamic faiths. Blasphemy is the hallmark of the Abrahamic faiths, and it has brought much grief through human rights violations of vulnerable minorities through the ages – with pre-enlightenment Jews and Christians and now predominantly Muslims.
Regardless, thoughtful Hindus will have to decide if they want to uphold free Hindu expression, as in the case of Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Guru Maharishi Yogi in Goodness Gracious Me, or behave increasingly like hardline Muslim clerics. The latter would be unfortunate, as strong positions against freedom of religious expression and of conscience only stem from a place of a deep-rooted insecurity and inferiority complex. Indeed, large segments of the Muslim masses have embroiled themselves in victimhood since the fall of the Muslim empires to the extent that they have resuscitated caliphate movements from time to time.
And this brings us back to the Hindu chauvinist response to Khan, and the question thoughtful Indians would have to address: why do Hindu nationalists want to be like hardline Islamists?