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The frenzy created by a section of media about Karan Johar’s new film starring a Pakistani actor, sent out a wrong signal. If the film is banned or boycotted, at the end, the Indian tax-payer will lose, not any Pakistani
Karan Johar’s new film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, stars a Pakistani actor named Fawad Khan. It has run into some trouble as several voices have called for Pakistani actors to criticise terrorism, to be ostracised (if they do not criticise terrorism or even if they do; it is not always clear), to be banned, whether formally or informally, or to be obstructed from release.
What is the role and responsibility of different Indian institutions in this regard? Three sets of stakeholders require assessment: The Indian state (encompassing a variety of agencies, including the Union and State Governments); the organised and instigated protests led by sections of the media and certain political parties; and the general public.
Let us examine all three, beginning with the general public. The general public has a right to be angry about terrorism from Pakistan. It has a right to ask those who live and work in India to take a stand against terrorism that kills innocents and seeks to provoke larger unrest. It also has the right to boycott a film, simply not show up at the cinema theatre, stand in protest outside, shout slogans, tweet and write Facebook posts, craft impassioned articles — and do anything it wants, within the confines of the law.
What has been described in the preceding paragraph is Democracy 101 — the first principles of a free society, with right to freedom of expression. Nobody will argue against it. However, it is not quite the entirety of what we are seeing in the context of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil — and we will come to that later.
Move now to the Indian state. The idea that the Indian Government will impose a ban on a film featuring a Pakistani actor or even have a blanket policy of visa denial to artistes from Pakistan is unrealistic. It will make India look absurd and silly and no Government in New Delhi — irrespective of whether it is run by the BJP, the Congress or a third front — is going to do it. Indeed, the Narendra Modi Government has repeatedly said that it has no intention of walking down that path.
Security and protection for the film and its crew and distributors, and for theatres where it is screened, falls under the purview of State Governments. They have to provide protection and make the necessary police arrangements against organised vandalism, even if nobody turns up to see the film. That is the obligation of the local Government. Again, State Governments, including that of Maharashtra, where political targeting of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is expected, have promised such security cover.
However, should this neat binary between an act of omission — the Union Government not banning a film and not denying visas — and an act of commission — the State or city Government providing appropriate policing — be enough to satisfy us? Frankly no, for there is a larger point.
At various stages in the past 12 to 15 years — to pluck a random period from history — Indian Governments and Prime Ministers representing successively the BJP, the Congress and then again, the BJP, have urged greater people-to-people contact, greater trade and greater cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan even as political differences and serious acrimony on terrorism continues. The Narendra Modi Government too has said as much and signed such statements in the past two years.
If an Indian film producer, taking such Government pronouncements at face value, employs a Pakistani actor, the Indian state and the Union Government is morally bound to back him up. If the political situation changes and the domestic mood becomes hostile in the intervening period — or even if bilateral relations plummet, and they undisputedly have — the film producer’s investment still needs backing. He has acted in good faith, on the basis of what his Government had said at one point. The state cannot now shrug its shoulders and leave the producer to the ‘unpredictability of doing business in India’ and to the imposition of the equivalent of a retrospective tax by non-state or quasi-state actors. It has to speak up.
After all, and this is something political parties taking to the streets should consider but will choose not to, Fawad Khan — or whoever is the Pakistani artiste involved — has already gone home with his cheque. Any loss will now accrue to Indian banks and financial institutions that have financed the film. Any insurance write-offs, in case of interrupted release of the film or damage to a theatre, will be paid by the Indian insurance companies, including in all likelihood the major public-sector insurance companies. In the end, the Indian tax-payer will lose — not any Pakistani.
On their part, sections of the media have run an insidious campaign. Not all have called for direct bans or boycotts, but raising frenzy about an actor just before the release of a big film he stars in, amounts to stoking emotions that have similar implications. How does one view such a role, particular on the part of television anchors (not limited, it must be emphasised, to one channel)?
In an influential Facebook post earlier this year, the author Nassim Taleb wrote: “What we are seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us (1) what to do, (2) what to eat, (3) how to speak, (4) how to think and (5) who to vote for.”
Taleb’s words were widely quoted and seen as part of a justifiable backlash against a supercilious and mutually interchangeable left-leaning intellectual elite that jumped from issue to issue, sermonising with the same superficiality and telling people what to think. It made news in India too.
Are we experiencing the obverse side of this phenomenon? The supercilious and mutually inter-changeable highly-strung, hyper-nationalist talking-head, jumping from outrage to outrage, sermonising with the same superficiality and telling people what to think. He too has no skin in the game. It makes no difference to him as to which film is scuttled, which actors and artistes suffer, which bank loses money and which insurance company gets beggared. He’s moved on to a new angry cause, a new TRP driver, a new revenue collector.
Love for one’s country is a simple and uncomplicated emotion. The politics of nationalism — irrespective of where one stands on it — is fairly straightforward to understand. It’s the business of patriotism that is more complex. Beware of it.
(The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at[email protected])
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