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SRK, Munawar, Shami – 2021 showed the fragility of Indian Muslims’ celebrity status

2021 is a reminder that the rising Hindutva hate won't give a free pass to a successful Muslim icon. And silence isn't a safe choice either.

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From Shah Rukh Khan to Munawar Faruqui to Mohammed Shami, 2021 drove home the fragility of Indian Muslim celebrities. It is not just the biryani seller on the street, a student activist or an NCR villager sitting down to eat dinner cooked with the meat in the fridge. There is no free pass for the successful Muslim icon either.

“All my life I had a choice of hate and love. I chose love and I’m here.” Amid thundering applause and a proud nation watching, celebrated musician A.R. Rahman said this while receiving the third Oscar by an Indian.

That was 2009.

In 2021, choosing between love and hate isn’t so straightforward. Shah Rukh Khan and stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui may appear to have chosen dignity and grace, but their silence also speaks of their helplessness. Both saw what could happen even if you did  absolutely nothing. Faruqui spent more than a month in jail for a joke he never cracked; Shah Rukh’s son Aryan Khan spent time in jail for drugs that weren’t found on him and those he was likely to consume. Imagine what speaking up could do! The fragility of stardom in Shah Rukh Khan’s case and the price of laughter in Munawar Faruqui’s case is stark.

Muslim celebrities in India have realised that their popularity doesn’t insure them. And those who do speak up – Javed Akhtar, Irfan Pathan – are the ones whose careers are either over or remain beyond any insecurity.

Also read: Pani puri, comedy & intolerance — Two days with Munawar Faruqui, the comedian denied a stage

Who speaks up for Muslims?

Cricketer Mohammed Shami faced a barrage of anti-Muslim attacks on social media for his performance in the India-Pakistan T20 World Cup match this year. But he didn’t lash out. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to. He is one of the premium fast bowlers of the current Indian squad and still has a career ahead of him. Shami’s situation is unlike Wasim Jaffer, the former Indian batsman who stepped down as Uttarakhand coach after the association accused him of selection bias. Jaffer denied the claim and put out his version on Twitter.

But Shami didn’t. His captain Virat Kohli did speak up for him, as did other cricketers, activists and politicians. But even such a public display of support didn’t lead to any statement from Shami. Perhaps he didn’t feel the need to. Or perhaps, like Shah Rukh Khan and Munawar Faruqui, Shami knows there’s a lot at stake.

Also read: Shah Rukh Khan was India. And then India changed

The outliers

So, are there no vocal Muslim celebrities in India who can call the hate out or respond to personal attacks? There are. Javed Akhtar, the poet, lyricist and songwriter, hasn’t shied away from criticising even Prime Minister Narendra Modi and calling out the rising Islamophobia under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, besides taking on Twitter ‘trolls’ one on one.

Actor Javed Jaffrey, along with Shabana Azmi and Farhan Akhtar, had publicly decried and spoken up against the CAA-NRC.

But these names say something. For some of them their careers are long over.

And therein lies the calculated, or rather forced nature of silence that drives the lives of popular Indian Muslim celebrities like SRK, Faruqui and Shami.

From ads to films to their public remarks, everything is under the scrutiny of Hindutva mobs baying for Muslim lives.

Aamir Khan was attacked for his CEAT tyre ad requesting people to stop bursting crackers on the streets in October. No less than a Lok Sabha MP took the lead in attacking him for it. BJP’s Anantkumar Hegde wrote to the firm: “Your company’s recent advertisement in which Aamir Khan advising people not to fire crackers on the streets is giving a very good message. Your concern for public issues needs applause. In this regard, I request you to address one more problem faced by people on roads, i.e., blocking roads in the name of Namaz on Fridays and other important festive days by Muslims.”

But Javed Akhtar can only do so much. Even he has to ‘fall in line’ at times. When he set Twitter abuzz by comparing the Taliban to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in September, a BJP MLA said that Akhtar’s movies won’t be screened until he apologises. Akhtar couldn’t counter the whole ‘troll army’.

In new India, silence appeared to be a safe choice for Muslim celebrities for long. But now, even that doesn’t sound like a smart choice. They may be popular, successful, and financially well off with a huge fan following — but that is no insurance in India of 2021.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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