Anupam and Kirron Kher are as politically motivated and opportunistic as they accuse dissenting intellectuals of being, says Sayan Bhattacharya.
Kirron Kher was at her dramatic best during her intervention during the recent “tolerance debate” in the Lok Sabha. Perhaps she hasn’t been as evocative since her role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. There, she had gesticulated with her hands and vowed to marry off her Paro to a zamindar and show the world what honour meant. Here, she was valiantly protecting the honour of her government and her beloved Prime Minister. Reel and real life merged at the Lok Sabha that day, but was the “real” she was so passionately evoking with hand movements real in the real sense of the term? Let’s get down to the facts.
The chief import of Kher’s argument was that this “award wapsi” was politically motivated. “Stray” incidents of intolerance could not be instrumentally used to prove that India had turned intolerant under the current regime. In fact, Kher argued, the same intellectuals who were returning awards had been silent through the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. They had not protested when Indian citizens became refugees in their own country, as in the case of Kashmiri Pandits.
Then came the most interesting part of Kher’s speech. She spoke about two filmmakers who had lobbied hard to remove Anupam Kher, her husband, from the post of chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in 2004, and now those same filmmakers were at the forefront of the protests. We shall examine this statement in some detail, but before that some words are due on the charge of selective outrage.
The term “tolerance” is a liberal concoction. The Constitution of the Indian state pledges equality for all its citizens, and if that is indeed true, who are we to tolerate each other? The word “tolerance” sets up a hierarchy as if an act of kindness is bestowed upon the one who is being tolerated.
First, the term “tolerance” is a liberal concoction. The Constitution of the Indian state pledges equality for all its citizens, and if that is indeed true, who are we to tolerate each other? The word “tolerance” sets up a hierarchy as if an act of kindness is bestowed upon the one who is being tolerated. The question is not about tolerating someone else’s faith, beliefs, language or food habits, but about ensuring that each difference is equally respected. On this count, India has repeatedly failed, not just during the current regime. A country where every institution, from the courts of law to the education system, is brahminical, where Dalits are routinely massacred and the perpetrators then serially acquitted without any outrage in the media, can hardly stake any claim to being an equal state, not even a tolerant one.
On the other hand, much as the RSS and VHP are terror machines and the current government their façade, it is important to remember how most national parties in India have not only failed to arrest their growth but actively contributed to their forces. From opening the locks of Babri Masjid to banning books, from provoking communal tensions to not taking any action during riots, all mainstream political parties that have helmed governments—whether Congress or CPI(M) or Samajwadi Party—have a stake in the communal pie. The deluge of writers, filmmakers and scientists returning awards protesting the murder of Mohammed Akhlaque, therefore, misses an important point: the continuity of such atrocities throughout India.
Moreover, political appointments are not new. Every elected government in this country has meddled with the education system, interfered in appointments and transfers. And the FTII is not an exception. To say that the earlier appointments at FTII, even if politically motivated, were still befitting its stature because its chairmen had substantial bodies of work behind them, unlike the BJP cadre Gajendra Chauhan, is somewhat disingenuous because its sets up the past of FTII as some utopia free from government interference. Both current and past students of the film institute will attest to the fact that meddling governments have been a bane at the institute right from its inception.
Mohammed Akhlaque did die and the Prime Minister is yet to utter his name in any speech he has made since Akhlaque’s planned murder. His ministers continue to make hate speech with relentless regularity and he is yet to pull them up. And therefore, any act of protest that helps bring attention to this impunity is important.
However, does this mean that the protests happening now are misguided? That they are totally unnecessary? And the answer to that is no, because one might critique the protests, bring to the fore their elitism and casteism, but that critique can only work towards making the protest broad-based, democratising its tone, tenor and reach. The critique cannot be about dismantling the protest itself.
