Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan’s selfies with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi are being widely circulated in Indian social and mainstream media. On 19 October, both Khans had traveled to New Delhi together with some other Bollywood celebrities to discuss ways to promote Mahatma Gandhi and his ideals in Bollywood films at Prime Minister’s residence. This event, though was organized as part of celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, is bizarre, to say the least.
This high-octane media event was planned just a couple of days before the polling for assembly election in two key Indian states, Maharashtra and Haryana. While Modi was supposedly promoting Gandhi with two Khans of Bollywood, his party BJP has been demanding India’s highest civilian honor, Bharat Ratna award for VD Savarkar, someone has been linked to Gandhi’s assassination case. Not only that, Modi’s politics is the exact opposite of what Mahatma Gandhi stood for, but also, the political ideology of muscular Hindu nationalism had killed Gandhi in 1948. Even a popular Parliament member of Modi’s party has recently described Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse a patriot. Modi himself follows many Twitter handles, which openly denigrate Gandhi and deify Godse.
While Modi’s sincerity in promoting Gandhi’s ideals is highly doubtful, the promotion of that political theatrics by two Bollywood superstars who happen to be Muslims is bound to raise some questions. Under Modi’s rule, Hindu majoritarianism in India has received open support from the state and Muslims have been reduced to second class citizens for all practical purposes. The lynching of Muslims has become so regular that it has lost its value of being a news story. Intolerance in India against dissenting voice has reached a dangerous proportion.
Unlike Amitabh Bachchan or Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have not been open admirers of Modi in the past. Neither have they always opted to remain silent about the evilness of the Hindutva regime like Salman Khan. In 2015, Shah Rukh Khan had openly expressed his anguish over growing intolerance in India. BJP leaders had criticized him for his ‘intolerance’ remark and even some asked him to move to Pakistan. Since then, Shah Rukh Khan has fallen in line and has not dared to criticize the regime. Rather, he has been issuing supportive messages of Modi from time to time.
Aamir Khan’s relationship with Modi is more complicated compared to Shah Rukh Khan’s. Aamir had criticized Modi for not controlling the 2002 Gujarat riot. In 2006, he had taken part in the movement against the Narmada Dam, which had angered the then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi more. For these reasons, his films like Fanaa had to face challenges to be released in Gujarat. In 2015, Aamir Khan while speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Awards had remarked about the growing fear in Muslim families due to increasing intolerance in society. That was enough for him to be subjected to be severely criticized by BJP leaders and the government replaced him and made Amitabh Bachchan the brand ambassador of its Incredible India campaign. Since then, Aamir changed his tune and started singing Modi’s praise.
India’s Bollywood has not been able to confront Modi, the same manner in which Hollywood has been to Trump. Trump and his supporters’ attacks have not stopped Hollywood A-listers to openly and repeatedly criticize Trump for his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. Hollywood’s powerful actors’ union SAG-AFTRA has been for three years passing resolutions condemning Trump. Recently, when Trump was in Los Angeles to raise money for his re-election campaign, his critics in Hollywood demanded to know the names of donors going to his fundraising event to boycott them in their film and television projects.
The USA is not India, neither Hollywood is Bollywood. It is not fair to expect India’s film industry to be able to take on a predatory regime like their American counterparts. India does not have the same quality of institutions to protect its citizens nor does it have America’s First Amendment. Moreover, Modi has an income tax department under his control to ‘fix’ the Bollywood stars and financiers, which Trump does not have. However, that has not stopped some celebrities in Bollywood like Mahesh Bhatt, Anurag Kashyap, Swara Bhaskar, and Raza Murad to criticize Modi and his bigotry. If they can criticize Modi and survive, then why stars of Aamir and Shah Rukh stature with huge popularity have succumbed.
It is true that just because Aamir and Shah Rukh have Muslim names, no one should expect them to oppose the Hindutva nationalism of the Modi regime. However, it is also true that they have also come out with their open criticism of the regime in 2015, so it is not that they do subscribe to the politics of bigotry and intolerance. The situation has not improved since 2015, rather it has deteriorated considerably. Modi regime is openly playing communal politics over citizenship to refugees coming from neighboring countries. It has also recently taken away whatever limited autonomy Kashmir had and has kept more than 8 million Kashmiri Muslims in open-air prison for nearly eighty days. Unfortunately, no one from Bollywood has spoken against Modi’s inhuman Kashmir policy.
Under the present regime, it is not easy to protest in India anymore. While using the brute force, the regime has somewhat silenced the protest in Kashmir, its ethno-nationalist politics has kept people in the rest of India away from protesting for the rights of Kashmiris. Under these circumstances, the voices of Bollywood celebrities would have given some much-needed strength to the feeble voices of sanity in the country. Sadly mainstream Bollywood decided to remain silent, so did Bollywood superstars Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.
Fear might have kept Aamir and Shah Rukh to maintain silence since 2015, but it is highly unfortunate that both of them for agreeing to be publicly seen with a figure who has been accused of polarizing society and opinions. India has more than 200 million Muslims but only a handful of Muslim icons. Shah Rukh and Aamir have fans cutting across religious lines, but Muslims in India have not many in their community to look up to as their hope and inspirations.
Ashok Swain is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.