On February 6, over 100 US companies, mainly from the tech world, joined a legal brief challenging the travel ban instituted by the new Trump administration. Three weeks previously, Meryl Streep, receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, used the occasion to criticise the xenophobia of the new Trump administration. Her speech had Indian commentators lamenting the lack of local celebs taking similarly brave stands.
In an amusing recent conversation with the AIB gang, who know a thing or two about facing public and political anger, Shah Rukh Khan insisted at length that he would say nothing to offend anybody, before providing his take on the Meryl Streep matter. Why insist that everything admirable somewhere else needs to be replicated here, he asked. Applaud Streep, applaud Madonna, but don’t expect something similar from Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla. Khan’s perspective was obviously coloured by the belligerent response to his anodyne, throwaway comments during the intolerance debate of late 2015, and the boycott calls that followed Aamir Khan’s slightly stronger statement on the issue.
When Indian celebrities or institutions step out of line, it not only provokes anger on social media, but usually legal measures as well. Three examples from Bombay come to mind, all of them occurring in the past six months.
Forced to apologise
In August last year, a Jain monk named Tarun Sagar was invited to deliver a sermon in the Haryana assembly. The composer Vishal Dadlani, a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, criticised the invitation of a religious leader into a nominally secular assembly. He was immediately charged under various criminal heads, including Section 153A of the penal code (Promoting enmity between classes), 295A (Maliciously insulting the religion or religious beliefs of any class) and strangely, 509 (Uttering any word or making any gesture to insult the modesty of a woman). Dadlani got no support from his party colleagues, and had to issue a series of grovelling apologies before travelling to meet Sagar and grovelling further in person. He was made to hold his ears and say, “Main kaan pakadke maafi maangta hoon” in the manner of a six year-old punished by the village school teacher.
The next month, it was the turn of the popular comedian and television host Kapil Sharma to face the wrath of the public and the law. Asked for money by a municipal official, he complained on Twitter of having to pay bribes despite the crores he shelled out in income tax. Sharma tagged the prime minister in the tweets and asked if these were the promised achhe din. Maharashtra’s chief minister initially sympathised, promising an investigation. But the municipal corporation soon fought back. Sharma had made unlicensed extensions to his bungalow, they said. Not only that, he had unauthorised constructions in his office. Moreover, a tower in the suburb of Oshiwara in which he owned a flat was possibly illegal and liable to be demolished. The Maharashtra Navanirman Sena inserted itself into the controversy by alleging Sharma illegitimately employed foreigners on his show.
Not only had the comedian contravened the Mumbai Regional Town Planning Act, the mangrove cell of the Forest Department claimed that bungalows in Versova suburb, including Sharma’s, had destroyed mangrove cover for years. Officials could make these allegations confident that no government agency would investigate how an unauthorised 18-storey building had been allowed to come up in plain view or how mangroves had been damaged for over a decade without the mangrove department taking any action. The government knows how to protect its own.
The vengefulness of bureaucrats reached a peak in the case of the Bombay Gymkhana. A few babus demanded permanent membership of the posh club, but were rejected by the managing committee. Furious, they struck back. First, they decided that the Gymkhana’s parking lot had to be removed because it blocked the way of pedestrians. I happen to have walked that street hundreds of times. It is among the widest pavements in the entire city. Despite the many cars parked there, I have never faced any vehicular obstruction in my path. Given the parlous state of footpaths in the city, and the many unlawful hindrances pedestrians contend with everywhere,the Bombay Gym parking space would not come to mind as a priority for the municipal corporation. Let nobody say our administrators don’t lack chutzpah.
Next came threats to take over part of the Gymkhana’s grounds, including the heritage bungalow used by its head, to widen a road that needed no widening. The last straw was the last-minute denial of liquor permission for the Gymkhana’s New Year’s Eve bash. At that point, like vulnerable shopkeepers surrendering to a protection racket, the Bombay Gymkhana’s wealthy and influential members threw up their hands and agreed to admit senior IAS and IPS officers as permanent members. I expect the parking lot renewal will come through expeditiously now, and the road widening proposal will gather dust in a file cabinet.
In each of these fights, the public at large was firmly on the side of the authorities against the rich celebrities and fashionable club. Every act taken by the municipal corporation or police was spun as a blow struck in favour of the common good against the elite, though it was actually part of a witch hunt. Vishal Dadlani has learnt his lesson. Kapil Sharma has learnt his lesson. The Bombay Gymkhana has learnt its lesson. The lesson is that those who rock the boat get little sympathy and have no recourse. Indian corporations learnt that a long time ago. Don’t expect them to emulate Apple, Google and Facebook.