Speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony, actor Aamir Khan admitted to a sense of insecurity and despondency over what he saw as a climate of growing intolerance. For the first time, his wife had asked him, “should we move out of India”, he said. A day later, Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, among others, countered him — that he, as a brand ambassador for tourism appointed by government, could say so in the presence of the Union minister of information and broadcasting at a public event, proves that India is a tolerant country, she said. Irani is right. In fact, in Aamir’s audience that Monday evening were four other Union ministers apart from Arun Jaitley, who was also the chief guest. And yes, that image, of the five ministers hearing out the superstar as he held the stage, says heartening things about the possibilities in this country of speaking truth to power. But those possibilities will be fulfilled and completed, in an argumentative democracy such as India takes pride in being, when having heard out the superstar, the leadership reaches out to him. The government must talk to Aamir’s concerns — if only to persuade him that they are not warranted.
It would be so very disappointing if Aamir’s unburdening is labelled as a conspiracy against the government, or dismissed as unpatriotic, or trivialised as the indulgence of the privileged. It would be such a letdown if on the other side of Aamir — and Shah Rukh Khan, who also made a serious and compelling intervention in what has come to be known as the intolerance debate — is only the abuse, slander and bullying of trolls who take up cudgels for the government and ruling party. Certainly, neither Aamir nor Shah Rukh is the most authentic spokesperson for the aam aadmi. Their celebrity cushions them, often distances them, from things that trouble ordinary people most. It could also be said that there was an element of overstatement in what Aamir said. Yet, as creative persons and artists, Aamir and Shah Rukh have a voice that resonates and also represents. They speak for a community that is no less real because it is bonded by the imagination.
In the current context, the anxieties expressed by the two much-loved superstars mirror an unease that has made itself heard over and over again — as rationalists have been targeted and killed, a mob driven by a rumour of the storage or consumption of beef has lynched a man, and ministers and ruling party MPs have made statements blaming it on the victims and invoking Pakistan. When Anupam Kher led a protest against the protesters, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the door, invited them in. He should now make time for those who have expressed a grievance with their government in the first place.