On the face of it, it seems as if Narendra Modi's government does not support those who have been demanding a boycott on Pakistani artists, like actor Fawad Khan, as well as an attempt to vilify anyone who works with them.
Both the Union government and the state of Maharashtra have finally spoken up after days of debate over the fate of the Karan Johar-directed Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, a Hindi film whose release was in doubt because it features a Pakistani actor. On Thursday, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured a delegation of representatives from the film industry that the movie would be released without violence. A day earlier, 12 workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena were arrested for protesting against the movie, with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis insisting violence would not be permitted.
But the remarks of Union Minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu, one of the most senior ministers in the government, strike a very different tone.
In an interview to the The Hindu, Naidu insisted over and over that government has no opinion on the matter.
What is your view on Pakistani artists working in India?
The government has no view on this issue, when it does it will be made public.
Later he reiterated this, saying, "This decision to boycott hasn’t been taken by the government or even advised by the government" and then explicitly asked people not to bring up the administration. "My only point is to not drag the government into the picture, it has not done anything or said anything," Naidu said.
Yet almost everything else in the interview from the minister suggested he had a very clear opinion on the matter. He even went to the extent of saying that he was not making a case for a boycott – while actually making a case for a boycott.
"It is very simple to say art has no boundaries; but countries have boundaries. People are dying, they are being killed, that reality should be kept in mind. I’m not building a case for a boycott of anyone but the nation is a live nation, the people’s sentiments should be respected. When a war is taking place, you have someone doing a drama with that country, that is not expected."
Naidu says other remarkable things in the interview, such as claiming that the Bharatiya Janata Party has never claimed that building a Ram temple in Ayodhya is an "electoral issue". The party's 2014 election manifesto (and its 2009 one) explicitly mentions the Ram Mandir, giving you some sense of how to to judge the truth of the rest of Naidu's remarks.
Over the course of the interview, Naidu says time and again that, even as he and the government aren't demanding a boycott, the sentiments of the "people" should be respected.
The government on its part is not restricting anybody. India is a free country, organisations have every right to express their views. If someone says they won’t act alongside a Pakistani artist till the situation is on an even keel, that is their sentiment."
What Naidu is suggesting is that the sentiments of some should be respected. He doesn't tell us what to do with the Indian citizens who would prefer to work with or act alongside Pakistani actors. He doesn't mention those who believe people-to-people contacts would actually assist Indian efforts to show Pakistan for what it is. Instead he says, "public opinion in India as of now is strongly against Pakistan aiding and funding terror. Everyone should keep that in mind and act accordingly."
And this isn't new. An interview to the Economic Times two weeks ago, Naidu attempted the same tightrope walk – endorsing a boycott but trying to insist that government wasn't encouraging one.
"In normal times, there is no problem as art has no barrier. When such a situation arises, these people should keep local sentiments in mind," he said.