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Bollywood's missed opportunity

By Harsh V Pant
February 12, 2010 16:03 IST
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Bollywood had an opportunity to show solidarity and give a strong rebuttal to the Shiv Sena. But it chose to protect its short-term interests. Perhaps it's time for ordinary Mumbaikars to call the party's bluff, writes Harsh V Pant.

The reluctance of multiplex and theatre owners to release My Name is Khan in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra is a reflection of their fear of the Shiv Sena.

But the issue is much bigger than the film, its producers or even Shah Rukh Khan. A handful of goons can hold the entire state machinery to ransom. And the people abide by their dictates because the State has so far been utterly ineffectual in taking the provocateurs head on.

It's a strange spectacle. Everyone knows that Shah Rukh Khan is right but few are willing to defend him publicly. Bollwood personalities who love to be in the limelight suddenly have disappeared and are carefully choosing their words. The eloquence of Amitabh Bachchan is not in display. And what a coincidence: At a time when the Thackerays are bearing down hard on Khan, Bachchan decides to write a gushy blog on Bal Thackeray!

Everyone who is anyone in Bollywood blogs and tweets these days but no one has anything of significance to say in support of King Khan. As for Karan Johar, he had already visited one of the Thackerays during a similar row over one of his previous films. So he must be planning another trip to Matoshree (Bal Thackeray's residence in Mumbai). There is even a perceptible change in Shah Rukh Khan's own tweets, suggesting a rapprochement.

It took Rahul Gandhi's trip to Mumbai last week to alert Congress-wallahs to the dangers of the Shiv Sena's rabid ideology. But Sharad Pawar soon took the wind out of their sails by visiting Bal Thackeray to appease him on the issue of the visit of the Australian cricket team to Mumbai.

Instead of ensuring that there was adequate security to prevent matches from getting disrupted, Pawar decided to beseech Thackeray that he and his party should allow the matches to go ahead. This gave a new lease of life to a party and an ideology that seemed to be on its last legs, especially after the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party decided that they have had enough of the Shiv Sena and its brand of hysterical nativism.

No wonder Shiv Sainiks are bragging that the decision to go after the film had -- in one stroke -- exposed the 'soft' chief minister, brought the Congress down to earth after the Rahul Gandhi-provided high.

All political parties have been complicit in giving respectability to the Shiv Sena's ideology by not countering it effectively. The BJP of course has nurtured the party over the years, giving it national credibility. The Congress never had the courage of its convictions to stand up to the Thackerays' antics. The social and political elite of Mumbai continue to pay obeisance to Bal Thackeray even as his assault on the city's liberal sensitivities continues unabated.

Mumbai continues to lose its soul, step by step, but the residents of Mumbai are busy trying to propitiate a leader who is left with no real issues to redeem himself and his party. Maharashtra and Mumbai are fast becoming symbols of an 'illiberal India' where books are burned with remarkable alacrity, where outsiders are being brutalised with dangerous consequences, and where even the right to express one's opinions is coming under jeopardy.

The larger issue here is the complete collapse in the credibility of State institutions in India. The Indian State is witnessing a gradual collapse in its authority. And when it cannot give basic protection to its citizens from intimidation, no wonder it is unable to tackle the larger challenges from left-wing extremism to right-wing religious fundamentalism.

A remarkable degree of uncertainty has gripped Indian internal security where a band of thugs can force the State to its knees. Violence is becoming the currency of political and social intercourse in a modernising, economically galloping India.

Law and order, something that citizens of a liberal democracy should take for granted, is in acute short supply. Is it any surprise then that frustration with the poor governance is at an all-time high?

Where in one state a local politician leads her mob to force one of the nation's foremost industrialists out, in another a local neta and his goons wreak havoc on those who have come there to work from other parts of the country. Amid such pulls and pressures, the Indian State is often found as a mute spectator, thereby engendering a further erosion in its authority.

Those who seek to challenge the authority of the Indian State feel emboldened to take advantage of the paralysed institutional apparatus. Maladministration, dithering and incompetence are making India ungovernable, with a growing loss of respect for all major institutions. 

The liberal space in India is shrinking with an alacrity one would not have imagined even a few years back. And it is not merely a consequence of the defeatist acquiescence of the State. It is also the product of the unwillingness of ordinary Indians to stand up and challenge organisations like the Shiv Sena.

The mighty Bollywood had an opportunity to show solidarity with Shah Rukh Khan and give a strong rebuttal to Bal Thackeray. But it chose to protect its short-term interests, not realising that in the long-term, there will be no Mumbai if the present trends continue. Perhaps it's time for ordinary Mumbaikars to call the Sena's bluff.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

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