Dichotomy of democracy
Actor Aamir Khan hosting his show Satyamev Jayate that tackles sensitive social issues such as honour killings and caste divides
By Shanta Gokhale

Is my favourite actor and one of the most socially conscious members of the Bollywood fraternity kicking himself? Ever since Aamir Khan spoke publicly of a private conversation he had had with his wife, he has been deluged with hate messages. A classic among the barbs coming his way is the selfstyled patriot’s old chestnut for celebrities: “India has given you name and fame.” Like England gave name and fame to playwright David Hare because surely without its theatre he would have been a seaman. Like America gave name and fame to Jane Fonda because surely without Hollywood she would have been a receptionist. Should these worthies not have been worshipping their countries then, instead of criticising them? But what did Hare do? He became one of the bitterest critics of the Thatcher regime. Did this lead to his being branded traitor? No. Because Britain is a democratic country. And what did Fonda do? Instead of going rah-rah over her country’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, she protested non-violently against them. This again should have earned her public opprobrium. It didn’t because America too believes in democracy.

Indian democracy is like the last alternative in Shakespeare’s pithy formulation of greatness. We were not born democratic – the caste system stood firmly against any such modern idiocy; we did not achieve democracy, for the same reason; but we had democracy thrust upon us. That is why we gasp and flail like fish out of water under its demands. That is why Aamir Khan cannot be allowed to say there is something happening in the country that makes minorities uncomfortable. What he implied was not very different from what Julio Ribeiro had said in an article published in March this year. “Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country. The same category of citizens who had put their trust in me to rescue them from a force they could not comprehend, have now come out of the woodwork to condemn me for practising a religion that is different from theirs. I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra.”

Are Aamir and Ribeiro unpatriotic? Or are they patriots who see their country’s greater glory (and reputation abroad) in an openhearted inclusiveness? Should we listen to them to figure out how amends may be made for the very real incidents that have caused them to feel the way they do? Or should we gag them with venomous invective? Tolerance comes from acceptance. We have found it difficult to accept 600 years of Muslim rule followed by 200 of Christian, followed by the partition of the country in which one part had no problems declaring itself an Islamic state, while the other was prevented, by democracy’s secular ideal, from declaring itself a Hindu rashtra.

The anger we feel at the raw deal history has handed us is our han, a word I picked up in Euny Hong’s The Birth of Korean Cool, a critical study, warts and all, of where Korea once was and how it got to where it is today. Hong defines han as the unquenchable rage Koreans feel for having been invaded 400 times in their 5000-year history, a rage directed particularly against Japan which invaded and colonised them from 1910 to 1945. Han has even given rise to a culturally specific, potentially fatal Korean disease, hwa-byong, or anger illness.

However, Korea as a country, has chosen not to die of it, but to live by sublimating its han through a cultural and economic takeover of the world. A sign of that leap is evident in the name Samsunk by which its technological giant, Samsung was once known.

A country’s progress depends not on unquestioning worship of a particular regime but on a critical view of all regimes, an acceptance of warts along with beauty spots. As children, we grew up with a story that carries a moral for unquestioning worshippers of any regime, anywhere. A mother idolised her son. He could do no wrong. When he committed a minor misdemeanour, she would shield him from punishment. As he grew older, his misdemeanours turned into full-blown crimes; till finally he was sentenced to death by hanging. As a last wish he asked to say something in his mother’s ear. When she came to him in tears, he said, “I am going to hang today because of you,” and bit her ear hard.