Films and sport are often united in the Indian imagination. Actresses and sportsmen are romantically linked; actors and sportswomen appear side by side on television. One day last week, these two great popular passions were linked together in a way that neither would have liked. On Monday, February 4, the house of the actor, Amitabh Bachchan, in Juhu was attacked by a bunch of goons. On the same day, the tennis player, Sania Mirza, announced that she would not play in the Bangalore Open. These two events were apparently disconnected; the television channels who ran them as their main headlines treated them as such. That they occurred on the same day was certainly a coincidence. Withal, there were two manifestations of the same process - namely, the rising power of bigotry and intolerance in Indian society.
This bigotry comes in various forms - regional, sexual, religious, national. The attack on Amitabh Bachchan's house was a product of the first kind. Back in the Sixties, Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena had been the party of Maharashtrian parochialism, urging that the city of Bombay be run by and for Marathi speakers. Over the years, it exchanged its linguistic parochialism for a religious one; non-Maharashtrians were welcome in the city, but Muslims were not. Now, Thackeray's estranged nephew, Raj, has revived the original Sena platform and demanded that those who have Marathi as their mother tongue must have a superior status with relation to those who do not. He has borrowed more than his rhetoric from his uncle, however. Like the senior Thackeray, he has cultivated a cadre of goondas who go around intimidating the public and attacking public property.
One of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizens of India is the right to live anywhere in the country. When I was a student in Delhi, my closest friend was a Bengali named Shubhro Sen. He lived in the colony of Hauz Khas; five years in a row, I was privileged to accompany him in the colony truck to the immersion ceremony in the river Yamuna with which the Durga Puja ended. I now live in Bangalore, where there is a very active Maharashtra Mandal. This holds meetings and musical concerts, and helps organize a Ganapati festival in which the idols of that deity are immersed in Bangalore's (fast disappearing) lakes. So far as I know, the Hauz Khas Bengali contingent still celebrates Durga Puja in the manner to which they have been accustomed. What I do know is that no resident of Bangalore has yet demanded that the city authorities prevent the Maharashtrians from observing their Ganapati Utsav.
The creation of linguistic states was a legitimate concession to the pride that Indians took in their respective mother tongues. It is permissible for a state to demand that the language of administration be in the mother tongue; also that the medium of instruction in government schools should be the local language. But if any Indian state asks for more than this, it puts at peril the Union of India. It cannot be allowed to demand that all jobs in the state be reserved for permanent residents of the state; or that the rituals and ceremonies that citizens perform in their private capacity be the rituals and ceremonies native to that state alone.
The late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, understood very well that the territory of India belonged equally to all Indians. Even if in some other respects (as in the upholding of free speech) she did not always follow the precepts of the Indian Constitution, in this matter she was both a constitutionalist and a patriot. In the summer of 1980, the All Assam Students Union launched a series of attacks on the homes of those they deemed 'outsiders'. Government property was also targeted; and the flow of oil from the state was blocked. Indira Gandhi warned the agitating students that their actions were both unconstitutional as well as counter-productive. "Suppose other states refused to supply Assam with steel?" she pointedly asked: "How would the Assamese develop their industry?" Her understanding of Indian federalism was that "it was only in the shadow of a bigger unit that each unit can survive; otherwise outside pressures will be too great to bear".
The attack on Amitabh Bachchan was reprehensible; the attacks on Sania Mirza more reprehensible still. For one thing, the actor at least has a major political party to defend him (a party, besides, with its own well-equipped cadre of goons). For another, while Bachchan was the target of a single kind of parochialism (the regional), Sania has been attacked by multiple parochialisms - the sexual, the religious, and the narrowly nationalistic. Male chauvinists have taken exception to her dress; religious bigots have protested against a picture that has both her and a mosque in the same frame; jingoists have exploded at the (purely accidental) closeness of her feet in another frame to the national flag. Not allowed to play, unhindered, the game she loves and excels in, Sania has chosen to withdraw from the prestigious Bangalore Open. It is a shaming indictment of her own countrymen.
That bigotry and intolerance flourish unchecked is due in the main to the failures of the political class and the media (especially the electronic media). In and out of power, the Bharatiya Janata Party has given sustenance to religious extremists. But our supposedly secular parties have behaved no better. Back in the Eighties, the Congress banned Salman Rushdie's books and did not allow him to travel to India. Now, the Congress does not have the guts to ensure that Maqbool Fida Husain can live and paint in his own country. And the Communist Party of India (Marxist) does not have the courage to keep Taslima Nasreen in the state of West Bengal.
Most recently, Raj Thackeray's speeches have been little less than a call to murder. It took the state government ten days to arrest him; and ten minutes to set him free. They were encouraged in their inaction by the shocking silence of the prime minister and the Congress president. The former had evidently forgotten his constitutio- nal oath to act on behalf of all of India and all Indians. The latter had merely forgotten her mother-in-law's memory.
The voyeurism of commercial TV has also provided encouragement to the bigots and fanatics. Raj Thackeray's men 'invite' a channel to witness an act of vandalism; instead of calling the police to take action, they go ahead and publicize it. An obscure mullah issues a fatwa against Sania Mirza; instead of asking how many Indians the mullah represents or speaks for, his demagoguery is given top billing.
Most Indians are decent, middle-of-the-road people. They abhor fundamentalists and bigots of all kinds. However, the electronic media give more space to the extremists on the fringes than to the majority in the centre. The publicity thus gained encourages acts of violence, committed in the knowledge that the politicians are too pusillanimous to take pre-emptive or remedial action. And so the attacks on the most gifted members of our society will continue. Bachchan and Mirza today, Rushdie and Husain yesterday - who will it be tomorrow? Which writer or actor or artist or sportsperson will be prohibited from performing the daily acts demanded by his or her calling, because of their allegedly offending this or that sectarian group? If these greatly talented Indians cannot safely and honourably practice their craft in our shared homeland, there is little hope for the rest of us.