Writer: Arghya Sengupta*
When terrorists attack India, why does the mob turn its ire on Bollywood?
A certain primal and unthinking disgust has arisen in India with the thought of Fawad Khan cavorting in a Bollywood film juxtaposed against Pakistani militants entering Indian territory and killing Indian soldiers. In that moment everyone, irrespective of what they do, what their talents are, and where they ply their trade, becomes identifiable solely by their citizenship sitting in front of the TV screen we are one with the martyred soldier in the Uri barrack; Fawad Khan, hitherto matinee idol, suddenly the very likeness of the dastardly terrorists spawning violence and hatred.
Many motivations may underlie such thinking for the producer of a Bollywood film; it may be his profits, for an out-of-work hack a chance to appear on TV, for a fringe political party some free publicity. The compromise reached by Bollywood producers and Raj Thackeray, to not cast Pakistani actors in the foreseeable future, demonstrates the self-serving and unprincipled nature of both the protesters as well as those protested against.
A filmmaker was constrained to prove his Indianness because he had used a Pakistani actor for a film; he was forced to beg that his film be released because it was the product of the blood and sweat, not of 300 workers, but 300 Indian workers; but above all, it was sad because an artist proclaimed that his country and its armed forces came first and so he would not engage with artistes from “a neighbouring country given the circumstance“, a compromise he ultimately accepted
But when such beliefs are not only expressed by those with personal motives, but also positively affirmed or silently accepted by a vast majority with no personal axe to grind, the entire country appears to have been turned into an echo chamber. It is easy to dismiss such a collectivity as naïve and uninformed. But so widespread is such a view, and so muted the counter-protest against the cowardly compromise that was reached, that closer engagement with the substance of such a popular belief is needed.
Two possible thoughts could justify the genesis of such disgust. First, the extreme version Pakistan is a rogue state and all Pakistanis are terrorists, some actively so, others merely passively.
Growing up in what was then Calcutta we were taught what a logical fallacy was through the following thought experiment: Major premise Rabindranath Tagore has a beard; Minor premise A goat has a beard; Inference Rabindranath Tagore is a goat. In an updated version, we might have the following sequence replace it. Major premise The terrorists in Uri were Pakistani; Minor premise Fawad Khan is Pakistani; Inference Fawad Khan is a terrorist. The illogic of such an inference is only matched by its hilarity .
The second, more nuanced version, is that arts and sports are not as important as our soldiers and our national interest.There is a certain intuitive appeal to this argument art and sport are recreational; it appears to be bad form for the country to be frolicking when its soldiers are dying.
Two grave fallacies affect this argument first, as far as sport is concerned, it is hypocritical. In the 1999 World Cup as Anil Kumble was cleaning up the Pakistani tail, Indian soldiers were dying in the Kargil war. So perhaps this otherwise intuitive statement should be supplied a caveat arts and sports are not as important as our soldiers except if we have a chance to beat Pakistan and win the Cricket World Cup.
Second, as far as barring Pakistani actors is concerned, it makes the false claim that responsibility for the actions of a country must be personally borne by each and every one of its citizens. If such a claim were to be made, then every Indian today would have to bear responsibility for state action in deaths due to custodial violence, the failed IPKF mission to Sri Lanka, the deplorable treatment meted out by state institutions to Paralympic athletes or for Pahlaj Nihalani's comments as chief of the Censor Board.Vicarious responsibility is both a flawed as well as a dangerous argument to make we should be careful what we wish for.
In this entire episode, the Centre itself has shown no inclination of banning Pakistani artistes or preventing bilateral person-to-person contacts. In fact, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has expressly ruled out such a possibility .Without government incitement a third, more troubling rationale for the genesis of the disengagement with Pakistan theory emerges that civil society now is essentially one large mob running on unthinking autopilot.
Speaking in the name of the army provides a convenient cover, and alleging an affront to Indian dignity caused by a Pakistani actor on screen is a trump card that brooks no further dissent. This holds up a mirror to a new India small-minded, insecure, illiberal and skittish. No reasoned argument appears possible in such an atmosphere.
Watching Karan Johar respond to the unthinking and mob-like backlash by pleading with the film fraternity and the public to allow his film to release despite Pakistani national Fawad Khan being a member of the cast was sad at many levels. A filmmaker was constrained to prove his Indianness because he had used a Pakistani actor for a film; he was forced to beg that his film be released because it was the product of the blood and sweat, not of 300 workers, but 300 Indian workers; but above all, it was sad because an artist proclaimed that his country and its armed forces came first and so he would not engage with artistes from “a neighbouring country given the circumstance“, a compromise he ultimately accepted.
It is a testament to the India we are currently building that an artist chooses nationalism over commitment to his art. And worse still, that he sees the two as distinct.
*The writer is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal