After a well-known rationalist thinker critical of “idol worship” was gunned down in his home last August, and after a mob bludgeoned to death a 50-year-old farmer in October because of rumors he and his family ate beef, a growing number of India’s intellectuals and authors began to speak out against “intolerance.” And to make the point that they associated this savage prejudice with policies of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, they publicly returned awards and honors bestowed on them by the state.
When India’s greatest movie star, Shah Rukh Khan, threw his weight behind the protests, they really began to capture the imagination, and perhaps touch the conscience, of masses of Indians. But the chances are slim that the long-term effect will be salutary.
Almost daily reports of brutal violence against women and minorities in India have created cracks in the popular myth that the country is some benign distant land, a world of Namastes engaged in gentle chants and restorative yoga. And through these cracks is beaming a long, kaleidoscopic history of ruthless intolerance.
To take only some of the more recent examples, look at events since the end of the British Raj in 1947. You will find that immediately after India became independent, it assumed the role of a colonial bully. No democratic country has ever waged so many wars using its army against its own people. From Kashmir to Manipur to Mizoram to Nagaland to Goa to Hyderabad to the sacking of the Golden Temple in Punjab, the majority in India does not tolerate anyone who does not submit to its will.
And while some of this was about religion, much was the work of cynical politicians and a deeply embedded culture of intolerance growing out of the ancient caste system.
The poor indigenous Dalits, for instance, are perhaps a plurality of India’s population. In the census they are counted as Hindus (part of the majority), but in reality they are treated as sub human, even called “untouchables.” Imagine going through life being treated as an untouchable.
These poor Harijans, as Mahatma Gandhi called them, are beaten if they enter a temple. When their shadow falls on a mainstream Indian, the Indian immediately takes a bath as if to ward off some corrosive effect. A well-educated Harijan sometimes has no choice but to clean toilets for a living, just like his ancestors.
Thus after suffering hate and intolerance for thousands of years, some Harijans have taken up arms as part of the Naxalite movement, a Maoist insurgency which controls a significant chunk of Indian territory, creating a no-man’s land running north and south that could potentially split India into two.
While there is no shortage of issues exploited by the extremists who loom large in the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the latest beef that the Indians have against minorities concerns the sacred cow. According to D.N. Jha, an eminent Indian historian and professor at Delhi University, “The Cow” acquired its "Holy Status" during the 19th century, and that grew out of diversionary hate politics rather than religion or faith. In Vedic times, he notes, cows were slaughtered and consumed, even by Brahmins. Clearly even today we see evidence of average Indians of all stripes enjoying beef. The Cow's newly enhanced status is just a fabrication for the purpose of politics. Thus people are being beaten to death based on allegation of beef consumption.
So when Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s Number One big box office movie star for the last two decades, said earlier this month that India is growing more intolerant, he did not mean it was formerly compassionate and open-minded, what he meant was that the condition in which women and minorities now exist is becoming extremely oppressive because all differences are being brutally suppressed. Today, even the pretense of “live and let live” is disappearing.
Unfortunately an atrocious situation has turned even worse since Narendra Modi and his BJP Party have come to power. Yes, this is the same infamous Modi, India’s Donald Trump, who was refused a U.S. visa and was banned from setting foot on American soil for his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims.
U.S. President Barack Obama, while eventually welcoming Modi, has spoken out against the growing intolerance in India. But his words had nothing like the impact of Shah Rukh Khan’s.
Khan, perhaps best known in the United States as the lead in the 2002 film “Devdas” opposite Aishwarya Rai, is not only India’s biggest star, he also owns the most popular and successful professional cricket franchise, Kolkata Knight Riders, which would be more or less like owning the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys simultaneously in the United States.
Yet even Shah Rukh Khan was subjected to humiliating slurs and manhandled by racist cops at a Kolkata Knight Riders’ game. Imagine the outcry if, say, Magic Johnson had ever been racially abused by cops at the Forum during a Laker’s game.
This was not the only time Shah Rukh Khan was mistreated for the crime of being a minority, in this case a Muslim. As a minority, such treatment in India has always been par for the course. But the energetic Mr. Khan does not allow anything to faze him. He wears even the abuse as badge of honor with pride and lots of humor. He puffs up his chest and tells the world that no one can take India away from him, because India is his inheritance.
No abuse, no threat, will make him leave India, he says, because his father fought for the freedom of India. He says that India belongs to him as much as it belongs to all the Indians.
Now this may sound like common sense to most, but in India Shah Rukh Khan’s common sense requires courage. His ability to stand up and speak his mind has cost him a lot of grief.
“Dilwale” (People with Heart), a highly anticipated, big-budget Shah Rukh Khan movie is to be released on Dec. 18. Still, he spoke out against intolerance. His honesty was met with the expected racial abuse, the now usual threats, and a witch-hunt type government investigation. All of which only enhances his standing in the eyes of the downtrodden common man, who has come to see him not only as a movie star, but as a folk hero.