Is Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan “anti-India”? The question might seem incredible – even ridiculous. However, India’s new political culture of social media mobilisation is trying to push the bounds of common sense in order to sell the idea that Khan, one of India’s biggest movie stars, is somehow a traitor to India.

The trigger was innocuous enough. Aamir Khan had met the First Lady of Turkey, Emine Erdoğan on August 15 while shooting for a film in the country. The fact was, in fact, tweeted out by Erdoğan herself, speaking of Khan as a “world-renowned Indian actor, filmmaker and director”.

This was soon commented upon by none other than India’s ambassador to Turkey, Sanjay Panda, who called it a “special moment”. “First Lady H.E. Emine Erdogan receives India’s Cultural Ambassador and one of our finest exponents of meaningful cinema Aamir Khan on a location scouting trip to Turkey for his latest film Laal Singh Chhadha,” tweeted out Panda.

However, so powerful and politically biased are India’s social media mobs that an issue doesn’t really need to be outrageous to spark outrage. For much of Monday, Khan was attacked viciously by popular handles with close links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

So strident was this attack that Kangana Ranaut, a Bollywood actor who has publicly declared her admiration for the BJP, even brought up the question of which religion Khan’s children follow. Later on Monday, Times Now, a TV channel with strong pro-government leanings conducted an entire show around the rhetorical question of whether Khan backed “anti-India Islamo fascists”.

Hindutvaising India

The fact that Bollywood’s top three superstars – Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir – are Muslim has long irked Hindu nationalists.

In 2015, for example, as Shah Rukh Khan spoke about growing “intolerance” in India, in a response devoid of irony, then BJP MP and now Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath compared him to Pakistani terrorist and 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, and said he is “welcome” to go to Pakistan.

Two years later, Shah Rukh Khan’s movie Raees – in which he played a good-hearted Muslim gangster from Gujarat – incurred the wrath of BJP National General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. Like Adityanath, Vijayvargiya’s response was Islamophobic in the extreme, comparing Bollywood’s biggest superstar to Dawood Ibrahim, accused of masterminding the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts.

Like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan has been in the crosshairs of the BJP ever since in 2015 he spoke of the fact that he felt “alarmed” by recent incidents of intolerance, and that his wife Kiran Rao even suggested that they should leave the country”.

Like the earlier comparisons of Shah Rukh Khan with Pakistani terrorists, the attack on Aamir Khan for meeting with Turkey’s first lady carries deep political undertones that would resonate with the BJP’s Hindutva voter base. For nearly a decade now, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan has positioned himself in global politics as a pan-Islamist, vying for leadership of the Sunni Islamic world with Turkey as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire.

While Khan meeting a politician of the country he was shooting in was natural, that the country is Turkey allows the BJP’s online campaigns to conveniently employ Islamaphobic dog whistles.

Moving the mob online

What has changed since 2015, however, is the explosion of social media as well as the rise of TV channels which, night after night, run highly politicised programmes often filled with gossip, rumour and even falsehoods. Both factors have been skillfully used by the BJP to push its politics – as seen with Aamir Khan.

While Aamir Khan is the latest actor to get sucked into this, the canvas is wider and appears to sweep across Bollywood. For example, the death of Sushant Singh Rajput has seen an even greater narrative mobilisation as online mobs backed by TV channels have kept the issue constantly on the boil.

An article in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mouthpiece Organiser directly connected the outrage around the tragedy to Hindu nationalist tropes. “More than nepotism, grave charges of spinning anti-India pro-Islamist-Leftist narrative have raised concerns,” it claimed.

But ideology isn’t all. The online mobs around Rajput’s death are also helping the BJP’s day-to-day politics, being used to dominate the Bihar election campaign as well as attack Aditya Thackeray, Maharashtra minister and son of the chief minister, by floating conspiracy theories connecting him to the death.

In 2018, Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar, speaking to Nasreen Munni Kabir drew out how Bollywood has its own culture which is “quite different from Indian culture”. Given the BJP’s brand of unitary nationalism, this is an odd state to be in. Thus, in the past six years, the party has been trying to take control of the film industry like it has done with other Indian institutions.

For Bollywood, this has meant a spate of movies which largely subscribe to the BJP’s view of medieval Muslim kings as unquestionable tyrants. It has also resulted in jingoistic movies such as ‘Uri’ directly praising military missions under the Modi government. So political was the film that its dialogues were directly lifted by top BJP leaders while campaigning for elections.

For any holdouts within Bollywood, the BJP has deployed its massive media machine which can, almost magically, create an online mob out of nothing. The BJP has often used the phrase “naya Hindustan”, or New India, taken from the movie Uri in its campaigning. At least some part of this new India is being created by well crafted social media and TV campaigns designed to overwhelm the average India with nothing but the BJP’s point of view.