Tightrope Act

Shah Rukh Khan’s silent rebellion

31 December, 2022

A GROUP OF AROUND TEN PEOPLE arrived outside the Hyatt Regency in Ahmedabad early in the morning of 14 February 2016. Chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Shah Rukh Khan hai hai,” they threw stones into the hotel’s parking lot, shattering the windshield of a car that the actor had been using. They soon fled the scene but, after the hotel’s security officer filed a complaint, the police arrested seven activists of the Vishva Hindu Parishad on charges of rioting and property damage. Later that day, upon hearing that members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing were planning to burn an effigy of Khan outside the hotel, the police cordoned off the area and detained 17 protesters.

Three months earlier, at a Twitter Townhall telecast on the news channel India Today on Khan’s fiftieth birthday, the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai had asked him whether there was growing intolerance in the country. “There is extreme intolerance,” he replied. “People put words in the air even before thinking. And here is a secular country. Here is a country, perhaps for the last ten years, on the cusp of going beyond what we think. We keep talking about modern India, we keep talking about progressing, we keep talking about new India—and we just keep talking.” The youth, he said, would not stand for such intolerance. “Not being secular is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot.”

In a separate interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, Khan called it “banal and silly” to reduce one’s religion to one’s dietary habits and argued that, if “we keep on talking about our religion, we’re going to go back to the dark ages.” Intolerance did not define India, he said, “but, if we don’t change it for ourselves, it is dangerous for all of us.” When Dutt asked him to elaborate on his statement that not being secular is a crime for patriots, he replied that being a true patriot meant loving one’s country as a whole. “Either you love your country, or you love your country in parts.” He added that those in the film industry returning their national awards in protest were “brave” and that their actions should spark a debate about creative freedom. He also expressed support for the students of the Film and Television Institute of India, who were protesting against the appointment of a BJP supporter as its chairperson, and called for the dispute to be settled through dialogue. 

Khan’s comments were fairly anodyne and merely reflected the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, but, coming as they did amid a raging national debate on intolerance in the early years of the Narendra Modi government, they created a major controversy. The BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya tweeted that Khan “lives in India, but his heart is in Pakistan.” The VHP ideologue Prachi called him a “Pakistani agent.” Adityanath, the BJP MP from Gorakhpur and a future chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said that Khan “should remember that if a huge mass in society boycotts his films, he would have to wander the streets like a normal Muslim.” He accused Khan of speaking the language of terrorists. “I think there is no difference between the language of Shah Rukh Khan and Hafiz Saeed,” he said, referring to the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.