It is actor Anupam Kher’s presumptuousness which makes him mistake his voice for that of the “silent majority”. This was on display recently in Kolkata, where participating in the Telegraph debate, “Tolerance is the new intolerance”, he lashed out at Justice AK Ganguly for criticising the manner in which Afzal Guru was hanged for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001.

After taunting Justice Ganguly and dubbing his presentation in the debate a “disgrace”, the actor pointed out that the audience had listened to him without hooting him. “That is tolerance,” Kher said. It was his shorthand for saying, “India is tolerant” – a point he has often harped upon in recent months whenever worries over the rise of intolerance in the country have been expressed.

Kher said intolerance was the concern of a few intellectuals and the rich – those who wear diamond studs and sip champagne in five-star hotels. The word intolerance is otherwise incomprehensible to the person on the street, he argued, claiming they are more concerned about securing two-square meals than in debates about the tolerance-intolerance binaries.

It did not occur to Kher that the audience did not hoot him either. He may be a popular film-star accustomed to deference, but it takes just a handful in any audience to jeer at a speaker and disrupt his or her speech. Surely, there were some at the Telegraph debate who were in vehement disagreement with the views Kher expressed. They too chose to remain silent or behave in a civil manner.

India is tolerant because...

This is why it must be said: Yes, India is tolerant because its people provide space for people like Kher to speak, regardless of his intemperance and puerile histrionics.

Yes, we are tolerant because we listen to Kher even though he mistakes propaganda for truth, frames issues outside the contexts in which these surface, and deliberately misreads what his opponents say. And yes, unlike supporters of Kher’s party of choice, we don’t file police reports against him for hurting our sentiments.

Indeed, Kher’s most favoured technique is to pluck criticisms of the Indian state or the government or the Army out of their context and go to town on it. Thus, for instance, he tweeted on March 9:

What was the provocation for Kher’s tweet, you might wonder. Well, on Women’s Day on March 8, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader had said:

“While we have a lot of respect for our soldiers we will talk about the fact that some Indian Army men rape women in Kashmir.”

Kumar, as is evident, wasn’t critical of the Army as an institution, but only of the black sheep in them. To therefore argue, as Kher appears to, that Kumar is targeting the armed forces at large is an incredible leap of imagination on his part.

Over the years media have reported about deplorable incidents in which soldiers are alleged to have raped Kashmiri women, and cases where some officers have staged encounters to secure gallantry awards. Senior officers have been accused, and convicted, of corruption. Are we to condone these crimes simply because the accused are from the armed forces and their morale could be affected?

Yes, India is tolerant because it allows Kher to pass off as truth what are extremely disputable facts. He continues to claim on the basis of doctored videos telecast by TV channels that certain students from Jawaharlal Nehru University wanted India’s ruination. He has yet to express misgivings about these TV channels or the video footage. And to think, Kher is so fond of saying, “When you are telling the truth, you don’t have to remember it.”

Yet, it is Kher who chooses to forget the fact that those who shouted the India-ki-barbaadi slogan at the Feb 9 event in JNU had their faces concealed. Despite persistent demands, the government hasn’t identified who these people were. Nor has Kher, with his enviable following on twitter, suggested to the Union government to investigate this disquieting allegation. He hasn’t because the truth could expose his allegations against JNU students, repeated ad nauseam, as mere propaganda.

That only a tolerant India can provide space to Kher is best illustrated through his tweet of Feb 20.

Quoting a line from his own film, A Wednesday, Kher said that when measures to control pests in a house are undertaken, cockroaches, insects, etc scurry out. The house, however, is cleaned. “Similarly, there is pest control underway in India.”

Was Kher justifying the government’s decision to throw the so-called anti-national students of JNU behind bars? This question didn’t engage one Baagi, but he was deeply concerned about Kher’s language and tweeted to him, “Nazis felt the same about the Jews… Do some reading of history.”

An unrepentant Kher, however, countered:

Once again, it is difficult to decipher what Kher wished to convey through an ambiguously constructed sentence.

Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, too, joined what began to appear as a battle on twitter:

Sardesai continued the sniping the next day:

Seemingly ignorant about the import of his own remark, Kher replied:

Was it Kher’s way of saying JNU students – and also Sardesai – are terrorist supporters, thereby qualifying for the descriptors of cockroaches and insects?

In Germany, Kher’s tweets would have invited prompt legal proceedings. In India, he is hailed – and all those who disagree with Kher will refrain from reporting him for hate speech. This is why it must be said that India is tolerant.

In an interview to the Times of India, Kher said, “He is playing the Muslim card by saying, ‘I’m Umar Khalid (another JNU student in jail) and I’m not a terrorist.’ This is a headline grabbing line.” Once again, Kher had read a remark out of context, and refused to see that Khalid was countering his stigmatisation during the time he had gone in hiding. Because it had been spread about him that he was in touch with the terror groups in Pakistan.

However, Kher didn’t think it was a headline-grabbing technique when he pleaded:

Kher’s tweet was to endorse and garner support for a petition.

Double standards

For Kher, the plight of Kashmiri Pandits is a reality none can deny – and it indeed is. However, the problem the religious identity of Muslims creates for them today is just a conspiracy to defame India. We are forgiving of the actor’s penchant for double standards and refrain from hooting him. What else can you call this but tolerance?

He tends to insinuate extraneous issues into the specific contexts of debates, perhaps to disrupt them. On March 4, for instance, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted saying he wanted “azadi” from the interference of Lt Governor Najeeb Jung, the Central Government, and “azadi” for people to take decisions. Kejriwal was conveying, Kanhaiya Kumar style, the different meanings the word azadi has for those who feel shackled for one reason or another.

Always keen to take on the opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in whose praise he has wondered why schoolchildren could not chant slogans, Kher tweeted,

“What about azadi from corruption? What happened to that slogan? That was your basic (buniyadi) slogan.”

Kher forgets that Delhi hasn’t had independence from corruption, or you could say Kejriwal has been provided an excuse for not rooting it out, only because the Central government has hijacked the Delhi government’s anti-corruption branch.

But Kher surpassed himself in making innuendoes when he tweeted on March 1:

In other words, Kher believes some of our cherished rights flow from the generosity of the soldier, not the Constitution.

Despite this forbidding knowledge, we will see Kher’s films and plays, and still invite him to TV studios. This is because we can tell the difference between reel and real life, and never forget the context of each. It is this quality of ours which makes India tolerant.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.