It's Not Just Hollywood: There's a Fight Against Bigotry in Bollywood, Too

The year 2016 ended rather predictably in India with social media trolls brutally tainting the birth of the son of one of India’s glam celebrity couples, Kareena and Saif Khan, because of the name they chose to give their newborn. The name is Taimur, from the historical figure of Taimur Laing, not known for tempered governance. For those bred on crude and oversimplistic renderings of history as "us versus them," read "Hindu versus Muslim," here was one more opportunity to bash all that is Muslim or Islamic.


From December 21 onward, a fair amount of media space was spent debating how crude and violent the deeds of Taimur really were. Few commentators dared point out that the military campaigns and raids accompanied by xenophobic zeal were not the historic preserve of "Muslim marauders" alone, but the fashion of early medieval politics and the way chieftains established their supremacy. Fortunately, a fair number of comments actually argued for the sanctity of the private sphere, staunchly arguing that the heavy-mouthed trolls had no business in thus plundering, with hate and incitement, the private.

Barely 10 days later, Twitter was again abuzz with an utterly unobtrusive comment by one Shireesh Kunder, posting a photograph of his family foursome as they vacationed in the Grand Canyon at the onset of the New Year. No sooner had the photo been uploaded then the intrusive and offensive questioning began.

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Are your children Hindu or Muslim, asked Fatima Arya, and it only grew worse from there. Why the need to put this question here? Shireesh, much lesser known than his wife and partner, Farah Khan, is a symbol for the venomous Hindu right of that betrayer of the faith and path, married as he is to a Muslim. Inter-community or inter-caste marriages are not just viewed askance, but the protagonists treated as "betrayers of their own." In this instance, Shireesh, who has been known to say he only takes to Twitter when angry, flashed back a fitting response that went viral: “Depends on which festival awaits us the next month. Last month they were Christians!”  

The increasingly offensive nature of social media has, under the new India, been vocally inquisitive of the religion of the offspring of celebrities. Not too far back, Dalit woman and academic topper Tina Dhabi, and Indian cricketer Mohammad Shami, were both trolled. Tina for tying the knot with her Muslim fellow IAS topper and Shami for sharing his wife’s photograph that was too revealing for the Muslim hawks.

Recently, Muslim bigots viciously trolled Indian cricketer Mohammad Shami for posting a photograph of his family, including his wife Hasin Jahan, who was criticized for wearing un-Islamic clothes. The trolls demanded to regulate what women should be allowed to wear, and sought to shame Shami for failing to discipline his wife’s clothing and make her wear a hijab like Irfan Pathan’s wife.

"Are you a Muslim?" "Aren’t you ashamed at your wife’s exposed neck?" "Your wife is very cute but better not keep her in western clothes"—were some of the milder comments.

One said “We hate you Shami… apni aurat ki izzat ki nilami mat karo Bhai..." (Don’t auction off the honor of your woman). Another told Shami, “This beauty private property of u..dear ...not showing 4 others…"

The moral police clearly felt no hesitation in declaring that Hasin Jahan was her husband Shami’s private property and that they, as self-proclaimed custodians of Islam, had a right to dictate how Muslim women choose to dress.

The trolls were outnumbered, however, by saner democratic voices who expressed contempt for the moral police and support for the right of women to dress exactly as they wish without being judged and shamed by others.

The Hindutva trolls, not long ago, viciously trolled Tina Dabi for having become engaged to a Kashmiri Muslim colleague, Athar Aamir-ul Shafi Khan. The All India Hindu Mahasabha even thought it was entitled to write a letter to Tina Dabi’s father saying, "This decision of your family will promote love jihad and thus the wedding should not take place at any cost.” In writing that letter, the Hindu Mahasabha displayed the same mentality that the Muslim fanatics trolling Shami did.

The Hindu Mahasabha treated Tina Dabi—an independent adult woman—as the property of her father. They declared that her choice of life partner shamed her father and her faith and asked her father to protect Hindu honor by preventing her from exercising her choice.

