Bollywood’s Aamir Khan draws backlash over India ‘intolerance’ remarks

Actor’s claims of a sense of ‘insecurity’ follow the deadly lynching of a Muslim man over rumors he had eaten beef

Nabila Pathan
Nabila Pathan - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s leading stars, provoked a deluge of criticism on social media after suggesting there is a growing climate of intolerance in India.

His comments were made at last month’s Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, at which the actor was asked to comment about the string of prominent writers returning national awards in protest to what they view as rising sectarian tensions in India.

Aamir, who is Muslim, went on to explain how his wife Kiran, who is Hindu, “fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet.”

The star of Hindi films ‘Three Idiots’, ’PK’ and host of talk show Satyamev Jayate (‘Truth Alone Prevails’), which focuses on social and cultural issues impacting India, started trending on Twitter following his comments, mainly with an onslaught of opposition over his stance.

Some Bollywood heavyweights also chimed in, publicly criticizing their colleague for his comments on intolerance in India. They included prominent names such as Anupam Kher, Raveena Tandon, Paresh Rawal and Ashoke Pandit.

One of the first to engage in this war of words was Anupam Kher, who himself courted controversy recently when he organized the ‘March for India’. “Dear @aamir_khan. Did you ask Kiran which country would she like to move out to? Did you tell her that this country has made you AAMIR KHAN,” was one of the many questions he posed to Aamir on Twitter.

The barrage of abuse also continued with Raveena Tandon, who has co-starred with Aamir in films, apparently entered the debate without naming the actor: “Wonder why they didn’t feel fear when bombs ripped the heart of Mumbai… Let’s cut the BS - why can’t these people openly say that they weren’t happy since [the] day Modi became PM… instead of shaming the whole country.”

Others like Indian film director Ram Gopal Varma, suggested that Aamir was motivated by fame at the expense of inciting tensions. “It’s the celebs need for creating drawing room debates to increase their popularity which flares up non existent negativity [between] communities. Some celebs complaining about Intolerance should be the last ones to complain [because] they became celebs in a so called intolerant country.”

Aamir Khan’s complaint of rising intolerance in India follows similar remarks made by Shah Rukh Khan, who responded to the fatal lynching in October of a Muslim man rumored to have slaughtered a cow.

Khan’s infamous interview also indirectly referred to that incident, when he stated that citizens “feel a sense of insecurity” when those who are democratically elected as representatives fail to condemn those who partake in mob rule.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leaders of a country where the political system is built on a secular values, faced mounting pressure over their silence on the lynch-mob attack, which gripped the nation. Modi described the incident as “unfortunate” two weeks after the event.

Ipsita Bandyopadhyay, a communications professional based in Mumbai, said the barrage of criticism following Aamir Khan’s statement is not indicative of how India thinks as a whole.

“The public discourse is certainly seeing a shift. Taking a contrarian stand seems to invite ridicule more often than one would like. The intolerance he spoke about appeared to come alive in the vitriolic rebuttals directed at him,” she told Al Arabiya News.

“How can critique be so unwelcome in a democracy?”

But Soutik Biswas of BBC News in India wrote that the fierce backlash against Khan by the ruling BJP and supporters of Mr Modi “possibly holds up a mirror to hardened positions in today’s India.”

“Many of these supporters also believe that the world is out to get Mr Modi and say people with a history of reservations against him – Khan had condemned the 2002 Gujarat riots – have not been able to reconcile themselves to Mr Modi becoming prime minister,” Biswas wrote.

Despite the online furor, fellow actors such Hrithik Roshan and opposition party members such as Rahul Gandhi joined the online frenzy to show support for Aamir Khan and his right for freedom of expression.

Aamir Khan has since released a statement on his official Facebook page stating: “To all those people who are calling me anti-national, I would like to say that I am proud to be Indian, and I do not need anyone’s permission nor endorsement for that.”

“To all the people shouting obscenities at me for speaking my heart out, it saddens me to say you are only proving my point.”

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