The uproar over Vishwaroopam and Ashis Nandy’s remarks is a reflection of our growing intolerance for different points of view.
The speed with which our tolerance is falling to fragile levels is petrifying. First, some fringe Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu waved the red flag to Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam and managed to get a 15-day “ban” on the screening of the movie in Tamil Nadu. And, now, we have the Dalit, tribal and OBC lobbies, along with politicians like the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, baying for the blood of political psychologist Ashis Nandy for his controversial comment on corruption among these groups.
Kamal’s espionage thriller has run into rough weather with some Tamil Muslim groups, who found the actor guilty of depicting Muslims as terrorists. The Jayalalithaa Government’s swift response to put a 15-day “ban” on Vishwaroopam’s release might puzzle some, and appear “political” to others in a State where the film industry is so closely tied to politics. But its decision could be linked to the siege of the US Consulate in Chennai last year by a mob of Muslims. At that time, the protest was over the ludicrous movie Innocence of Muslims produced by Nakoula alias Sam Becile, who got his moment in the sun through Muslim protests around the world.
But while that was a deliberate and ill-disguised attempt to infuriate Muslims by denigrating Prophet Mohamed, targeting an actor and film-maker like Kamal Hasan is most unfortunate. First of all, the secular credentials of Kamal, a member of Harmony India, are well known. If at all, in the past, as the actor-director pointed out in an interview, he has been dubbed a “Muslim sympathiser….I am very careful in saying what I say. I’ll never make a film for the lark of it. I am very cautious when I make a film not to hurt the larger sentiment.”
He has even gone as far as to say that “nationalist and patriotic Muslims” would love his film and that it was “the most Muslim-friendly film that I have seen in recent times.”
But who is listening? That the film has been subjected to a rigorous level of scrutiny after the Central Board for Film Certification had cleared it, with some deliberations but no cuts, is an indicator of the increasing levels of our intolerance.
Chennai’s Muslims who took the city police completely by surprise during the anti-American protests, virtually brought traffic to a halt on the arterial roads of Chennai for a few days before things were restored to normalcy. Having tasted blood then, some other fringe elements have erupted again now.
A dangerous trend
The surprising, as well as sad, element in this muscle flexing is that Tamil Nadu’s Muslims have never been known for their militancy or hard stance when it comes to religion. This was reinforced most forcefully after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 when communal riots erupted across India. Tamil Nadu had remained a haven of communal peace and was often quoted as an exemplar of tempered behaviour. That some of its Muslims are now increasingly taking to the streets to protest this or that is a dangerous trend which needs to be nipped in the bud.
I have no idea of what exactly these Muslims are objecting to in Kamal’s film. But one of the Muslim leaders, who was part of the group to which the actor had shown the movie, after it was cleared by the Censor Board, ranted on a TV channel on how the film showed a terrorist recite a prayer from the Koran, and chant Allaho Akbar before killing somebody.
Pardon me if I’m wrong, but which Muslim terrorist has been known/seen to open a bottle of Scotch before detonating a bomb? Isn’t the indoctrination and brainwashing of gullible Muslims and their conversion to terrorism always done in the name of religion? Also, doesn’t Aamir Khan’s Fanaa, which was opposed in Gujarat and not by Muslims, also show the protagonist as a terrorist? Countless other Hindi films have had the same theme. When there were no protests against these films, why is Vishwaroopam being targeted? At the most, you can accuse Indian filmmakers of portraying stereotypical Muslims, but then Hindi cinema does the same with South Indians, and more particularly Tamils, speaking English with an atrocious accent. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any vicious attempt to denigrate Islam as was done by Bacile who made the American video clip against the Prophet.
Madras High Court’s Justice K. Venkataraman watched the movie on Saturday and will pass orders on Tuesday. But meanwhile, he has suggested that the film-maker “explore all possibilities” to find an “amicable” solution to the issue with the Government. If Kamal is forced to do that, it will be a sad day for creative freedom and he will be justified in dubbing these protests as “cultural terrorism”.
Moving over from Chennai to Jaipur, the storm of protests against Ashis Nandy is another example of another group’s attempts to stifle freedom of expression.
Nandy in trouble
The whole affair is even more unfortunate because Nandy’s comments on the corruption among Dalits, tribals and OBCs have been taken out of context and twisted. A careful reading of the sequence of that particular discussion at the Jaipur Literary Festival shows that the burden of his song was that while the more privileged, elite upper classes indulge in corruption in insidious and more subtle ways — such as getting fellowships for their wards at Harvard — leaders of the socially marginalised sections do it in a more detectable manner such as garnering licence to a petrol pump.
Let us be honest. Can we deny the absolute truth of what he is saying? Does the list of our illustrious netas caught in the net of corruption charges not include the likes of “tall leaders” of the socially-disadvantaged such as Mayawati, Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh, JMM chief Shibu Soren, former Jharkhand CM Madhu Koda and, more recently, the Dalit face of the DMK, A Raja?
The discussion was on pastmasters (the privileged classes who had the first shy at power in our Republic) at the game of corruption being slippery eels vis-à-vis the new entrants to power such as the Dalits, tribals and OBCs. Poor Nandy had to slip out of Jaipur and now faces a plethora of complaints and cases. It is all the more distressing to think that this happened to a psychologist who has always batted for the deprived and marginalised in his writing and at public fora. Needless to say, the utmost damage was done to Nandy by TV channels which pulled out one of his statements out of context and kept repeating it on 24x7 telecasts.
Unfortuantely, Tamil Nadu’s Muslims and Nandy’s detractors are only reinforcing stereotypes… that Muslims are absolutely intolerant and the other group wants the licence of doing anything under the “socially oppressed” label.