Sampooran Singh Kalra or, to use his far more popular nom de plume, Gulzar, is a colossus on India’s literary scene. Effortlessly straddling the worlds of popular and high art, in his five decades as a filmmaker, lyricist and poet, he has captured the hearts and minds of people across India.

Unlike many others, Gulzar has used his art to comment on the issues of the day. When people were crawling during the Emergency, Gulzar’s film Aandhi was banned. That isn't surprising: it was a thinly disguised biopic on Indira Gandhi. In Machis in 1996, he commented on terrorism in Punjab, severely indicting the Congress administration for human rights violations. In 2012, Gulzar was one of the intellectuals who expressed grief and sorrow at the Delhi gangrape. His poetry about the crime was circulated around on television as well as on social media. Tweeters posted his couplet on the incident to express their emotions.

Latest statement

That was then. On Sunday, Gulzar again slipped into his role as a public intellectual. The veteran poet criticised the growing religious intolerance in India and backed the writers who had returned their government awards in protest.

“We have never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance. At least, we were fearless in expressing ourselves," Gulzar said in a television interview. "Never thought that a situation like this would come where a person's religion is asked before his name. It was never like this.”

Almost on cue and with a refreshing lack of irony, Twitter users set about proving him right, his stature and popularity rendered immaterial because he had dared to take a political stand.

Twitter takes on Gulzar

At the mildest end of the scale, Gulzar, it seemed was a now given to hyperbole. This, of course, made him a “third class human being”.

Rupa Subramanya, an active Twitter user, criticised Gulzar for accepting an award from Sonia Gandhi. Ironically, she also mentioned that Gulzar bore the brunt of the Emergency himself since his film was banned.

Replying to Subramanya, one Rajwade Rajendra displayed some classic whataboutery as he questioned Gulzar about not say anything about Yakub Memon’s hanging. Twitter's favourite whatabout issue  – the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits – also made an appearance.

Whataboutery is a popular debate tool on Twitter. defines it as “the practice of repeatedly blaming the other side and referring to events from the past”. It's a contemporary, more insidious version of “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. Of course, since it is literally impossible that Gulzar, or anyone else, has commented on the infinite number of issues before this, using whataboutery, one can easily argue that any criticism is moot without having to address the core issue.

Things got worse.  One gentleman went up and called Gulzar ­– India’s de facto poet laureate – an “idiot”.

And then there were also the insinuations of corruption ­and an imagined political partisanship.

Another went on to invent a whatabout, questioning Gulzar’s role in the Emergency, blissfully unaware that he’d had his movie banned.

And, of course, Gulzar had to be called "anti-national". Elementary stuff, really, for a jingoistic blitzkrieg.

And where do "anti-national" people need to be sent off to?

Tragi-comically, quite a few people attacked Gulzar for being a Muslim, given that his penname is a Persian-origin word.

Gulzar is, of course, from a Sikh family although, given that this was happening at all, again went to fulfill his own prediction that “a person’s religion is asked before his name”.

That, of course, didn’t mean that there was no support for Gulzar. Director Anurag Kashyap did stand up for the poet as did a few other liberals.

But they were comprehensively outshouted by those angry with Gulzar for his views.

New times, new voices

Of course, the damage had already been done. Gulzar has had a long career as a dissenter and public intellectual but, true to his own words, this seems to be a new era when it comes to intolerance. A reaction as vitriolic to this to a stand taken by a person otherwise as respected as Gulzar would have been unthinkable before.

Twitter users went in to rebut Gulzar but attacked him so ferociously, they only ended up proving him right.