Aamir Khan soberly articulated an angst that many citizens feel. It is easy for many of us to identify with that angst. It would be helpful if those who attacked him bothered to read what he actually said. The worries he expressed about growing intolerance and, more specifically, the helplessness that the lack of a proper political response from those in highest positions of authority produces, are spot on. Even the homely conversation gesturing at the question of whether our children will live in an environment where they feel secure, protected by liberal values, has a familiar ring.
But it would be presumptuous to say that Aamir’s angst is my angst. He is a celebrity. In this age, one twisted act of retribution is to teach celebrities a lesson to put them in their place. There are many disturbing aspects to the response to Aamir Khan. One is the idea that because he is a celebrity, he deserves even more odium: To the sin of political transgression we can add the charge of ungratefulness. How can he, we intone, be so ungrateful to the country that made him a star? Once you are a celebrity, you forfeit the luxury of voicing concerns as an ordinary citizen. Aamir’s transgression and that of dozens of artists is that they made the transition from celebrity to citizen. They acted as patriots and reclaimed the idea that they cannot remain silent on the question of civic values. It is a sign of the tone-deafness of our democracy that Aamir’s critics would not for a moment even countenance a reverse question: If even someone as privileged and loved as Aamir’s family is feeling a little under siege, what must be going on?
Of course, people can legitimately disagree with Aamir. But we are experiencing an insidious closure of language itself. Take two examples. The first charge against those who talk about intolerance is exaggeration. It is then countered with the false scienticism — look, the number of violent incidents has not risen dramatically, and so forth. As a piece of social science, this can be important. But data often tells yesterday’s story. We forget that averages are not helpful in assessing specific threats and experiences, and there is no data that can capture the suffocation that discourse can produce.
But the charge of exaggerated description fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the artiste’s speech act. When an artist intervenes, she is not only providing a description. She is articulating a warning about the future. We are so besotted with the politics of self-esteem that we even close off the sensible response to such warnings. The sensible response, even if you think it is exaggerated, is not to dismiss it as a conspiracy. Because, if you construct all warnings that way, you not only close the space for dialogue, you exhibit intolerance. You deny that there can be any individuality, you deny that they can be their own persons, not cogs in a vast conspiracy.
The proper response to a warning is to say, “We hear you. Let us stand together. We all want a country where no one will be targeted for being who they are; where your surname, or choice of life partner, or eating habits will not make you a target; that the state will ensure that these basic norms will be protected without discrimination; that those who spread poison from high office will be reprimanded; and that leaders will lead by example. Rest assured.” This, followed by commensurate actions would be far more reassuring.
Instead, what we get is a grudging odd sentence from the prime minister that talks at people, rather than to them; mendacious evasions from the finance minister, who seems more concerned about our image and lawyerly complications than articulating basic moral truths; and an army of party spokesmen and trolls that accuses critics of treason. There is no question it is being done in ways in which those who carry certain names are made to carry an extra burden of proving their patriotism. Many of my friends are experiencing this, silenced by this burden, and it is hard to disagree.
The second coded form of intolerance is patriotism. So let us say it gracelessly. True patriotism requires the possibility that you are able to say, as an act of civic identification, that I am ashamed of my country in certain respects. A patriot who thinks we should never be ashamed of our country is a charlatan with no moral compass. A patriot who never contemplates the hard truths that the atmosphere in the country — both in a literal and metaphorical sense — might become suffocating to some citizens is no patriot. He is parroting a script that is repeated ad nauseum to avoid serious moral dialogue. Aamir had the grace to say that he is a patriot and he is proud of India. Some of us do feel like saying, “We are patriots and on several issues we are ashamed of India.” We are patriots, and rather than giving ourselves certificates or comparing ourselves to countries we don’t identify with, we worry about India’s future. Patriotism invoked as a closure, rather than a starting point, is the worst form of chicanery. All of us, from Arundhati Roy to Aamir Khan, are patriots in the true sense.
The poet Jayanta Mahaptra, when returning his award, used the curious but evocative phrase, “moral asymmetry”. This can have many meanings. But in the context of artists and celebrities, one meaning immediately comes to mind: The asymmetry of responsibility placed on critics and artists on the one hand and political rulers on the other. The standard way of knocking down critics and celebrities these days is to make them responsible for the whole universe: You have no right to criticise X if you did not criticise Y and so on. You disable them by overburdening them. On the other hand, with politicians it is the reverse; they are exempt from even carrying out the duties of their station. All that critics are asking is that those in positions of power behave responsibly, in terms befitting the best values and duties of their station. This is not too much to ask for.
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I don’t believe that the average Indian is growing more intolerant. But it is certainly the case that those setting the standards of public life and public discourse do not reflect this liberality. The norms are being set by people with small minds, resentful hearts, constricted souls and hateful speech. Every patriot should be worried about this and, yes, be ashamed.