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The storm of abuse and sheer vitriol that greeted Naseeruddin Shah’s lament over the alarming state of the nation only proves his point. The actor wasn’t even referring to the routine attacks and abuse that India’s Muslims have been facing on a daily basis since the country ushered in the good times under the current order. 

His comment that “the death of a cow has more significance than that of a police officer” was as much a statement of a fact as it had been an expression of outrage over the bizarre state of affairs in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh as well as Modi’s India. After all, this is precisely what has been going on in these extraordinary times.

As the actor told The Hindu: “The vicious jingoism masquerading as love for the country has reached truly scary proportions and so has the constant whataboutery in response to almost everything.”

Also, equally realistic have been his fears about the future of his children in a country where humans are hunted and killed like animals in broad daylight and the state goes to bizarre lengths to protect and pamper aging animals.  

A senior police inspector doing his duty is killed in UP by an angry mob, led by those loyal to the ruling BJP and Co, in the name of ‘cow slaughter’ and the chief minister and his entire administration are obsessing over finding the “cow killers,” rather than those who killed the cop with his own revolver! Adding insult to injury, the saffron-robed chief minister first calls the killing an ‘accident’ and then a ‘conspiracy’ by his enemies. If this isn’t absolutely bizarre and mindboggling, what is?

Yet the entire BJP and its Parivar, including senior ministers in the Modi cabinet, not to mention the country’s servile, shameless media are thirsting after Naseeruddin Shah’s blood for stating the obvious.  From being called a ‘traitor’ to being ordered to go to Pakistan, one of India’s finest and most influential actors is being treated like a terrorist.

As Shoaib Daniyal notes in Scroll, these vicious reactions against the actor have less to do with the substance of his statements and much more to do with his identity as a Muslim. 

What clearly rankles the Right is the “audacity” of a ‘Muslim’ — however accomplished – to offer any opinion, especially critical, on the issues and concerns facing the nation.  Their reaction to some guarded comments by his brother Lt General Zameeruddin Shah, former vice chief of Indian army and former vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, about Modi’s role during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom has been equally unforgiving.        

Ironically, both the Shah brothers have always gone to great lengths to underplay their Muslim identity. Their religious identity has been rather incidental. In Naseer’s case, he isn’t even said to believe in god and religion.  Married to a Gujarati Hindu actor, Ratna Pathak, Naseer, like many of his fraternity, swears by the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture and ethos defining the Bombay cinema for nearly a century.  Clearly though, however lightly artists and professionals like the Shahs may wear their identity, it is still a burden and “sin” that they cannot escape in the eyes of the Right.   

Just as fellow travellers Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan learnt to their horror when they tried to talk about the growing intolerance and religious hatred in the country that despite their celebrity as India’s biggest superstars, they had no right to speak their mind about the threats and challenges confronting the nation.

In 2015, Shah Rukh, perhaps the most articulate actor of his generation, was compared to Pakistan’s Hafiz Saeed by Adityanath for speaking about the climate of “extreme intolerance”. The next year, Aamir was hit with a ton of bricks when he much like Naseer talked about the rising intolerance in the country and the future of his family. The actor even lost a major advertising contract as a result.

In Daniyal’s words, “the fact that even Muslim celebrities are now expected to keep their political views to themselves sharply illustrates a core aspect of Hindutva: making minorities irrelevant. The BJP has made it a point of pride to ignore Muslims during election campaigns, choosing to build a purely Hindu consensus in places such as Uttar Pradesh. This strategy has been quite successful politically. In many cases, even politicians who want Muslim votes are wary of raising issues that affect the community. Political representation has seen a sharp drop. There are only 22 Muslim MPs in the 545-strong House – less than a third of what it should have been were the Lok Sabha to mirror India’s demographic composition.”

So if Naseer is being treated like a criminal and, worse, as a treacherous ‘anti-national,’ it is hardly surprising. 

Nevertheless, it is a profound tragedy, and not just for the actor who immortalised classics such as Masoom, Jaane Bhi Do Yaro, Sparsh, Hum Panch, Katha, Bazar, Mandi, Ijazat, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho, Bhumika, Aakrosh, Ghulami and countless others with his extraordinary performances.  

As has been the case with the incomparable Dilip Kumar, Naseer’s films have been the milestones by which the latter-day actors have defined their own professional journey. They define the cultural journey of a nation. And who could forget his magical enacting of Mirza Ghalib in the television serial created by Gulzar!

Just as you cannot imagine a pining Devdas in Bimal Roy’s classic or lovesick Prince Salim in K Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ without Dilip Kumar, it is impossible to envision the inimitable Ghalib without Naseer’s histrionics.  He is perhaps the greatest and most versatile actor India has produced in the league of Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Hassan, to name a few.  

In any other country, artistes such as these would be endlessly celebrated and feted as the national icons that they are, no matter what their beliefs, cultural background and political views happen to be. 

But the poison of prejudice has been so pervasive and widespread that even the performing arts including cinema and television have not remained unaffected.  As for the electronic media, which has seen a deluge of hundreds of new channels in every Indian language imaginable over the past few years, the less said the better.  The ubiquitous dark Web and social media like Facebook and Whatsapp see to it that the unadulterated, toxic poison of mindless hate and wild conspiracy theories reaches everyone with a smartphone in the billion-strong country. 

It is an alarming state of affairs that should agitate everyone who loves and cares for the proud, vibrant democracy that India’s founding fathers created.

Whether the BJP wins the 2019 elections or not, it has done enough and perhaps irreversible harm to the body politic. It has inflicted lasting damage on the idea of an inclusive India and its democratic institutions.  If the Congress and secular political parties return to power in Delhi, they will face a herculean task of rebuilding institutions and healing the divide. And this must begin with draining of the swamp and excising of the festering ulcers eating into the vitals of the body politic. 

The BJP governments in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh totally rewrote textbooks to suit their own twisted narrative peddling hate against religious minorities, especially Muslims, and national icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Until and unless these sources of hate poisoning future generations of Indians are eliminated, you cannot really take on the BJP and confront its jaundiced worldview.   

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com. Twitter: @AijazZaka    

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