Actor Naseeruddin Shah has the inviolable right under India’s Constitution to say this country is unsafe to live in. He also has absolute right to say Pakistan “feels like home”. He is well within his right to say, “Death of a cow has more significance than that of a police officer” (although why should the value of the two lives be compared, one may ask).
But then the right of Indian citizens to be outraged by his words and attack his ideas is equally inviolable. Protest against his participation in the Ajmer literature festival, as long as the protesters did not resort to violence, is perfectly lawful.
Freedom of expression cannot be selective. Just as secularism and identity politics cannot be a one-way street.
Shah is entitled to speak up for fellow Muslims, which he has done earlier as well. But identity politics begets identity politics. Those saying he has tarred Hindus with a dark, broad and bigoted brush are also equally entitled to their opinion.
Many of us still love Naseeruddin Shah, the activist-actor. We respect his courage to speak up. But here are just five instances which perfectly fit his outrage triggers – intolerance, wanton violence over one’s freedom of expression, killing in the name of cow, terrible behaviour by a celebrity – when Shah failed to speak up.
Killings by cow smugglers
Cow smugglers kill or main scores of people across India every year. In 2015, cow smuggler hacked Prashant Poojary to death with choppers and swords. In 2016, cattle smuggler killed a BSF constable in Bengal. Was the death of a border guards less important than killing a cow for meat? Last year, for instance, cow thieves shot farmer Charan Singh dead in Agra. Around the same time, cow smugglers ran over and killed a Dalit man in Agra. Last year, six cow smugglers killed three villagers in Manipur. In August this year, two priests were killed and a third critically injured in UP’s Auraiya by cattle smugglers, who also chopped off the priests’ tongues. Crores of farmers in India depend on cattle for livelihood. Many of them live in mortal fear of the cow smuggling mafia. Shah hasn’t spoken up for them. From Uttar Pradesh, Naseer’s state, had come the news of the murder of a policeman by cow smugglers. The ‘sensitive’ actor forgot to express his outrage when the cattle thieves had killed Manoj Mishra, a sub-inspector in Bareilly, under Akhilesh Yadav’s reign. What life was more important then? The cow’s or the cop’s?
Throttling freedom of expression
From massive violence in Kolkata over Taslima Nasreen to cancelling a serial based on her book to stopping Salman Rushdie from attending a literary festival, there was no word of criticism from Shah. Not even when journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was thrown into jail for nearly 50 days over a prank. In 2015, Kamlesh Tiwari, a Hindu Mahasabha member, made a derogatory comment on Prophet Mohammed. It set on fire at least three cities across UP, Bengal and Bihar. The worst-hit was Malda, where mobs of over a lakh men burnt down police stations, buses, houses and shops, attacked homes and Shani, Durga and other temples. Hundreds of lives were in danger, and people continue to live in fear in that area over just a remark. It was a fit case for Naseeruddin to speak up. He didn’t.
Just Virat Kohli, not Bollywood stars?
Shah has a big problem with Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli’s on-field aggression and occasional sledging. Is that more grave that Bollywood stars going around hunting wildlife, running over people on the roads, slapping a businessman at a five-star hotel, abusing cops, raping maids, being mentioned in the Panama papers or keeping automatic rifles? How many times has he spoken up on outright shocking behaviour of actors, directors or stand-up comedians?
Naseerusddin Shah is admired and respected by people across religions, castes and regions in India. Should such a prominent citizen be selective and limited to his own identity when he speaks up against injustice? Should he cast aspersions on just one community? He has the right to. Just that it is morally dubious.
Couresy: VSK Bharat