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Cults and conscience

Aamir Khans recent transformation from celebrity to activist-crusader needs to be

seen in the context of the tension between commodification & social change in the
media age.
Aamir Khan is more than a celebrity. He is, to a certain group of people in India and abroad,
something like a conscience. He stands for many good qualities; tolerance, liberalism, concern for
social justice, and the idea that one should not shy away from fighting whatever is wrong in the
world. With Satyamev Jayate, he emerged as the media ages equivalent of a national conscience
figure, part-Oprah, part-NGO, and part-Gandhi for our times. It is hard to differ with him, or
what he stands for. At one level, that is.
The cultural and spiritual landscape of postcolonial India has offered up very different idioms for
the expression of something like a popular conscience. From the iconic Gandhi and many revered
Gandhians whose life, memory, or even depictions served to remind one of ideas of right and
wrong, to the many spiritual and religious figures who play the role of therapist, teacher,
entertainer and moral guide to ordinary Indians, the role of a conscience-figure has always faced
the challenges of commodification and co-optation. Gandhi, for example, was frequently the
ironic-conscience in Indian movies, a silent weeper for injustice and corruption done under his
watch, at least until the Munnabhai franchise.
The transformation of Aamir Khan in the last few years from Bollywood celebrity to activistcrusader needs to be seen therefore in the context of the tension that exists between
commodification and social change in the media age. One might critique him for not doing
enough, or not being enough, from the point of view of what might be considered a progressive
politics, but there is also a growing sense of emptiness surrounding him when it comes to what
might be called a politics of the conscience.
For those who believe that India has become vastly intolerant in the last year, Khans
admission that his family considered moving out of India for fear of being harmed by
intolerance might seem a valid point, a no-brainer, as one might say. For others, though, who
find the claims about this rising intolerance largely unfounded, such a statement appears very
different; not the outcry of a concerned citizen pained about his country, but as a cynical
expression of disdain for a whole country. Supporters of Khan will see his critics as proof of what
they have been saying about intolerance, and critics will see, once again, not so much proof of
intolerance, but only a privileged and exalted sense of self-righteousness.
The key question one might need to examine here is simply whether there really was an act of
intolerance against Khan that warranted such a strong statement of fear and condemnation. As
far as we know, Khan has continued to work freely, make movies, even movies of a controversial
nature like PK, sell products, and enjoy a life of celebrity and fame. He has not been browbeaten
by governments, political parties, nor by citizens. He has been criticised somewhat for his
selective story-telling in PK, but that is not unexpected for anyone who is a public figure, a
creative person.

Those who have assumed a public role and become

conscience-figures cannot shy away from the need to be
responsible in their pronouncements.
Yet, Aamir Khan too has joined a group of people who believe, apparently, with all their hearts,
that India has become more intolerant since May 2014. The incidents cited for this claim have
been three murders, none of which has been determined to be connected to the national
government or the ruling party. Yet, somehow, the fact that the Prime Minister did not condemn
it quickly enough, or strongly enough, has warranted one of the loudest acts of protest by a part
of the intellectual and artistic elite who seem to see something that many others simply dont.
The tragedy of this sort of protest at a predetermined conclusion (Modi got elected, Modi is from
the RSS, RSS founders admired Nazis, ergo, India is now fascist) is that it has broken Indias
sense of itself in two.
Even with many regional parties, caste-based parties, and all the politics of its diversity, India
seldom showed polarisation on the fundamental definitions of reality on such a scale ever before
perhaps. Whether this polarisation is real, or the symptom of an age when the pervasiveness of
the media, and the power of the media environment to turn into an echo chamber and feed a
contrived public panic, as much of the U.S. media did before the Iraq war, is a question that
needs honest debate, and often sadly missing in the war of clichs and slogans that TV debates
dominated by party spokesmen rather than independent observers get reduced to.
No one can presume to instruct a fellow citizen on how much of a sense of belonging he ought to
feel for the nation. But those citizens who have assumed a public role and who have become,
either through desire or clever commercial craftsmanship, or both, conscience-figures for the
nation, cannot shy away from the need to be responsible in their public pronouncements.
Even if critics of the Modi government insist that they are calling a party intolerant and not the
nation, loose statements about wanting to flee India because it is becoming intolerant inevitably
appear condescending and hurtful, and even hypocritical. There is a growing sense among people
that essentially a small, privileged section of Indias intelligentsia, accustomed to living in some
post-national or transnational space of selective identity politics, has turned increasingly inward
and unresponsive to an India that may not have had the fine liberal arts education of the sort it
did, but still believes, even if in simple language and terms, in a deeper kind of conscientiousness
than what fashionable identity-based menus for protest might say.
Ordinary people
Many of the people upset by Aamir Khans statement are not innately minority-despising
intolerant party-hacks but ordinary citizens who believe in an inclusive notion of India, and not
some predetermined calculus about what identities are innately progressive and what identities
are not. They see an India in which a very deep-rooted sense of acceptance, kindness, and
patience helps it survive the chaos and struggle of the everyday. They live in an India where the
basic goodness of its diverse people, and not the high distance of privilege, gives them their
understanding of things like tolerance and intolerance. They might not have the sophisticated
vocabulary for it, so they wave flags and say little more than simple patriotic slogans. But we
cannot deny that they are from deep within a real India which knows itself very well. Meanwhile,
though, the Neros and Batistas of our time, trapped in their palaces of high theory, cannot

fathom this at all. Instead, they purport to destroy every drop of integrity and honesty in our
discourse simply because their theories did not work out as planned.
(Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the
author ofRearming Hinduism.)