The actor is not the first cultural personality to be criticised by BJP leaders for expressing concerns about the direction the country is taking. But while the others have been accused of staging a “manufactured revolt”, none was labelled a Pakistani agent

Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan during his birthday celebrations at a hotel in Mumbai on Monday. Credit: PTI Photo by Mitesh Bhuvad

New Delhi: So the inevitable has happened. Less than 24 hours after India’s most well-known actor, Shah Rukh Khan said “No one can question my patriotism. How dare anyone?”, a senior BJP leader has done just that.

Reacting to SRK’s statements in the media that there is “intolerance, extreme intolerance” in India and that “not being secular in this country is the worst crime you can do as a patriot,” Kailash Vijayvargiya, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused the actor of treason and claimed his heart belonged to Pakistan.

In a series of tweets that at least one opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, has described as “sickening”, the BJP leader who was made a senior office-holder by BJP president Amit Shah, said: “Shah Rukh Khan lives in India but his heart beats for Pakistan. His films earn crores in India but he sees intolerance here. If this is not treason, what is? At a time when India is due to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Pakistan and all anti-India forces have hatched a conspiracy. Creating a climate of intolerance in India is a part of this conspiracy. By singing the same tune of ‘intolerance’, Shah Rukh is acting in concert with Pakistan and anti-India forces.”

Confronted with these statements, Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told NDTV on Tuesday night criticised them and said Vijayvargiya was not an authorised spokesman of the BJP. But the fact that a senior leader with long years in the RSS and BJP could target SRK in this manner only serves to underline the manner in which public discourse in India is increasingly being vitiated by intolerance.

The actor is not the first prominent cultural personality to be criticised by BJP leaders for expressing concerns about the direction the country is taking. But while the others have been accused of staging a “manufactured revolt”, none has so far been labelled a Pakistani agent.

In a country where movie stars rarely cross the Lakshman rekha of dissent for fear that their films will be targeted, Shah Rukh Khan’s decision to join the rising voice of the creative fraternity against the ‘climate of intolerance’ was a bold one.  Not only is his big-budget picture, Fan, due to be released soon but as a Muslim, he knew his patriotism would be impugned by the very sections whose violent actions and inflammatory rhetoric have done so much to create a climate of lawlessness in different parts of the country.

The actor, with many memorable roles spread across his 27 years of Bollywood career, chose to air his views on the issue on his 50th birthday – an occasion that his huge fan base began celebrating outside his house in Mumbai from the dawn of November 2.

Taking time out from his birthday celebrations for TV interviews and a press conference, King Khan spoke candidly about a range of issues, both personal and political.

Responding to a query in a Twitter Townhall by TV Today, the actor said, “I do think there is intolerance, extreme intolerance. People put words in the air even before thinking. I think if this country is not going to be secular, happy in its approach, the youngsters are not going to stand for it…The only advice I can give at 50 to anyone is that [religious] intolerance – not being secular in this country – is the worst crime you can do as a patriot.”

In an interview to NDTV, Khan said there was nothing worse than religious intolerance and that it would take India back to the Dark Ages.

FTII, awards, being Muslim

Though he was not present on the dais when some some award-winning film directors in Mumbai recently voiced their concern about intolerance and the governments handling of the Film and Television Institute of India, Khan spoke out in support of the FTII students. “I would love to help FTII. I think what’s happening is completely wrong and it is extremely disturbing… They (the FTII students) have been on a fast and what happened? It’s over and if I take a stand, yes, it would add some value to it…”

With many writers returning their government-sponsored awards in protest against growing intolerance and the lack of creative freedom, TV Today Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai asked whether he might return his Padma Shri too. Khan said, “I mean just for a symbolic gesture, yes, if I have to… I respect those who returned [their] awards, but I don’t have to.”

Without referring to the Dadri case in which a Muslim man was lynched on the suspicion of having eaten beef, the superstar told NDTV’s Consulting Editor Barkha Dutt, “Our religion (Islam) cannot be defined or showed respect to by our meat-eating habits. How banal and silly is that.” Khan told Sardesai, “…I think the biggest tragedy is that you (a Muslim) have to explain yourself…just to explain your Indianness is very sad.”

Responding to a query on often being abused on Twitter for being a Muslim with trolls even telling him to go to Pakistan, Khan said, “When my father (a freedom fighter) has been part of making this country, even if the smallest part of making this country free, there is nobody who could question my patriotism, my religion, my Indianness…how dare anyone? And this is the most open thing I will say and I will say [it] even if it takes me down. That you don’t question my being an Indian or my children being Indians or my wife being an Indian or my father being an Indian.”

Perils of taking a stand

Such plain speaking is uncommon in Bollywood. Unlike Hollywood, Indian actors may be seen campaigning for individual politicians during elections but they hardly ever take a stand on issues. “Hollywood has more leeway about speaking your voice…but, here, you have a country where there are lots of things you can’t talk… Lots of things aren’t said, then they are said and you are broken down.” Khan acknowledged the pressure to avoid rocking the boat: “Real life for an actor is very different and I am not saying we are extra vulnerable. But we are artists, this is what we are supposed to do, we are just supposed to do our art, that’s all.”

He knows the consequences of doing otherwise. “I think in the larger interest of being able to do the job that I do, I need to…Because if you stop my films on Friday and nobody is there to tell them, don’t stop his films on Friday, it’s extremely sad. It’s not just me, there are many others involved in the making of a film… We may talk about freedom of voice and speech but people come outside my house and throw stones, If I take a stand about X or Y thing, like I have taken before… I don’t think in America for speaking your mind your films are stopped on Fridays.” He then clarified, “But if I do take a stand, I will stand by it, I will not succumb.”

Asked on India Today TV  how he and his wife Gauri handled the fact that they belonged to different religions, SRK said:  “By respecting each-other’s religion which we all should do. I have never told her to follow my religion, neither has she told me. There has never been a discussion on religion between me and Gauri ever. Neither have I ever told Gauri to join me in namaaz, but she joins. Never has she told me Gayatri Mantra se Diwali me pooja karte hain, but I join. We never had to talk about it. We burst crackers on Eid and we have sevaiyan on Diwali,” he said.

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