Mohammed Akhlaque did die and the Prime Minister is yet to utter his name in any speech he has made since Akhlaque’s planned murder. His ministers continue to make hate speech with relentless regularity and he is yet to pull them up. And therefore, any act of protest that helps bring attention to this impunity is important. One might ask how one can expect Narendra Modi to take any action, given his record in Gujarat and all that he stands for, but the question here is not about Modi only. It is about the constitutional post of Prime Minister and the duties that are to be fulfilled by the one occupying such a post. So any protest that keeps the spotlight trained on the dereliction of duty is an ethical one.
Even as some intellectuals who are returning the awards now and did not react when atrocities were being committed under Congress rule need to ask themselves hard questions, protests against religious fundamentalism across the country cannot be belittled. Most importantly, what does it mean to say that just because intellectuals were silent when a particular pogrom was committed, they should remain silent forever? If that be the case, then any form of protest is rendered completely redundant because at all times in history, there will have been some who have been silent at some point but who have protested later.
Second, even this statement about silence needs to be heavily qualified. When Kirron Kher talks about selective outrage, she invisibilises those intellectuals who have been at the forefront of protests even during the atrocities she invokes. Some of these intellectuals have been at the receiving end of wrath, both from the Left and from the Right. During the UPA rule itself, intellectuals and activists regularly clashed with the government. There were structures like the National Advisory Council that witnessed acrimonious debates and resignations. Finally, what does it exactly mean to say that a protest is “politically motivated”? Is anything outside politics? Can a protest be outside politics? What is neutrality? Isn’t the act of Kirron Kher, a Member of Parliament on a BJP ticket, making a speech not political? And this brings us to the other Kher.
Anupam Kher has been very consistent in his support for Narendra Modi. He claims that he is for the idea of India. He is for development and our current Prime Minister is developing India and he supports that. This is not the same as supporting the BJP. On face value, there may not be any problem with this statement because Kher might be talking about his respect for an individual. However, Mr Kher is yet to explicate on what grounds his claim is based. He has not cited any facts and figures to back up his claims. As a public intellectual, how has he ensured that his statements are different from that of a BJP spokesperson?
Mr Kher keeps coming on news channels to ridicule intellectuals speaking about intolerance. He has an opinion on everybody, from Shahrukh to Aamir Khan. He keeps tweeting through the day professing his love for India, as if criticising the government is akin to criticising India, as if criticising Modi is an act of betraying the nation. Isn’t that a throwback to the Emergency-era coinage, “Indira is India and India is Indira”? How is this blatant act of worshipping a political leader not politically motivated?
He keeps tweeting through the day professing his love for India, as if criticising the government is akin to criticising India, as if criticising Modi is an act of betraying the nation. Isn’t that a throwback to the Emergency-era coinage, “Indira is India and India is Indira”?
Anupam Kher led a march to Rashtrapati Bhawan to counter another march protesting intolerance. The latter march was explicitly political because it was helmed by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. However, Anupam Kher’s march was supposedly apolitical because it did not have representatives from any political party leading it, but if one looks at the records of the intellectuals who led it, it is amply clear that this was a march choreographed by the BJP.
Besides Anupam Kher, there was Madhu Kishwar, who has been writing paeans to Modi acquitting him of any culpability in the Gujarat massacres, who is known to have expressed extremely regressive thoughts on the position of women in India. There was Ashok Pandit, again an extremely pro-government figure. There was Abhijeet, that out-of-work playback singer who is generally in the news for organising press conferences to protest against Pakistani actors and singers working in Bollywood. There was a recent allegation of sexual harassment against him which he tried to cover up alleging that it was because of his patriotism, that vested interests were trying to frame him. There was also Madhur Bhandarkar, who is known to have expressed support for Modi before the last general elections. So then, how was this march not politically motivated?
However, for all his efforts, one can only hope that Kher is amply rewarded soon. Given his past record with BJP-led governments, there is no doubt that Kher is set to benefit or is already benefitting richly from the ruling government.
The Khers did not even have the grace of sharing credit with her. Instead, Kirron claimed that she had taken lessons in Bengali for six months and dubbed for the film herself while Anupam Kher, that paragon of virtue, gracelessly claimed that this was an attempt to malign him and he would never again produce a Bengali film.
