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What is the harassment of Aryan Khan really about?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: It's not about establishing that everyone is equal before the law. There are larger ideological connections here.

The NCB charged Aryan with offences under Section 8(c), 20(b), 27, 28, 29 and 35 under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.

The harassment of Aryan Khan/Shah Rukh Khan evokes familiar political emotions of our time — sadness and dread. It is important to see this moment in its specificity. The institutional discussion of cases like this usually begins with the “system”. Many of our laws, like the UAPA and laws governing drug possession, are products of an imagination that has scarce regard for basic liberties and presumptions of being innocent until proven guilty. Our helpless judges are bound by these laws. While celebrities draw attention, let us not forget the thousands of undertrials who languish in Indian jails in an interminable wait for bail. Our law enforcement agencies, from CBI to NCB, have never been made properly accountable. This is how the “system,” works, you see.

There is analytical validity to this analysis. But the strange alchemy of our times is that these truths are not uttered in the service of justice, but to cover up political lies. The moral corruption of authoritarian regimes is that even truth is a form of deflection. Once something is attributed to the “system” — this anonymous force that mysteriously recreates itself — no one has to be held politically accountable. Second, this truth hides the bigger truth. One of the problems with the so-called “system” was that its seemingly overbearing architecture always had wide room for judgement, discretion and even arbitrariness. The decision to pursue a case, the way in which prosecution presents evidence, who it chooses to target and how, the use of process itself to intimidate, the use of selective leaks by the state to construct a political narrative, the judicial capacity to read down laws, and even the decision to grant bail are all specific decisions. So hiding behind the system, or the whataboutery that the law was made by the UPA, is simply an evasive cover-up for a political vendetta, the kind where we can appease our conscience by claiming that we stand for principle, without calling out the nonsense perpetrated by specific political or law enforcement actors.

It is also a hallmark of authoritarian regimes that cleaning up the system, cleansing it of corruption, is the pretext for authoritarian repression. Even Shah Rukh Khan’s son is not exempt, we intone. It would indeed be a nice world where the privileged and celebrities were treated equally before the law. But let us be clear. There is nothing in the patterns about decisions to prosecute or the judicial practices of granting bail that even remotely suggest that all this is about equality before law. Just think of members of the ruling dispensation, or even celebrities close to it, who might warrant more serious scrutiny if this were the case. Just think of the instances where honourable justices of the Supreme Court in bail cases decide to exercise early morning bombast, and where they remain silent on basic constitutional principles. Occasionally, a judge will do the right thing. Perhaps, Aryan will get bail on Tuesday. But there is no getting away from the fact that this is not the “system” or some “law” that does not allow for the exercise of judgement. It is the decision to target particularly inconvenient individuals.

But talk of the “system” also throws a veil over the larger ideological connections. The first is the expansion of the empire of fear and cruelty. The point is not to say that Aryan Khan is equal before the law; the point is to say, “We can make life miserable even for Aryan Khan”. The jailing of young students in CAA-related cases, the continued detention of many of the Bhima Koregaon accused, the targeting of Bollywood celebrities, or even the intensifying threats of using the Enforcement Directorate are all meant to send a signal, to create a generalised climate of fear, where everyone feels vulnerable. Second, there is an ideological war on a constructed “Muslimness”, which now has an ever-expanding definition. It starts with making Muslim religiosity invisible in public spaces, but is now expanding to curbing cultural articulation, from food to Urdu to Muslim celebrities. And then the ultimate subliminal fear: How dare Indians, especially women, identify with Muslim heroes? It is hard to imagine being a minority and not being anxious.

The court will decide whether or not Aryan was guilty of consumption. But you have to be obtuse not to see the incredible charge that Aryan is part of some international conspiracy as one that reiterates the worse stereotypes: The insinuation is that deep down Muslim celebrities uniquely have gangster connections. The issue is not whether these moves are being directed centrally or not. There could very well be an element of NCB resentment and extortion in all of this, and we will never know. But all this is being enabled by a cultural common sense that normalises this kind of targeting. Third, there is the ideological war on Bollywood: To move it from a broadly secular and patriotic cultural institution to a communal and jingoistic one. Every star must now be dimmed by an ideological shadow.

But the utter sadness of this moment is that it evokes the pathos of a great ruin. Bollywood can sometimes be an aesthetic abomination, its political economy dodgy, but it was still central to the grammar of emotions. One cannot presume to know what Shah Rukh Khan feels as an individual. But the inescapable structural loneliness is easy to discern. When does the public move from adulating fans to being led by something like a mob? When do the legions who identified with you become so cowed that they are afraid to call out an injustice or even express solidarity in terms strong enough to stand up to the mob, and predatory state agencies? Admittedly, the accused is Shah Rukh Khan’s son, not the star himself, but, in the whole process, the target could not be clearer.

The point about taming Bollywood is not to show that stars are equal before the law. It is to demonstrate who has real power, and the ability to control the cultural order. The Shiv Sena perfected this playbook. No one expects Bollywood to be political heroes, and the onus is not just on them. There is some wisdom in having some spaces alive where not everything is over-determined by political meaning. But when politics is out to get you, the message you don’t want to send is that stars survive by creeping, that behind the upright stature of the still great Amitabh Bachchan, is the ability to lie prostrate. This is not being above politics; it is conniving in the regime’s desire to instil fear. If the stars are so easily crushed, what about all us ordinary grains of sand under the state’s jackboot?

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2021 under the title ‘Crushing the stars’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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