Just a few days before, the minister, Ajay Mishra, had given an inflammatory speech in the area against the farmers that was clearly a prelude to the carnage. He warned that it will take “just two minutes to discipline” them, according to video of the event. The junior minister rose to power as a local strongman and was himself accused of murder in 2003 (he was absolved in 2004, after surviving an assassination attempt in court). Before his remarks, another ruling party minister had called on his followers to “pick up sticks and fight those furious farmers.”
After news of the latest attack against the farmers, government officials chose to justify it. The minister said the vehicles had been attacked first. But videos showed SUVs ramming peaceful protesters. A national outcry finally led to the arrest of the minister’s son — several days after the incident. Ashish Mishra was shielded and defended by some of the most powerful figures in our country — it’s clear officials detained him and opened an investigation begrudgingly.
The day before the farmers were mowed down, Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, was arrested by drug enforcement agents after police raided a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai. He was arrested in full view of news cameras. A Bharatiya Janata Party official and self-styled detective was seen at the scene of the arrest, raising questions. There was no clear evidence of drug consumption or possession by Aryan Khan. But suddenly, the moral corruption of the film industry — and not the brutal attack in Uttar Pradesh — dominated the news.
It’s easy to see what’s going on: Shah Rukh Khan is not just another famous actor. He is a Muslim global icon who has spoken up against religious intolerance and discrimination in India. In 2010, he acted in the film “My Name Is Khan” that dealt with the persecution of Muslims in the post 9/11 world. For the Indian film industry, in which the representation of Muslims was seen through skewed majoritarianism and a stereotypical lens, Khan represented a breath of fresh air with his portrayals of urbane Muslim protagonists. In the award-winning film “Chak De! India,” he played a Muslim hockey coach forced to prove his patriotism to the majority community that accused him of selling out to Pakistan. The film, made a decade ago, touched on many of the issues in present-day India under Modi, where Muslims are being vilified, demonized and made to prove their patriotism.
In 2015, after Shah Rukh Khan spoke openly about growing religious intolerance, he was accused of being a terrorist. Yogi Adityanath, a radical Hindu-nationalist monk who is chief minister of India’s most populated state, Uttar Pradesh, once compared the actor to a Pakistani terrorist. Right-wing officials and social media accounts regularly tell him to move to Pakistan.
Aryan Khan is still in jail while his father seems to relive the plot of “Chak De! India.” Many on social media, including officeholders in the Modi government, are calling him a traitor. A leading education brand has put its endorsement contract with Shah Rukh Khan on hold. It’s clear the pressure is on to sideline him in a film industry that has become increasingly bigoted and malleable to political pressure.
Tellingly, on Oct. 2, the prominent director Mahesh Manjrekar announced a film on the life of Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi. The same Twitter handles that were calling for the boycott of Shah Rukh Khan and his films and labeled him a traitor were hailing Godse as a hero. It’s clear that the only way to survive in Modi’s India is by enabling this hate that has engulfed us.
To anyone watching the saga of these two sons, the message is clear: Fall in line. While one son is being protected, another one is hauled over the coals to teach a lesson to his superstar father. This is not just about Shah Rukh Khan, but about anyone the government resents for not prostrating before Modi and his nationalist vision. This moment in India should be a reckoning, especially for those who hold an influential and public voice. Unite and fight, or perish in fear.