An open letter to Naseeruddin Shah

Dear Mr Shah,

I know of you, though I don’t know you or know about you. You are a man of letters and so I’m sure you will understand the nuance behind the choice of my words. You are of course a fine actor. Indeed, if I were to prepare my little list of the five finest actors Indian cinema — not just Hindi cinema — has produced, you will find a place in it. I have read your autobiography and was struck by the candidness in it. You never came across to me as a public figure who would shoot his mouth off without understanding either the gravity of the statement or the consequences thereof. But now I have to reconsider my opinion.

Referring to the Bulandshahr incident, you remarked: “We have already witnessed that the death of a cow has more significance (in today’s India) than that of a police officer.” You also said that you were worried for children in today’s India, that poison has seeped into society and it would be “very difficult to capture this djinn back into the bottle”.

I share your concern in the general sense, but not your insinuation about ‘today’s India’. You have reduced matters to a political level. If you have political leanings, let that be known; don’t camouflage it by concocting an environment of scare. You do realise that by your sweeping remarks, you have sought to create an image of India that is intolerant, that penalises its minorities, and where law and order exists only on paper. It’s an image that our enemies have been peddling from across the borders. You have sought to dignify those attempts.

Which sensible person in this country has supported the killing of human beings, either in the name of cow or religion? Fringe elements exist everywhere and in every religious denomination, and they cannot be considered the voice of the mainstream. Punishments for such crimes do take place, and attempts to avoid punishment are brought to the public limelight by the media and other organisations and individuals that exist in a robust democracy such as ours. It is patently unfair to brush the entire system with black.

Your remarks seem to suggest that hate has suddenly reached new highs in the years of the incumbent regime in New Delhi and that you are suddenly petrified about it. You should have lost sleep long ago but did not, and you ought to have been worried about the fate of children on many previous occasions, but were not. Where was your sense of outrage when several thousand Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of their homes in Jammu & Kashmir? Why were you silent when those Pandits who did not or could not leave the State, were bothered, and their women molested? Alarm bells did not ring in your mind then. What happened to your fears when Sikhs were massacred in 1984?

Your conscience does not make you speak up when anti-India elements give open calls for the dismemberment of the country — all in the name of religion, or when terrorists shoot down innocents in J&K or abduct, torture and put to death our security personnel, including those who are neither armed or in uniform. Does that not worry you? And if it does, what explains the silence? Is it because those instance were not good enough for you to take a swipe at the Modi Government?

Not too long ago, you had said that the Muslims of India must shed their victimhood mindset. So why are you playing the victimhood card today? There are millions of Muslims in the country, and they may have grievances. But so does the rest of the population. The Hindus have issues, but does that mean they must indulge in fear-mongering? There are already some areas of friction among the Hindus and the Muslims of this country, but there are many more areas of commonality and harmony. By talking of fears, of hatred, of divide, you are only helping those vested interests that have been working hard to demolish the Indian spirit which holds the two communities together in a bond of brotherhood despite differences. That is nationhood, Mr Shah, of which you too have been a beneficiary.

If you have issues with the Modi Government, let those be known in an objective manner. Democratic space is not dead in this country. The fact that you could make such an outrageous comment is proof enough of that. Be as much angry as you want, you have a right to be, even if that anger is unjustified. But why drag in religion into the narrative? You said, “So I fear for my children. because if a mob gathers around them and asks them — are you a Hindu or Muslim, they will not have an answer… because they have no religion.” What makes you imagine such extreme situations? Isn’t this the same country which has made you what you are? Did not millions of your fans — this letter writer included — respect you as an actor without in the least being concerned with your religion?

India is immortal and so are the values attached to it. Those values, Mr Shah, cannot be driven away, regardless of the doom scenario that you project. You have read a lot of Shakespeare; recall these lines from Hamlet:

Why, what should be the fear?

I do not set my life in a pin’s fee.

And for my soul — what can it do to that

Being a thing immortal as itself?

It waves me forth again. I’ll follow it.

There is nothing to fear, sir. Do not seize upon a few unfortunate incidents to construct a narrative that horrifies the uninitiated and satisfies our enemies.

(The writer is a senior political commentator, public affairs analyst and author of the book, Portraits of Hindutva: From Harappa to Ayodhya)

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