“The death of a cow has more significance than that of a police officer,” said actor Naseeruddin Shah in an interview released on December 17. He was referring to the December 3 tumult in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, in which violence by cow vigilantes from the Bajrang Dal left a policeman dead. Shah highlighted these events as an example of India’s fraught communal climate and the impunity enjoyed by people who commit such acts of violence.
To all reasonable people, there was nothing wrong in what Shah said. It is alarming that the Uttar Pradesh administration decided to prioritise the investigation into the alleged killing of cows that triggered the violence instead trying to detain the men who murdered the police officer. After all, even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath had described the inspector’s shooting as an accident. Yet, for stating this simple fact, Shah was called a “Pakistani agent” by the Uttar Pradesh Bharatiya Janata Party chief and accused of treason by Ramdev, the yoga guru-turned-consumer goods magnate who is perceived to be close to the BJP. Most alarming, after protests raised fears of violence, the organisers of the Ajmer Literature Festival on Friday cancelled a session that Shah was to address.
These vicious reactions have less to do with the substance of Shah’s statements and much more to do with his identity as a Muslim. This is not the first time a Muslim actor has been criticised for expressing his views on society and politics. In 2015, Shah Rukh Khan was compared to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed by the BJP’s Adityanath for speaking about India’s climate of “extreme intolerance”. The next year, much the same thing happened with Aamir Khan: he was attacked for appearing to criticise growing intolerance. The actor even lost a major advertising contract as a result.
The fact that even Muslim celebrities are now expected to keep their political views to themselves sharply illustrates a core aspect of Hindutva: making minorities politically irrelevant. The BJP has made it a point of pride to ignore Muslims during election campaigns, choosing to build a purely Hindu consensus in places such as Uttar Pradesh. Other parties that court Muslims are derided as minority appeasers.
This strategy has been quite successful politically. In many cases, even politicians who want Muslim votes are wary of raising issues that affect the community. Political representation has seen a sharp drop. The number of Muslims in the current Lok Sabha is at an all-time low. There are only 22 Muslim MPs in the 545-strong House – less than a third of what it should have been were the Lok Sabha to mirror India’s demographic composition.
Being involved in the political life of their country is a basic right for any Indian citizen. India’s 170 million Muslims must not be shut out of political affairs.