His name is (Shah Rukh) Khan
And he is entitled to have a conversation about what it means to be Muslim in India without having his patriotism questioned
By now I am sure all of you are au fait with the latest controversy to erupt around the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. But for those of you inhabiting a parallel universe, here are the bare bones. Khan gave an interview to an international publication called Outlook Turning Points in which, among other things, he discussed being a Muslim in a post 9/11 world.
It was in this context that he made his now-infamous statement. “I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India...There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring country rather than my own country – this even though I am an Indian, whose father fought for the freedom of India. Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave and return to what they refer to as my original homeland.”
No sooner had this interview hit the stands than Hafiz Saeed, no slouch when it comes to self-promotion, issued a statement inviting Shah Rukh Khan to come live in Pakistan if he felt unsafe in India. The Pakistani terror mastermind added generously that Khan could stay in Pakistan as long as he liked.
Cue, shock, horror and outrage in the Indian media, best summed up by the headline Firstpost gave to its comment piece on the controversy. “King of Victimhood,” it screamed, “Shah Rukh Khan bites the hand that fed him.” After much fulminating about how Shah Rukh didn’t really deserve the adulation of the Indian masses – who worshipped him without worrying about his religion – the writer went to exhort Khan to “grow up” and “take it on the chin like a man” and not provide space for “low-life terrorists like Hafiz Saeed to take pot-shots at India”.
Okay, now that you’re all up to speed, let’s just see what happened there.
Shah Rukh Khan’s jibe at some political leaders who targeted him was clearly a reference to the late Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena, with whom he has had a troubled history. Has the Shiv Sena doubted Shah Rukh Khan’s patriotism on occasion? Yes, it has. Has it accused him of being a Pakistani sympathiser? Yes, it has. Has it held demonstrations during which Khan was asked to go ‘home’ to Pakistan? Yes, it has.
So far, so true.
Now that we have cleared up what Khan said, here’s a quick summary of what Shah Rukh did NOT say. Did he say that he had been targeted by the people of India because of his religion or his surname? No, he did not. Did he complain about how his film career had suffered because he was a Muslim? No, he did not. Did he accuse film-goers of being biased against him because of whom and how he worshipped? No, he did not.
In other words, he did not bite the millions of hands that had fed him. He did not spit in the face of the fans who have made him what he is. So why attack him on completely spurious grounds? I can understand taking on a man for what he said. But targeting him for something he did not say? That is just plain stupid.
Is it Khan’s fault that Hafiz Saeed pounced on this interview to extend an invitation to him to come live in Pakistan? No, it isn’t. And it would be the ultimate triumph of the two-nation theory if we can’t even have a conversation about what it means to be a Muslim in India without getting all defensive about Pakistan.
Which of us can deny that it isn’t always easy having a Muslim surname in India? Never mind the festering wounds inflicted by the shameful riots of Gujarat, everyday life comes with its own set of challenges. Just finding someone willing to rent you a house becomes a Herculean task. Negotiating a job interview can be a minefield. Getting a passport is a veritable nightmare. (And when you do, racial profiling follows you to every immigration counter in the world.)
And yet, such is the inherent strength and strange beauty of India’s secularism that the three biggest stars in the Bollywood firmament – Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh – can rejoice in the name of Khan. Surely that is something to celebrate in a world that is increasingly fractious and divided?
We should take pride in the fact that it doesn’t matter how much political leaders try and divide us on the basis of religion. At the end of the day, the people of India worship who they want to, irrespective of which God they – or the objects of their devotion – worship.