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The original sin of Shahrukh Khan

Now what was Shahrukh Khan thinking when he did that article for Outlook? If anyone in the Mumbai film industry knows how to engage the media and use it to his advantage with his cerebral wit and those ready sound bites, it’s the most famous of Khans.

If he has ruled the roost in the world’s largest movie industry for two decades, constantly hogging the limelight, some credit goes to his consummate media management skills. He can charm the fiercest of his detractors with his disarming, dimpled smile and goes to great lengths to be politically correct in a nation of a billion people with a million competing identities.

But such is the toxic nature of relations between India and Pakistan that even the most innocuous statement or quote is prone to be hijacked by the media and hawks on both sides. Even before the special issue of Outlook, brought out in collaboration with the New York Times, hit the stands in India, Pakistani papers had run with the story, screaming: ‘Shahrukh Khan exposes Indian secularism.’

Indian papers quickly followed suit. “King of victimhood: Shahrukh Khan bites the hand that fed him” proclaimed FIRSTPOST. As Aakar Patel puts it in an article, the actor opened himself to an attack which goes in this fashion: “Aren’t you grateful, are you not satisfied, with what we gave you – you Muslim! – such fame, such success? You didn’t whine about this then, did you? Now the Pakistanis are lecturing us because of your remarks. You should be ashamed.”

And soon you had Pakistan’s perpetually bumbling Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Hafiz Saeed of all people springing up to his defence. While Malik has lectured India to ‘protect’ its biggest superstar – the world’s biggest, according to Time magazine – the man seen in India as the architect of the 26/11 attacks has offered to ‘shelter’ him in Pakistan. Now with friends like these, who needs enemies? Huwe tum dost jiske dushman uska aasman kyun ho, as Ghalib would quip.

Malik’s offer, made rather sweetly at the Republic Day celebrations at the Indian embassy in Islamabad, has sparked another war of words between the perpetually sparring neighbours. Indian Home Secretary RK Singh responded by saying Shahrukh is completely safe in India and that the country knows how to protect its citizens.

Predictably, the Hindutva groups lost no time in joining the zero-sum game of competitive zealotry asking the superstar once again to move to Pakistan. The fact that the actor is married to a Hindu and Hindu deities adorn his home seems to be of no consequence.

Ironically, this is precisely what the actor, who has his roots in Pakistan like the other Bollywood greats, including Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, has argued in his Outlook article: “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 nation 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 my home and return to what they refer to as my original homeland.”

There’s a background to this rare emotional piece by the actor who has never before complained of being targeted for his faith or his community although the rage brigade has long targeted him. In 2010, Shahrukh invited the instant wrath of Shiv Sena and the BJP when he voiced his disappointment over the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premiere League (IPL).

The subsequent Sena shenanigans forced many cinema theatres to take off the much awaited movie, My Name is Khan. A lifetime ago, Dilip Kumar faced similar persecution at the hands of the same forces with his home production and the all-time classic, Ganga Jamuna, being blocked at every stage despite his proximity to Nehru.

The hate campaign against the original emperor of Bollywood, who has inspired and influenced generations of actors, including Shahrukh and Amitabh Bachchan, got a new lease of life when Pakistan honoured him with the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, its highest civilian award. The Sena squads raised hell for days outside Kumar’s bungalow with some of them taking off their clothes and making lewd gestures.

Shahrukh, of course, has been luckier than the man with whom he is often compared to. He enjoys unprecedented fan following not just in India (and Pakistan) but around the world. With 70 blockbusters and scores of international brand endorsements in his kitty, he is the highest paid star in the country today. For this the credit goes to India’s silent, sensible multitudes that have showered such generous love on him and other Muslim superstars.

But what Shahrukh has sought to draw attention to in his article is a reality too. His predicament mirrors the reality of his community. And this mindset painting an entire community, which has been part of this ancient land for more than a thousand years now, as outsiders and traitors, has grown at a frightening pace in recent times.

In fact, thanks to the decades of sustained campaigns by groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and company and the poison that has been administered through textbooks, this mindset has come to be institutionalised in all walks of life – from the media to administration to political space. This is not a fringe anymore. Just tune in to any news network on primetime television or check out readers’ comments on news sites.

Sixty-six years after the Partition and after centuries of living in this country, Muslims still have to prove their loyalty at every turn and every stage. They are expected to hate and loudly abuse Pakistan during sporting encounters or every time there’s some tension between Islamabad and New Delhi. Muslims are mere pawns in the endless game of chess between the South Asian twins.

The attitude of our Pakistani ‘friends’, especially people like Malik and Hafiz Saeed, doesn’t really help. To them, India is a one-dimensional Hindu nation and an enemy of Muslim Pakistan. The reality of this incredibly diverse, melting pot nation, however, is much more complex and defies simplistic, black-and-white hues.

Instead of losing their sleep about Shahrukh Khan’s safety and that of India’s Muslims, Malik and Hafiz Saeed would do well to ensure the protection of their own religious minorities.

In the past few years, thousands of Shias have been killed by their fellow believers in Pakistan. Last month hundreds of Shia mourners protested in Quetta for days with the bodies of their slain loved ones, forcing intervention by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. No one is safe in the nation’s largest city Karachi. And thanks to the increasing intimidation by extremists, Hindu and Sikh families from interior Sindh and Balochistan are fleeing in droves.

So as Pakistani analyst Hamid Mir advises in a rather candid piece in Jang, instead of tormenting themselves over the state of affairs across the border, Pakistani politicians would do well to put their own house in order. Besides, to quote Mir again, “India’s Muslims have already paid a heavy price for Pakistan and are still paying. Please leave them alone.”

Indeed, if Pakistan really cares for India’s Muslims, it should leave them to their own fate. Its voluble concern, whenever articulated for whatever reason, has only added to the community’s woes. Truth be told, both India and Pakistan have let down their minorities and are in no position to lecture each other on the issue.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "The original sin of Shahrukh Khan," The News. 2013-02-04.