Akshay Kumar seems annoyed. In a statement that the actor and apolitical interviewer put out on Friday, he complained that there has been “needless controversy” over the question of his citizenship. Kumar, it turns out, is Canadian.
For a public personality whose brand has leaned heavily on his powerful love for India in the last few years – 11 “nationalistic” films since 2014, according to one count – the confirmation that he is not, in fact, Indian only reaffirms the sense that all the chest-thumping has commercial intentions more than anything else.
It also fits into the image of a certain kind of supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party: Constantly lecturing anyone who disagrees with them about what it means to be truly Indian, even though they themselves live abroad and hold a different nationality. The NRI WhatsApp Uncle, if you will.
But Kumar’s statement reveals something a little deeper.
“I really don’t understand the unwarranted interest and negativity about my citizenship. I have never hidden or denied that I hold a Canadian passport... While all these years, I have never needed to prove my love for India to anyone, I find it disappointing that my citizenship issue is constantly dragged into needless controversy, a matter that is personal, legal, non-political, and of no consequence to others.”
Never mind the fact that he has in the past been less than truthful, insisting that his Canadian citizenship is “honorary” like an honorary doctorate. (It isn’t).
The point comes through in this line: “I have never needed to prove my love for India to anyone.”
The fact is that Kumar, through proximity alone, if not in other ways, has allied himself with political forces in the country that are actually demanding this proof, not from Canadian actors who make patriotic movies but from millions of people who live in the country.
The BJP’s larger political project is based on the idea that anyone who disagrees with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s vision of the country is anti-national, and doesn’t deserve to live in India. This is felt most acutely by the country’s minorities, Muslims in particular, but has of late been extended to just about anyone who has the temerity to question the BJP.
This is no unspoken dog-whistle. The BJP is literally promising to institute a National Register of Citizens for the entire country. Such an effort is aimed at creating a climate where the BJP and it supporters can question the citizenship of anyone in the country, challenging their very right to live in the country.
Even without such a legislation, this project of changing what it means to be Indian is already in effect.
This is the message being sent when the prime minister and the BJP President imply that a Parliamentary constituency where Hindus are not utterly dominant is in some ways not truly Indian. This is the message sent when a well-known TV journalist has to invoke the record of his Army-man father just to be able to put a question to a Cabinet minister.
This is the message sent when the BJP introduces a Bill that would give citizenship to refugees of all religions from neighbouring countries, except Muslims. This is the message sent when just being Muslim could be provocation enough to be beaten up and lynched by a mob.
The BJP has worked to create a climate in which anything but blind loyalty to Modi and the saffron party is an offence, one that will bring out the mobs, whether online or offline. It wants to pass legislation that will literally allow the government to assess every person’s right to call themselves Indian, an effort that will inevitably be stacked against the poor and vulnerable.
Despite his Canadian citizenship, Akshay Kumar’s love for India should not be in question. But millions of Indian citizens do not have the easy route of starring in nationalistic movies just to assert their patriotism.
Kumar finds it disappointing that his citizenship and love for the country is the source of much controversy. Maybe, in addition to discussing mangoes and daily routines, he should have asked Narendra Modi during their recent television discussion why he wants to extend this “needless controversy” to millions of citizens across the entire country?