If Javed Akhtar is not in the company of Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and 14 others of the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case after mentioning the Taliban and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the same breath, it is not because debate and dissent are the lifeblood of Indian democracy. It is only because that would prove him right. Yet, BJP MLA Ram Kadam did threaten to stop the screening Akhtar’s films until he apologises with folded hands’. Not to be left behind, the Shiv Sena castigated the scriptwriter, poet and lyricist for drawing parallels between the Taliban and the RSS.
So, what exactly did Akhtar, who along with Salim Khan gave us films such as Zanzeer, Deewar and Sholay, say. NDTV spoke to Akhtar on September 3, after he tweeted against some members of the Muslim Personal Law Board welcoming the return of Taliban in Afghanistan. In the 24-minute conversation with anchor Srinivasan Jain, Akhtar spoke about the growing rightwing fundamentalism and said that irrespective of religion, all right-wingers share the same values. “Of course, the Taliban is barbaric and their actions are reprehensible but those supporting the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal are all the same,” he said.
One only has to see the naked aggression faced by anyone who criticizes the present regime to appreciate Akhtar. The slightest disapproval of the PM’s policies is treated like blasphemy. Those who take offence at being compared with the Taliban forget that people have been lynched in this country for what they ate, what they wore and whom they married. In which country are intellectuals hounded as urban Naxals? In which country is an elite university attacked by a mob armed with iron rods? In which country do the cops ransack the library of a university? In which country are intellectuals opposing religious bigotry shot dead: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.
What’s wrong when Akhtar says that just like Taliban wants an Islamic State, there are those who want a Hindu Rashtra? In fact, those who want a majoritarian state want to supplant Hinduism with Hindutva. The former is a pacifist religion whereas the latter is a muscular, militant version with hatred for minorities as its central ideology.
Slogans such as “Desh ke gaddaron ko, golimaaro saalon ko’’ propel a candidate to the Union Cabinet. A former spokesperson of the BJP, also a Supreme Court lawyer, has the temerity to raise hateful slogans amounting to an open call for genocide, in the heart of Delhi. Those arrested for lynching are felicitated by a Union minister.
In fact, Srinivasan Jain pointed out during his chat with Akhtar that the “same people who are using the return of Taliban to stoke a sense of Islamophobia, to say that ‘O, now look Muslim extremism is going to rise’, are often the same people who themselves are guilty of various forms of extremist thought and action in this country.” He also brought up in passing the news about a Muslim’s ‘dosa’ stall being vandalised in Mathura over Hindu name and Muslim bangleseller who was beaten for entering a Hindu locality and arrested for child molestation when he complained.
However, facts don’t bother fanatics. The editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna castigating Akhtar says “Hindutva is a culture and people of the community demand the right to stop those who attack this culture.” The reality is that Hinduism has been weaponised to suit political ends and this is insulting for anyone who calls himself a true practitioner of the religion in the soul-searching tradition of the sages who composed the Vedas. Akhtar, who anatagonised the Muslim fringe when he chanted, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, in his farewell speech as nominated Rajya Sabha member, is right when he says that most Indians have a moderate mindset and that he has full faith in the secularism of an average Indian.
It is time to ask how a section of the majority community was brainwashed into believing that a religion that has withstood the onslaught of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity is in danger of losing its identity. Hinduism is not in danger but the economy is, our democracy is, our jobs are. Shrines are of no help in the pandemic; Tirupati, the richest temple in India, sacked many of its employees during the lockdown. This inconvenient truth did not deter the BJP from holding statewide demonstrations in Maharashtra demanding that places of worship be reopened. They are only following the orders of their central leadership which had a door-to-door fund-raising drive, not for the fight against Covid, but for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.
What’s wrong when Akhtar says that the RSS has the same ideology as that of the Nazis? The Nazis intimidated their critics and political opponents in the same manner. They believed in a pure Aryan race and blamed the Jews for all the wrongs, portraying them as parasites and harmful bacteria long before they were sent to the gas chambers.
We also hear slogans such as `Musalman ke do sthan, Pakistan ya kabristan’. In fact, we denounce M K Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom struggle, as the man who created Pakistan. Tweets hailing his assassin are the top trend on Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
Nazis controlled the media. Here, too, we have a `Godi’ media. Any 'pressitute’ can expect to be thrown into the dungeon. During the farmers’ march on Delhi, six prominent journalists were booked for sedition based on a single complaint by a 'social worker’ from Noida. And identical FIRs were filed against them
in five different states for “sharing misinformed news and instigating violence on Republic Day” through their tweets about the death of a farmer in police firing, which were subsequently corrected as the farmer died in a tractor crash. This led wags to say that the FDI that is likely to come is Fear, Deception and Intimidation. Incidentally, comics in this country can’t make light of the government. A stand-up comedian spent three months in jail for a joke he did not crack!
No wonder India has fallen from a global ranking of 27 in 2015 to a ranking of 53 in 2020 in the Democracy Index compiled by the influential magazine, The Economist. Another indicator is that the news about Ram Kadam’s threat to Akhtar got far more prominence than 150 eminent citizens coming out in support of Akhtar and actor Naseeruddin Shah, who were trolled for standing up to extreme elements in religions while speaking on the Taliban. The signatories “strongly disagreed” with the trolling and pointed out that “right-wingers — be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christians — share a common majoritarian world view”.
Shah says in his one-minute viral video aimed at Indian Muslims that the Taliban is a cause for concern for the whole world and that celebrations of its return to power by some sections of Indian Muslims is no less dangerous. “Every Indian Muslim should ask themselves if they want reform and modernity in Islam or the barbarian values of the past centuries.” The solidarity statement put on record that “Shah is only reiterating the long, vibrant and tolerant tradition of Indian Islam that has been in recent decades afflicted by the Saudi-exported Wahhabi Islam, a trend that large sections of Indian Muslims recognise and also deplore.”
It is time for all right-thinking citizens to speak up for Akhtar and Shah, who have spoken for the silent majority. Unless we want to become the silenced majority.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on firstname.lastname@example.org