Monday 18 January 2021
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What intolerance?

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Views Article What intolerance?

Last year, Aamir Khan kicked up a storm by giving a statement that he is concerned about growing “intolerance” in India (that his wife, according to him, often wondered whether the family should move out of the country). Not that he is the first to do so, nor the last. Some people have returned their awards, some have spoken about it in media and some others have written about it on social media. The intolerance debate has polarised supporters and critics of the propaganda alike.

Let’s call it propaganda, as it is essentially so. The break-India forces behind this campaign are well known. The Government of India is making efforts within the constitutional framework to curb such ‘soft-terrorism’.

However, the government has its limits. It is not possible or even desirable for government to curb such activities entirely as there is a thin line that separates this propaganda and freedom of expression or dissent. The divisive forces will, hence, continue to run their campaigns. It then becomes imperative for the civil society to come up strongly to negate such forces.

The attacks have not started with the advent of this government. Coinage of the term “Hindu terrorism”, selective outrage over certain communal incidents and raising false alarms over “saffronisation” of education have long been the tools of the smear campaigners.

Till date, there has been a void in the civil society. A counter-narrative to these cultural attacks on India has been conspicuous by its absence. Even when Wikileaks broke the story that Congress head-in-the-waiting Rahul Gandhi had branded Hindutva as more dangerous for India than terrorism, the intellectual class did not challenge the assertion at all, though the public mood was unsparing. The same thing happened during the Award Wapasi and intolerance debate. The void was filled by lousy and fringe voices, which did more harm to Brand India than good.

The patriotic brain-force of the country, now popularly known as the Right Wing, was walking into the trap of getting outraged and, in turn, magnifying the impact of negativity propagated by the opponents.

Launch of Mahmud Kasuri's book, which would have gone unnoticed without the ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni
Launch of Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book, which would have gone unnoticed without the ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni

There are many recent instances which underline this phenomenon. On the one hand, some political outfits tried to hog the limelight by vandalising film theatres and offices over issues such as cricket and films. On the other, ink throwing incidents helped a book launch turn into a national event, which would have otherwise caught nobody’s attention. These jibes found resonance on roads and social media in the form of name-calling by right wing’s foot soldiers, which further weakened the cause. The eager mainstream media captured the shots to paint a sorry state of affairs under the current dispensation.

Of late, the right wing has started to acknowledge this void, and there is an attempt to channel this energy in a constructive direction. March for India was one such step. Led by actor Anupam Kher, the march was an apt response, which brought in a sense of purpose among those who do not buy the propaganda of intolerance. There were a few other small but innovative attempts like “Book Wapasi” where books were returned to the writers who returned awards, which was a mark of protest against the writers.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley with Aamir Khan at the Ram Nath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in New Delhi on Nov 23rd 2015. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took the insult by Khan lying down, but supporters of this regime among ordinary citizens didn’t, neither did some of his peers from the film industry [A 23 Nov 2015 Indian Express photo by Ravi Kanojia]

The “March for India” saw thousands pour into New Delhi’s Rajpath in a spontaneous response to an appeal issued by Kher on Twitter without the protesters enjoying any organisational backing

When the Aamir Khan episode happened, there were worries of a similar backlash by the fringe, which would defeat the purpose of confidence-building measures of the prime minister. That happened to an extent, with someone offering Rs 1 lakh for slapping the actor, while someone else telling him to move to Pakistan. But lessons seem to have been learnt this time. Rather than personal attacks and name-calling, an idea of protest by social boycott was thrown up. And it was picked up readily. It started with an appeal to boycott products endorsed by the actor and turned soon into “App Wapasi” campaign, primarily targeted at Snapdeal, an online shopping site endorsed by Khan.

Social media has slowly but surely become a platform that reflects the aspirations of the youth. Not only has it been a mode of expression by the youth, but it has also been used by organisations to gauge the mood of the nation. Business houses take social media seriously, too. It was evident from the reactions the outrage industry managed to generate. Godrej, which was also one of the targets, was quick to clarify:

Snapdeal issued a formal statement dissociating itself from the views expressed by Aamir. But that did not stop the protesters from carrying the torch ahead. There was an appeal to un-install the Snapdeal application from mobiles and to call customer care to register a protest. The appeal got a huge response. Due to this, Snapdeal’s valuation suffered, too. On Google Play Store, the e-commerce portal was downgraded with users giving the app a one-star rating.

Snapdeal responded to the "App Wapasi" campaign
Snapdeal responded to the “App Wapasi” campaign

Then came Dilwale featuring Shah Rukh Khan. The internet army was ready. There was a passionate campaign urging nationalists to boycott the film as the actor had commented on his 50th birthday that India was becoming intolerant and he supported people who were returning awards to highlight the issue. The campaign employed both word-of-mouth communication and social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Some people also invoked Aamir Khan’s “Satyamev Jayate” episode, where he had commented that Rs 30 spent to buy milk to be fed to statues in temples could rather be utilised to feed a hungry child. They pledged Rs 300 meant for a movie ticket to feed a hungry child.

Though there is no concrete evidence whether this voluntary campaign paid dividends, but there is no denying the fact that it definitely put up a front. The movie did not commercially do as well as expected. And one of the factors attributed was this boycott.

Lastly, the news of termination of Aamir Khan’s stint with “Incredible India” — a Ministry of Tourism initiative — arrived. Again, it may or may not have anything to do with his “intolerance” remark. Understandably, the ministry clarified that the contract with the agency that had engaged the actor was expiring and the ministry had decided not to renew the contract. It brushed aside any alleged link of the decision to Aamir’s remarks. But it would invariably be seen in the light of the social media campaign that had relentlessly pointed out that a person showing the country in bad light couldn’t continue to be the face of “Incredible India”. Every party involved — the Right wing, the Left wing and the Award Wapasi brigade — saw it as a consequence of the campaign.

Not that it really made a financially quantifiable impact! Still, this unique way of protest was unseen in India in recent times. This measure is way different from the former ones as a counter-strategy. It is worth noting that there have been instances earlier when the ideological campaigns have impacted public and private decision-making. The IPL inaugural season included Pakistani players. After 26/11, Pakistani players were banned from being part of auction based on the popular mood of the nation. However, when they were re-inducted in IPL in 2010, there were no buyers for them. This became possible only due to the emergence of nationalists as a prominent voice in the national discourse.

An ideology is not revered until it is strong enough to make a resounding mark. It’s about time the nationalist people of India got up and were counted. The resurgent nationalist force may have just found a language to voice its opinion. A language that the market understands! These episodes have put forth a new face of nationalism that is not defensive or sympathetic, but resurgent, confident and impactful.

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Rachit Kaushik
Rachit Kaushik
Software engineer based in Delhi


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