India stars in a secularism potboiler

By Rupali Karekar

Last week, two of India’s biggest film actors were embroiled in separate real life dramas.

Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan was forced to explain himself when his views on being a Muslim in India were twisted out of context, leading to a war of words between politicians on both sides of the India-Pakistan border.

South Indian biggie Kamal Haasan, on the other hand, accused authorities of “cultural terrorism” when they banned the release of his multi-million dollar Tamil-language film Vishwaroopam in his home-state Tamil Nadu for having scenes allegedly hurtful to Muslim sentiments.

As the dramas unfolded, Khan and Haasan made seemingly contradictory statements which raised sharp questions about India’s secular credentials.

Khan, a Muslim, declared that the world’s largest democracy was safe for minorities and he was its proud citizen. Haasan, a Hindu, said he wished to move to a “more secular” land, where his freedom of expression as an artiste would be respected.So who is right? Who is telling the truth about secularism in India?

I would say the two actors are not wrong in their assessment. But, whether they are right is debatable.

Khan’s brush with the controversy came when he articulated his thoughts on being a Muslim in India in a magazine article, sharing how his name had been misused by politicians to forward their agenda.

As if to prove him right, his views were lapped up by fundamentalists in Pakistan to suggest that he was unsafe in India. One Pakistani politician went so far as to urge India to provide him with security.  A predictable backlash followed, with the Indian side tartly asking Pakistan to ensure safety of its own minority community.

Khan refused to react at first to what he said was a baseless controversy. Later, he came out with a statement saying he felt completely safe in India. “We have an amazing, democratic, free and secular way of life,” he said.

And that holds water. India has an impressive record of minority representation at the national level. Its Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and chief of army belong to minority communities, so do three of its top four Bollywood stars. At least 30 per cent of the national cricket and hockey teams are represented by players from minority groups.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, one of its most popular former president and the father of its nuclear programme, is a Muslim.  Khan himself enjoys demigod-like status in the country. His article was essentially pointing to misuse of his name in politics and did not even mention personal safety.

Now, cut to Haasan, the Tamil superstar. His latest release was banned from screens by the state after some Muslim groups said they found some scenes in the film hurting their religious sentiments.

With loads of money at stake, Haasan rushed to the courts for a respite, but faced further hurdles in the release of the film. Meanwhile, time was running out for the film’s commercial release as pirated versions were trickling into the market.

At an especially vulnerable moment during a press conference, Haasan declared that the ban on his film was “cultural terrorism” and expressed his desire to move to a more secular land within the country or abroad, to ensure he was respected as an artiste.

Haasan’s outburst was reactionary in tone over the delay in release of his big budget venture, than a reflection of India’s secular credentials.  Haasan’s film was already battling controversy when he initially irked theatre owners by deciding to release it to cable networks first.

No sooner was that controversy put to rest, the state banned the film, for allegedly having scenes hurtful to the sentiments of minority communities. (The scenes have since been edited out and the film ready for release).

Haasan may have felt cornered and victimised at the ban when he blurted that Tamil Nadu wants him out, and that he was ready to relocate to any other part of India or the world which is secular.  His statements could be construed as more of an emotional outburst rather than a scathing remark on the secularism of India. After all, the world’s largest democracy gives every citizen freedom to express themselves. The preamble to the Constitution of India declares the state to be a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic, where the word “secular” reflects the fact that the country has no official state religion and that there is equality for all religions.

The man on street has imbibed this reality of secular India. But, for people with mass appeal, like film stars and politicians, slightly different standards apply.  For one, whatever they say or do gets dissected finely by the overzealous Indian media, notorious for sensationalising news. And two, they have to walk the tightrope when it comes to minority sentiments - a small misstep and there is heavy damage to one’s reputation. 

Both Khan and Hassan pulled this off well, managing to offend no one in multi-religious India. Still, their remarks snowballed, splashed across websites, TV screens and print, thanks to the media, ever hungry for soundbytes and eyeballs.

To add to this, when politicians get involved, public sentiment is stirred enough to turn simple misunderstandings into issue of national importance.

So when it comes to secularism, there really is no standard definition in India, despite what the dictionary says. It will vary from person to person, from time to time.

Over time, both these controversies will be forgotten, our stars will go back to do what they do best; make movies, politicians will move on to other controversies to gain mileage, and India will return to normal, wiping out these memories from its collective psyche until next time. Hopefully there won’t be a next time. (of course there will!)