Likewise, the Muslim fanatics treated Hasin Jahan—an independent adult woman—as the property of her husband. They declared that her choice of dress shamed her husband and her faith and asked her husband to protect Muslim honor by preventing her from exercising her choice. Making this comparison and recognizing the family resemblance between Muslim and Hindu patriarchies is important because doing so clarifies the issue.

The comparison makes it clear that the issue is not Hindu vs. Muslim, but women’s freedom vs. patriarchy.

It is the sheer depth of the venom displayed in the social media reactions to private moments shared in the public sphere that deserve attention and concern. They are evidence, if any were needed, that India under the Modi regime is proudly and overtly displaying its hate-inspired, aggressive template.

Recently, a book by Swati Chaturvedi’s book I Am a Troll exposed the connection between abusive social media accounts (trolls) and the ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has been published by the Delhi-based publishing house Juggernaut. The 171-page book by investigative journalists outlines the experiences of Sadhavi Khosla, an ex-member of the BJP social media cell.

“If there was even an unfavourable mention of Modiji anywhere, Gupta’s digital tracking tools would pick it up and the pack of hyena-like trolls would descend,” Chaturvedi quotes Khosla in her book. BJP IT Cell head Arvind Gupta’s core team managed 20-21 WhatsApp groups, Khosla claimed. These groups were used to send out directions on what should be tweeted.

Some tweeters bemoaned the birth of a new Bollywood baby born to A-list film stars, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, who was named Taimur—a highly objectionable christening for some, given the name’s association with a 14th-century Turkic king and one of the world’s most successful conquerors. Other erudite historical scholars would argue that tempering the debate, or contextualizing it, is important. They would say it is important to compare the military raids of Taimur with those of "Hindu/Buddhist" monarchs, including Ashoka. In addition, it is important to look at Shivaji who, while famed for his campaigns, was also known for sparing women and children as abducted targets. The moral compass ran high and virtual, ignoring in a sense organized systemic brutality that the Hindu scheme of things has—in its organised manifestation—heaped denials, discriminations and violence on a good 25 per cent of its population, the Dalits (Untouchables), lablling even their shadows “too polluted” to inter mix with!

So while the debates, including on more sober Indian portals, revolved around what was or not  wrong with the child being named Taimur (social media users were ostensibly objecting to the brutal nature of his conquests) so maliciously constructed was this hate campaign and so deeply felt was this sack that 700 years later, Indians on Twitter would call the newborn baby a “terrorist” and a “jihadi” and in general wish harm upon him. From then on, the ahistorical and hate-filled questioning happily moved to clubbing the early medieval Muslim Taimur with “Chenghiz Khan,” a Mongol king who is also known for not just his military campaigns and literary leanings, but in whose case identity was happily erroneously labeled, as Chenghiz existed before the birth or the onset of Islam.

Most critically, the debate in India’s public sphere revolved around the predictable constructs of the "Hindu" versus the "Muslim," critically ignoring the issue of the injustice that caste violence has heaped on our own. Much like the deliberately obliterated histories of Native Americans in the United States and Maoris in Australia, history of the oppressed castes and their cultures is being painstakingly rewritten even as control over education and the media remains with the "Brahmanical." Deep and analytical questionings of the rigidity of caste have been questioned over the centuries in the mystical and rational spheres, and the thinkers responsible for this re-think have been reviled in their lives and time. Be it the poet-philosopher Tukaram in the western Indian of today, Kabir the weaver-philosopher of north India, both in medieval times, and the radical thinkers Jyotiba Phule and BR Ambedkar in modern times.

If there had been a fair interjection of these analyses in the current celebrities-naming-their-children debate, the questions asked would have been so very different. Large-scale massacres, even genocidal in their number, have been attributed to the upper-caste hegemony over rational and mystical though from the subaltern castes over the centuries. Basavana and his followers in modern day Karnataka—and this philosopher both a rationalist and feminist had a mass following—document close to 100,000 being slaughtered in acts of privileged caste vengeance.

For the debate to really reflect values, such a factoring and deepening of Indian history, more inclusive and democratic, is needed. This is regrettably absent from India’s public sphere.

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