On December 28, 2021, in an interview with Naseeruddin Shah, the actor spoke at length on what it means now to be a Muslim in a communally polarised country. The discussion gives window to the hurt felt by India’s Muslims in an atmosphere where calls for their genocide ring out without consequences.

Ten days ago, in Haridwar at a dharma sansad, bloodcurdling calls were made for the genocide of Muslims and ethnic cleansing. Hindus were told to do to Muslims what has happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Never in my life did I think Indian citizens would turn on fellow citizens in this way. Yet that is precisely what has happened. So today, I want to ask a simple and blunt question: What does it feel like to be a Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India? My guest is one of India’s foremost actors. Right through his life, he has had only one identity. He’s been Indian. Religion has not mattered. However, today many of his own countrymen are thrusting a religious identity upon him. Joining me now is the well-known and highly regarded actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Naseeruddin Shah, at that dharma sansad ten days ago in Haridwar, bloodcurdling calls were made for a genocide of Muslims for ethnic cleansing, and Hindus were told to do to Muslims what has been done to the Rohingya in Myanmar. What did it feel like to hear your own fellow countrymen, your fellow citizens, calling for a massacre of your community?
Well, the first reaction was anger. What is happening here is a concerted attempt to make Muslims feel insecure. Starting from the very top where Aurangzeb and Mughal invaders are being invoked and separatism seems to have become a policy for the ruling party. I was curious to see what would happen to these guys (right-wing activists) but the fact that nothing happened to them is not surprising. Nothing happened to the minister whose son trampled over farmers. He has not been sacked, he has not been chastised, he has not been taken to task, and he has not been asked to leave the ministry. However, that is something which is sub judice, so I won’t go into too much detail. But there is definitely an attempt to make us scared, and that is something which I have always held as a placard: that we should not be scared.

Funnily, being scared is an accusation that is thrust upon me all the time – you are scared of being in India – because I said something months and months ago about being concerned regarding the fate of my children. My life is over. I have another ten years to go. So I won’t live to see it. But what I am concerned about is what would become of my children. I had also stated that it is tragic that a cow’s death should have more importance than the death of a police inspector.

These statements, for some reason, made me an object of ridicule, hate and a target of abusive threats all the time, which completely baffled me because I don’t think I had said anything provocative of that kind. At the same time, a film I had done ten years ago, called A Wednesday, and another film I had done 25 years ago, Sarfarosh, were pulled out.

In Sarfarosh, I play a Pakistani ghazal singer who turns out to be an intelligence agent. In A Wednesday, I play a lone wolf who decides to assassinate four terrorists who he fears would otherwise get away. These were shown side by side along with a video that was recorded of me when I visited Lahore and I was asked how I feel coming to Lahore and I said, “I feel completely at home.” This seemed to rile and rankle everybody, and they said, if you are at home, go there.

And I don’t understand why this should happen, because if you go to somebody’s house and if you are very comfortable and are treated well, wouldn’t you say this is just like home. That contrasted with a speech I make in A Wednesday, when I talk of wiping the house clean of cockroaches and so on. And it was shown as “What a traitor this guy is. His film image says this whereas what he says in real life is this”.

What I said in real life was that I feel welcomed here, I feel very comfortable over here. But, at the same time, our prime minister and the Pakistani prime minister were holding hands like schoolgirls and walking down the causeway of the Lahore airport.

Absolutely. I am now going to deliberately quote from two people at the dharma sansad because the audience needs to realise just how shocking, bloodcurdling and horrifying some of the things spoken over there were. Swami Prabhodananda stated, “Like in Myanmar, the police here, the politicians here, the army and every Hindu must pick up arms, and we will have to conduct this cleanliness drive. There is no solution apart from this.” And then Pooja Shakun Pandey said, “If a hundred of us are ready to kill two million of them, then we will win in making India a Hindu nation.” Did you ever in your life believe that Muslims would be spoken about in this way by their own Hindu brothers and sisters? These are fellow citizens turning on you.
It leaves you aghast when you hear things like this. And I wonder if these people know what they are talking about. What they are calling for is a full-scale civil war. Two hundred million of us are not going to get wiped out that easily, two hundred million of us are going to fight back, two hundred million of us claim this to be our motherland and two hundred million of us belong here.

We were born here. Generations of our families have lived and died here. And I am certain that if any such movement begins, it is going to be met with massive resistance and a massive amount of anger. And to these people who make these statements, nothing is done, whereas a comedian is arrested for a joke he was going to make. What this abominable Yati Narsinghanand chap goes around saying is absolutely abominable and borderline ridiculous.

They would be funny if they weren’t so ominous. You said something very important: “These people don’t realise that they are creating the potential condition for a civil war. Two hundred million Muslims are not going to buckle down and die just because a dharma sansad is threatening to attack and kill them.” They are threatening the very integrity of our country.
Yes, and as you said they are threatening their fellow citizens who belong here as much as they do. And it’s amazing that the so-called atrocities of the Mughals are being highlighted all the time. They forget that the Mughals were people who contributed to this country. The Mughals are people who have left lasting monuments, history, culture, traditions of dance and music, painting, poetry, and literature. No one talks about Taimur, Mahmud of Ghazni or Nader Shah, because people are not conversing with that history.

Those were the marauders who came, looted, and left. The Mughals came here to make this their homeland. You could call them refugees if you like, pretty well-off refugees. But the Mughals are being blamed unnecessarily, and to hold every Muslim in India responsible for the so-called atrocities is ridiculous.

You know, Naseeruddin Shah, it is not just what was said at the dharma sansad that sent shivers down people’s spines, it is also the response. Days went by without the police taking any action, and even till today, there have been no arrests. When an FIR was finally filed, it was for the very minimal crime of provoking religious enmity. The director general of police in Uttarakhand has confirmed to The Hindu that the far more important Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has not been applied and it may not be applied. And yet, last year when the Tablighi Jamaat was accused of spreading COVID-19, some were charged with homicide. When Kashmiri students applauded the Pakistani cricket victory, they were charged with sedition. Do you, do Muslims, believe that the police would be fair and objective? Do Muslims believe that the police will bring these dreadful culprits to justice?
It depends on who is giving the orders to the police, I think. This kind of discrimination of justice starts at the very top, and I think that it percolates down all the way. The example is being set by those at the top. The police may act on orders, but it’s a moot point as to whether the policemen themselves feel a sense of joy at beating up people. But obviously they do, from the footage we have seen from the lockdown. But what is one to do if the representation of Muslims in police in any case is very small, and even if it were a little larger or if there was a Muslim policeman who was ordered to charge with a lathi at a crowd, he would jolly well obey. I don’t think he has a choice in the matter.

You have said a very important thing. How the police behave and how they respond, whether they would be objective or fair and bring the culprits to justice, depends upon the orders from the top. Let’s look at the political response. There hasn’t been a word of condemnation from the Uttarakhand government and the central government, and the prime minister’s silence is deafening. It’s almost as if to suggest that nothing happened or he doesn’t care what happened.
I think he doesn’t care. He genuinely does not care. At least you can’t accuse him of being a hypocrite in that sense, that he expresses remorse for something he doesn’t feel any remorse about. He has never said a word of apology for the Ahmedabad pogrom. He’s never said a word of apology for anything else. He did half-heartedly apologise for the kisan thing, but it was an insincere apology. And not a word of chastisement to any of these people. In fact, he follows these people on Twitter. Why he does that is known only to him, but he obviously derives some sort of pleasure out of that.

Excerpted with permission from Sound and Fury, Karan Thapar, Bloomsbury India.