Let us go back to the year 2000. Rituparno Ghosh made Bariwali in 1999 with Kirron Kher as the protagonist. Kirron, who had starred in a few “offbeat” films, was yet to taste mainstream success in Bollywood. Rituparno was already a big name in the Bengali film industry and had won multiple National Awards as well. Anupam Kher produced Bariwali. Anybody who has seen Bhansali’s Devdas will be familiar with Kirron Kher’s complete lack of Bengali, but Bariwali was a full-blown Bengali film. Rita Kayral, a renowned television actor from Kolkata, was roped in to dub her voice; for anyone who has grown up on a diet of Bengali films and TV, her voice is a dead giveaway.
Yet, when the time came for signing the declaration—when a film enters competition for the National award, the producer of the film has to declare in a form whether the actors’ dialogue was dubbed—Kher wrote “re-dubbed”, thus not disclosing the reality yet not writing Kirron’s name either. (Moreover, Rituparno mysteriously claimed that she had not seen the final print of her own film.) Kirron Kher went on to win the National Award for Best Actor, while Kayral’s efforts remained unacknowledged. The Khers did not even have the grace of sharing credit with her. Instead, Kirron claimed that she had taken lessons in Bengali for six months and dubbed for the film herself while Anupam Kher, that paragon of virtue, gracelessly claimed that this was an attempt to malign him and he would never again produce a Bengali film.
Years later, when Rituparno made Chokher Bali with Aishwarya Rai and Srila Mazumder dubbed for her, Aishwarya missed out on the award because her voice had been dubbed. But Kirron walked up to the dais and received her award from the President as Arun Jaitley, then Information and Broadcasting Minister, clapped happily. We don’t know if the NDA government had a sway on this controversy but isn’t it an open secret that the National Award is an arena of intense and hard lobbying, where political influence often decides who wins and who doesn’t?
Move a few years ahead to 2004, after the Congress-led UPA toppled the NDA government. Immediately, the ruling dispensation began dislodging appointees from the previous regime. The axe soon fell on Anupam Kher, who had been appointed chair of the CBFC in 2003, as well. Kher cried that his removal was politically motivated. He alleged that he had fulfilled his duties without being partisan. He claimed that he had cleared Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, based on the Gujarat riots, but was axed because he had also cleared Shonali Bose’s Amu, based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
However, Kher was fudging facts yet again. Records show that Kher had actually refused to clear Final Solution. He had publicly stated that the film was unfit for public exhibition. He had also attempted to stop its screening at the Films for Freedom festival in Bangalore, stating that uncensored films could not be screened. It was only under intense public outrage that a committee headed by Shyam Benegal had cleared the film much later, and the clearance came when the BJP had already been defeated.
Both Rakesh Sharma and Anand Patwardhan, known for their rich bodies of work against communalism, had taken a vocal stand against Anupam Kher’s attempt at furthering the BJP manifesto at the CBFC. Today, too, they are vocal against the current government. No wonder the sting of that unceremonious exit still hurts and therefore Kirron Kher dredges up the past in Parliament today, but it is just that her facts are not in order.
Kher is just a step away from becoming a party member of BJP. But then it pays to not take that step. It allows one to maintain the façade of intellectual distance from partisan politics, all the while reaping benefits by toeing the line of the same political parties.
Of course Anupam Kher’s removal was politically motivated. He paid for not being close to Congress, but that is not akin to saying he is above politics himself or that he fulfilled his duties at the CBFC with probity. Well, he is just a step away from becoming a party member of BJP. But then it pays to not take that step. It allows one to maintain the façade of intellectual distance from partisan politics, all the while reaping benefits by toeing the line of the same political parties.
So today when Anupam Kher creates all the jingoistic noise about patriotism, let us not cite him as some authentic voice of ethics amid opportunist intellectuals. Kher is as much lodged in the murky terrains of the corridors of power as some others from the other end of the spectrum, if not more.