Aryan Khan is back home and we have reasons to be relieved. No one should undergo what the young son of our Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan has undergone, but now that his spell in jail over what seemingly were extremely far-fetched charges relating to drugs is over — at least for the time being — we can expect the media frenzy to die out and our frayed tempers to be calmed.
But it is unlikely that the larger debate on the nearly month-long drama will get over anytime soon. India is a divided country where we disagree amongst ourselves on almost everything, and it is a certainty that we would continue to discuss and dispute the motives that led to Aryan’s arrest in the first place.
To many, it was more than a case of an overzealous government agency – in this case the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) – that overstepped and abused the draconian laws to ensnare Aryan. Allegations of extortion alongside the presence of dubious witnesses and a local BJP functionary have brought under cloud the agency’s intentions further.
However, the most intriguing and more worrisome claims are the ones that hint at a larger plot – that Aryan was only a collateral damage with his father being the real target of a right-wing government that is hell bent on destroying the spirt of secularism and co-existence that he and his fabled film industry have come to represent.
But is the BJP really going after Bollywood, and Shah Rukh Khan in particular?
Reams have been written and many commentators have freely given their opinion. But to be honest, I am no wiser having read them all – including what the venerable Economist had to say. If these opinions are to be believed, Aryan’s recent travails were clearly a part of the ruling party’s pet project to capture every institution of the country, Bollywood included. And humiliating Aryan was its way of cutting down to size Shah Rukh – the country’s best known Muslim icon.
It is easy and a bit convenient to fall for such an argument, particularly for those like me who are no BJP apologists. We actually love to hate the ruling party and for good reasons. Without a doubt, the party and its associates are peddling a majoritarian plan for pushing Muslims to a peripheral and paralytic existence. It’s now fashionable – and pardonable too – to frown upon and demonize anything Islamic, from advertisements to interfaith marriages. So polarized have we become that if someone were to say ‘my name is Khan’ for the purpose of identifying himself, that well could be a passport to unmitigated trouble.
Given the existing circumstances, it is not surprising that many amongst us suspect the government of trying to take down Shah Rukh – no less than a ‘monument’ of amity and excellence. Punishing Shah Rukh, the argument goes, would push forward the process of dismantling the syncretic nature of Bollywood that has always espoused the cause of all communities, as showcased in film after film such as the 1970s’ blockbuster Amar, Akbar, Anthony. It would apparently also put Muslims in place in a country being prepared for unchallenged Hindutva.
But do the arguments stand up to scrutiny? For one, those raising the loudest din about a bigger and sinister plot against Shah Rukh are die-hard critics of the government. They have largely theorised how the BJP benefits from the conspiracy, sans any concrete evidence. That Shah Rukh hasn’t publicly spoken has surprisingly been deployed to further deify him. To many on social media, the star’s silence is akin to a stubborn satyagraha against an oppressive regime.
What the critics have chosen to ignore is that Aryan isn’t the first from the film fraternity to find himself in the crosshairs. Though perhaps not as ideologically driven as the present one, past governments too have, from time to time, gone after high profile personalities connected to the entertainment industry. Remember the time when Kishore Kumar was banned from All India Radio for refusing to sing paeans for Indira Gandhi? Though few and far between, drug arrests of Bollywood celebrities are also not entirely uncommon. Fardeen Khan, the son of Feroz Khan, was jailed some two decades ago on such charges. No conspiracies were alleged then. Why now?
There is nothing to suggest that Shah Rukh has had a spat with those in power. We do not even know whether he has refused to market a government project as Amitabh Bachchan often does. What we, however, know is that actors such as Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan have been more pointed and said things that a very articulate yet cautious Shah Rukh has never said, and are continuing to live comfortable lives.
So did Shah Rukh until recently. Yes, he wasn’t among the Bollywood celebrities who descended on Delhi in early 2019 for a much-publicised date with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But in October that year, he did share the stage and a selfie with the Prime Minister during an event commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
Being a Muslim in India brings in distinct disadvantages – it was the case even earlier, when actors such as Dilip Kumar had to jettison their birth identities to embrace Hindu names – but religious identity is not the only perquisite to court trouble. Ask Rhea Chakraborty, who was dragged to jail last year over a drugs case as dodgy as the one involving Aryan. Or Prakash Jha, the film director assaulted recently for what a mob believed was his derogatory depiction of the majority community in his under-production web series.
Despite the tall claims, there certainly is no clarity on what the BJP stands to gain by targeting Shah Rukh. Or, for that matter, if the star was singled out as a target at all. Such an offensive, even if true, is unlikely to fetch the ruling party more votes since Shah Rukh’s popularity transcends religious lines. It is equally unlikely that one could destroy his popularity simply by dragging his son through dirt. For that matter, Shah Rukh’s popularity has only soared riding on the massive wave of sympathy in the wake of his son’s arrest. And Aryan has become a household name – holding out the inviting potential for a successful celluloid launch.
Last but not the least, it is naive to accept that the government botched up in its attempt to fix Shah Rukh. Look at whatever that is happening to those jailed over Bhima Koregaon and you would know there is no easy escape when the powerful government comes after you. If Aryan got off lightly in the face of a flimsy case, the credit should go to the bunch of bumbling NCB officials. Trust our political masters to be more efficient as and when they desire to target someone.
(The writer is former editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)